Jen Rondeau didn’t set out to turn her laundry room into a psychedelic disco lounge, but now that it looks like one, she’s very pleased with herself.
It all started in early January as demand for the homemade masks she had been selling since spring dwindled and Rondeau, an artist and musician, found herself without a creative outlet. So she turned her attention to the gray utilitarian room in the basement of her home in West Orange, New Jersey.
Over three days, she painted an abstract midcentury design along one wall — a bold mix of red, blues, pinks and oranges. Smitten with the results, she extended the design on the opposite side, set an orange chair in the corner and set up a disco-light machine that plays a flashing-light sequence in time with whatever music she pumps through her Bluetooth speaker.
“I had a lot of energy that I needed to put into something,” said Rondeau, who lives in the four-bedroom ranch-style house with her husband, Paul Rondeau, a freelance cinematographer, and their two young sons. Now that the laundry room is painted, “I want to be in there,” she said. “It makes me happy.”
As the pandemic ignites a wave of home renovations, some craftier homeowners have interpreted this moment as a creative one, tossing aside expectations of what a home should be and updating their spaces in ways that channel their artistic energy, reimagining what is acceptable home decor in the process. While many homeowners are investing huge sums gutting kitchens and bathrooms, these ones are creating something unique and deeply personal, often while spending just a few hundred dollars on materials.
Miss going to the movies? There’s no time like the present to turn the basement into a home theater with a full concession stand. No room for a soaker tub in a tiny bathroom? No matter. Install one in the bedroom instead. Do the children have cabin fever? There’s no time like the present to bring an ice-skating rink to the front yard.
For these homeowners, pandemic do-it-yourself projects have been liberating, tapping unrealized artistic talents or honing ones they’ve nurtured for years. Their homes have become not just a space they want to occupy but one they can mold to their creative vision.
“I’m seeing a lot more color, a lot more of a sense of adventure in decor choices. People are like, ‘I don’t have anywhere else to go, I might as well look at something interesting while I’m home,’ ” said Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer and the author of “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.”
Leanne Ford, an interior designer and a star of the HGTV show “Home Again with the Fords,” sees this as a moment for homeowners to relinquish some of their pre-pandemic expectations. What’s the point of a guest room if you have no guests? “We don’t need to decorate how we were living a year ago; we need to decorate for how we’re living now,” she said.
This is also a moment to flex our creative muscles. With no one coming over, there’s no one to comment on your quirky choices. “People are so concerned about what their sibling says, what their mom says, what their neighbor says,” Ford said. But now, in a moment where judgment is on hold, some homeowners are feeling bolder. “There is a freeing, creative power to minding your own business, to knowing this is your house,” she said. “Right now nobody is coming over, so it’s even a better time to practice that.”
After Rondeau finished painting her laundry room, she moved onto walls that see more foot traffic. “I was kind of like, ‘What’s next?’ It was like an addiction,” said Rondeau, who learned her technique and found inspiration from Racheal Jackson, a muralist from Vancouver, Washington, with nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram.
Next, Rondeau painted a mural in her sons’ bathroom, a long, narrow space that she also saw as ripe for experimentation. But after five days of painting, the result was a disappointment. The edges weren’t straight and the colors were hard to match with the brown tiles. “The vision in my head didn’t translate well to the space,” she said.
But the boys, ages 5 and 9, were content. So rather than fix the mural, she moved on to the open-concept living and dining area where she painted the back wall — from the edge of the dining room across to the living room fireplace — navy, accented with vibrant lines, shapes and circles. In her entryway, which opens into the living room, she painted a free-form design with black lines and colored squares.
The result, she said, has been transformative, particularly in her living room, which has vaulted ceilings and views of the Manhattan skyline about 40 miles away. Before, the room “didn’t feel like a warm, welcoming space. It felt like we put a couch in there and called it a day,” she said. Now, “it feels so good. I wake up every morning and I drink my coffee before the kids wake up and I’m sitting in the living room looking at the sunrise” over the city.
A real movie theater, with a real concession stand
For some homeowners, the pandemic has provided time to tackle projects that had lingered on the to-do list. Rineeka Sheppard had long wanted to add a concession stand to the home theater that she and her husband, Steven, had built for themselves in the basement of their five-bedroom house in Indianapolis in 2018.
But life always got in the way. They both worked and were raising three teenagers and a 5-year-old. But in April, Sheppard was laid off from her job collecting defaulted student loans at the state’s Department of Education because of the pandemic — and suddenly her calendar was wide open.
“Finally, it was the time,” said Sheppard, whose favorite part of going to the movies is the concession stand. “With COVID, I was able to step back and take a breath.”
While her husband, Steven, a mechanic, built out the space, Sheppard scoured Facebook Marketplace for the decor, finding pretzel and nacho chip warmers, a snack display stand and a glass-fronted mini refrigerator. (She already had a popcorn maker that she had bought on Wayfair.) Every concession stand needs a soda fountain, and she eventually found one from a restaurant that was going out of business. Through social media, she found a retired Coca-Cola repairman willing to come out and install and service the machine.
Steven Sheppard spent months finishing the basement walls and floors, installing drywall and new flooring. He built the counter out of wooden pallets and painted the room black with red accents. He expanded the movie theater from six seats to 10, adding a row of risers in the back and two additional recliners in the front.
“A lot of times, I was like, ‘Aw, man, I can’t do it,’ ” he said. On one occasion, he worked from noon until 3 a.m. the next day. “Time looked the same down there, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. So I just kept working.”
They finished the space in January. Rineeka Sheppard loves having an escape where the family can curl up and watch movies together. “When a movie came out, we were able to go downstairs and the baby was able to watch it and eat his popcorn and have his candy and it felt like we were actually in a movie theater,” she said.
A skating rink in the front yard
Other homeowners have also spent these months replicating the outside world at home. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the outdoor skating rinks are open, but the indoor warming shelters are closed because of COVID-19 restrictions. So, if you want to skate, there is nowhere to use the bathroom, no warm space to change your gear and no concession stand to buy hot cocoa. So Chad Rowekamp, who has spent the pandemic looking for ways to keep his two children active, decided to bring the rink to them.
In the early hours of Christmas morning, Rowekamp finished flooding a 20-foot-by-30-foot skating rink on his front lawn, which he assembled from a kit he bought from Rinkmaster, a Canadian company. Normally, it would have taken a week to flood and freeze a rink of that size, but because the nighttime temperatures plummeted that week from the 20s to zero, he was able to get it done in a matter of hours, finishing the job around 2 a.m.
“I’d never made one before, I didn’t know what I was doing, but it worked out, and it’s great,” said Rowekamp, a salesman for PepsiCo., who has made other elaborate activities for his children during the pandemic, including a stuffed-animal zoo that he arranged on the front lawn in the spring, complete with exhibits about monkeys and pandas, and mailboxes that he bought and decorated for the children in the neighborhood so they could hand-deliver one another cards and letters during quarantine.
The home rink was an immediate hit with his daughter, now 7. “Christmas was on a Friday. By that Monday, she already had 10 hours of skating in,” he said. “It’s really nice to walk out your front door and skate as long as you want and come in and have hot chocolate.”
Becoming a mosaic artist
In January, Kristin Schlinkert finally finished her first pandemic project, an 8-foot-by-7.5-foot tile mosaic that she designed and assembled in the powder room of her four-bedroom home in Arlington, Texas. She started working on the mosaic, made of 3/4-inch blue and white tiles, in April when she thought she’d be working from home for months. But the materials didn’t arrive until June, and by then she was back in the office at her job working in commercial real estate investment.
Back to her commute — an hour and a half each way — she no longer had time on the weekdays to work on it. But with her social life halted indefinitely, her weekends were wide open, and she found herself, for the first time, immersed in an extended art project.
“I’m 53 years old and I’ve never done anything like that before,” said Schlinkert, who was so inspired by the project that she plans to take art classes at the University of Texas, Arlington.
Using the entryway of her house as her workstation, she’d lay the tiles out on the floor, setting them in 15-inch-square grids, patterned after a design she found online. Once the sections were complete, she affixed them to the powder-room wall, creating a geometric design that transformed what she described as a “plain Jane powder room” into one of her favorite spots in her house. “It’s now this beautiful whimsical, outstanding space,” she said. Her next project: a mosaic for the master bath.
How about a bathtub for a bedroom?
For two years, Sage Crawford had thought about installing a clawfoot tub in her one-bedroom apartment in Aarhus, Denmark, where she lives. But Crawford, an American from Connecticut, had two hurdles to overcome. At just under 11 square feet, the bathroom was far too small for anything but a simple shower, and clawfoot tubs are not common in the Scandinavian country. At one point, her best friend, a New Yorker living in Amsterdam, came up with a very New York solution: Install the tub in her bedroom.
But life was busy until last spring, when Aarhus went into lockdown. “I was like, you know what? Now is a great time to make this bathtub thing happen,” Crawford said via Zoom. “I can’t travel, I have nowhere to go. I have nothing else to buy.”
After confirming with an architect that the floors of her 1911 apartment building could handle the weight, she found a Swedish company that made clawfoot tubs narrow enough to fit in her apartment. Once the cast-iron tub was delivered, she hired movers to carry it to the second floor. Finding a plumber was not easy, as most of the ones she called didn’t know what a clawfoot tub was and couldn’t imagine installing one in a bedroom. But Crawford persisted and “finally got one who said, ‘This sounds weird, but I’ll come take a look at it,’ ” she said.
She wanted to install the tub against an exposed brick wall in a corner of the bedroom overlooking her balcony and an inner courtyard. The plumber extended plumbing from the kitchen sink through an interior wall and routed the wastewater out through the sink, too.
Now, months into a second lockdown, Crawford has no regrets about her quirky project. Her bedroom now feels Parisian and serene, making the long, lonely days easier to endure. By 6 o’clock in the evening, she is in the tub, reading books on her Kindle and enjoying one of the 15 bubble-bath scents she ordered online.
“I really look forward to it. It’s my happy place,” said Crawford, who normally would have traveled to escape the darkness of a Scandinavian winter. “If I hadn’t done this, I would be so sad.”