How I turned an awkward space into our favorite room in the house

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house.

We all have those awkward spaces in our homes, the ones with the funny angle or the weirdly placed window, the ones that don’t quite feel right but we’re not quite sure what to do about them. We might shuffle the furniture around every now and then, trying to see if we can make it feel better. Or we tell ourselves it’s all in our head, but we find ourselves avoiding the space, thinking that we should spend time there, but can’t quite motivate ourselves to do so.

Over the last year, we’ve gotten a lot more intimate with our homes. Many of us have found new gratitude for our homes, for their coziness, or the memories they contain, or the simple fact of having a roof over our heads. At the same time, being home all the time has forced us to confront aspects of our homes that might not feel so good to us. Those awkward or uncomfortable spaces might have been easy to overlook when we spent most of our lives in an office or on the go, but now are glaringly obvious. Our worlds reduced, we’ve had ample time to reflect on the gaps between the home we have, and the one we want. The parts of our homes that we’ve neglected can no longer be ignored when we’re in them day in and day out.

With all the optimism of the new year, perhaps you’re feeling ready for a change. (I know I am!) So in this post I wanted to share some inspiration for transforming one of those awkward spaces, and invite you to think about what might be possible if you didn’t just aim to “make it work,” but imagined it becoming a space you truly love. To make it tangible, I’m sharing the process I used to design Graham’s nursery, and how it’s become not just a useful and joyful space, but our favorite room in the house.

And if this inspires you to make some changes at home, I hope you’ll join me for my free online workshop, 5 Secrets to Designing a Joyful Home, which has been updated with new learnings from the year of Covid. Spots will open up this week, so if you want to be sure to get one, you can sign up for early access here.

The Before

From the moment I saw this room, I knew it was going to be a challenge. The house is a traditional Cape-style house, which means it’s a one-and-a-half story, so the second floor has a peaked roof that results in a steep drop to a low ceilinged area on one side. This room is also an L-shaped room, which means that angled space is narrow, making it feel even more pinched.

We did a couple of renovations to make the space feel brighter and more open. We added a skylight and streamlined the vaulted ceiling by adding beadboard. To maximize light in the room, we painted every surface — walls, floors, and ceiling — a clean shade of white. The white was especially impactful on the floors, which were dark and in terrible condition. Already, things felt much more spacious!

We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house.

But the room lacked purpose and personality. Before Graham’s arrival, it was part home office, part guest room, part yoga space. But it wasn’t great at any of those things, and when we used it, it was out of necessity rather than desire. In fact, when we did the Real Simple shoot, we didn’t even shoot this room. (That’s it behind me and Albert in this photo — we’re like, “Hey, don’t look over here please!”)

We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house. - Image by Johnny Miller, first appeared in Real Simple.

Listen to your space

The low ceiling on the north side of the room was a thorn in our sides at first. But one day, Albert had an idea: what if instead of fighting the sloping ceiling, we tucked a low bed in that corner with a bench behind it? Suddenly, the space felt cozy, like being tucked into a nook, instead of claustrophobic. The low bed also made the ceiling feel higher, giving the peaked roof a sense of spaciousness. We weren’t trying to make the space something it wasn’t. We were using the natural potential of the space to create a positive feeling, rather than a negative one.

We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house.

You can make any space feel good, but you can’t make it into something it’s not. Too often, I think we get obsessed with an idea we find on Pinterest or Instagram and then feel disappointed when it doesn’t work out in our (very different) space. By understanding the space you have, and noticing what’s good about it, you have a better chance of creating a place that feels harmonious and natural, rather than awkward and uncomfortable.

Embrace your constraints

In my Design a Joyful Home course, I teach a method for taking stock of your space so you can work with it. If you’d like some pointers on how to get started, this free resource, the Joyful Home Assessment, can help!

When we knew Graham was on the way, this room was a natural choice for the nursery. But being pregnant in the middle of a pandemic, there were certain constraints to the project. Painting was out: I wasn’t about to risk going to the paint store or hiring a painter, nor did it seem like a good idea to breathe paint fumes for days or climb up on a ladder at 6 months pregnant. Ditto wallpaper (that whole ladder thing) or any other structural changes. We also were limited to furniture that could be flat-packed and assembled here. Stores were all closed due to the pandemic, and Albert had recently injured himself so neither of us could lift anything heavy!

This might have seemed limiting, but it turned out to be liberating. As a Dreamer (my design personality type — if you haven’t taken the quiz yet, you can do so here), I often feel paralyzed by inspiration. Pulled in many different directions by all the wonderful things I could do, I end up not doing anything. Yes, at first I looked at inspirational images of nurseries with cheery wall murals or vintage furniture with a sense of longing. But knowing that any design I came up with had to work with white walls and things I could find on the internet allowed me to focus in on making joy in the space I had, rather than get overwhelmed by too many ideas.

Start with how it feels

In a world where inspiration is literally all around us, all the time, it can sometimes be hard to hear our own voice. We venture down the Pinterest rabbit hole and come out eyes glazed, our heads abuzz with paint colors and fabric patterns. It’s all too easy to slide from there straight into consumption, and all of a sudden our carts are full. Yet are they full of things we really want?

I’m as vulnerable to this as anyone, so to ensure I’m not just hitting copy-paste on what I’m absorbing through my social media scrolling, I’ve found it helpful to press pause, zoom out, and ask a fundamental question: How do I want this space to feel?

This question brings you back to yourself, your body, your joy. It’s not about how you want your space to look or what you want others to think about it. It’s entirely about what you want the daily experience of life in that space to be like.

For Graham’s nursery, I felt inspired by our location near the water, and I knew I wanted it to feel a bit like being on the harbor on a sunny summer day. I thought about Graham’s transition from womb to world, and how I wanted the space to feel enveloping and safe. And I thought about our own stress as new parents in a pandemic, and how I’d love a space that felt joyful yet also calming during those first sleepless months. I settled on the words gentle, whimsical, and buoyant to describe the feeling I was hoping to evoke in the space.

These words felt strikingly different from many of the nurseries I was seeing online, which were either very modern and grown-up (there being a current vogue for the “neutral nursery”) or full of bright, poppy colors. I could now look at these ideas and realize that as beautiful as many of them were, they weren’t right for us at this point in time. I stopped looking so much at other nurseries, and began looking at other, more interesting sources of inspiration, such as seaside resorts and boat-building. This led me to a place that felt more personal, and more authentic to our needs.

Choose aesthetics, not styles

Design books will often tell you start by choosing a style, such as traditional or minimalist, bohemian or Scandinavian. But many people don’t have just one style. Design personalities like Free Spirits, Collectors, and Pioneers are often style-agnostic, preferring to mix and match pieces that speak to them rather than choose just one.

Rather than committing to a style, I prefer to use the aesthetics of joy as an organizing principle to hold my design together. I picked a set of three aesthetics based on the existing features and constraints of my space (white walls, vaulted ceiling) and the feeling I wanted to create (gentle, whimsical, buoyant). The aesthetics I settled on were harmony, transcendence, and play.

We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house.

The aesthetics of joy are useful because they bridge between the emotional world and the physical one. Each aesthetic has tangible elements that can be used to evoke a specific feeling, and can help guide the choice of furnishings and accents. For the nursery, this meant:

  • Gentle, rhythmic patterns and textures. (Harmony and transcendence) The woodwork on the ceiling sets the tone for this, with a tone-on-tone stripe that adds texture (and a ship-like quality) to the space. I chose the rug because the pattern reminded me of light reflecting on the surface of water. The bedspread, which I repurposed from another room, has blue stitching that supports the same rhythmic feel. The baskets also have repeating elements from the white binding that wraps the fibers. I used stronger patterns in a few places as well, such as the shade and the pillow on the chair, but kept them small to prevent them from overwhelming the space.
  • Airy color palette. (Transcendence) To create an airy feel, I stuck with a restrained color palette of mostly light blues and whites, adding depth with deeper blues and contrast with small pops of sunshine-y yellow.
  • Circular and curving shapes. (Play) To bring in the play aesthetic in a subtle way, I chose circular accents: the mirror (which looks a bit like a porthole), the side tables, and the baskets. These are the sorts of things that aren’t overtly noticeable, but contribute to the feeling of the space. And rather than choose a heavy, upholstered glider for the corner, I chose a rocking chair made of curved rattan.

The nursery has modern and traditional elements; there isn’t a specific style. This gave me a lot more freedom in choosing pieces that I loved, because I knew that if I stuck to things that gave me the feeling I was looking for, they would work together in the finished space.

We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house.

Emphasize moments, not stuff

Has this ever happened to you? You start working on a decorating project, and you write out a list of everything you need, or need to figure out. Sofa, coffee table, rug, lamp, piece of art for the wall. Suddenly your space is reduced to a shopping list.

But while a room is made up of the things that go in it, the stuff isn’t really the point, is it? The stuff is useful in that it shapes the experience of the space in a way that it enables you to live your life well.

And a well-lived life isn’t about stuff. It’s about moments.

So before getting to the shopping list, I always take a moment to ask myself: What needs to happen in this space? What do I want to happen in this space?

The answers help me organize and prioritize the space. For example, in the nursery, I knew that we were going to be changing a fair number of diapers. But instead of just adding diaper-changing station to my list, I thought about it as a moment in our days. What did I want out of that moment? Organization, for sure — and I invested in plenty of bins to make the space orderly and functional. But I also wondered if there might be the potential for joy. Choosing a mirror for this wall has turned it into a space for impromptu play. After diaper changes and each night before bed, we visit “the baby” in the mirror. Graham smiles and laughs, which makes me laugh too.

We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house.
We all have those weird, uncomfortable spaces in our homes. In this post, I share how I turned an awkward room into Graham's nursery, our new favorite room in the house.

Another example: reading to Graham. When I was pregnant, my dad came for a visit and brought a box full of my favorite books from childhood. Having these beloved books, 30-40 years old, to read to Graham, was a priceless gift. I knew he wouldn’t pop out immediately appreciating these books, but if I kept them in a box, they could easily be forgotten. I wanted reading together to be a ritual that we started from day one, just as it had been for me and my dad. So I gave pride of place to a book wall, facing books out so that their covers became art. Having them here makes it easy to grab one before bed, and it’s become like a rotating gallery where we can feature the joyful illustrations on covers old and new.

Embrace joy, not perfection

It’s easy to get caught up in what a space looks like on Instagram. But my philosophy on decor is rooted in the idea that a home is a place for living, not a set for a photo shoot. It will get messy and unkempt. We will pile folded laundry on the bed for a few days because we’re too tired to put it away. Some things won’t look exactly as I envisioned them. And that’s ok, because I designed for a feeling, not a precise look. Even when it’s not perfect, it still feels joyful.

I’ve made “mistakes” in the process of decorating this space. I found that I had the wrong size pillow and sheepskin on the chair, and I ended up swapping these out with ones from elsewhere in the house. I haven’t yet found the right piece of art for the wall behind the rocking chair, but I’m ok with it because it leaves space for a serendipitous discovery, when the time is right. I bought less than I’d planned, and repurposed more, because I didn’t feel like spending money when I had something that was close enough to work.

I know this is a space that’s going to evolve over time. Already we’ve graduated from a bassinet to a crib, and the bed has gone from being a place we sleep (as per the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines) to a place where we hang out and cuddle all together before bed. The boat, a gift from me to Albert years ago, and the small tables, will soon have to move out of the nursery as we begin the childproofing process.

But what helps with these changes is that I chose things for the space because I love them, not because I needed to fill a space. I won’t be throwing out those tables — I’ll be happy to move them to the living room when it’s time. We’ll soon be moving the bed out of the room to make space for an expanded play area, and the bedspread can go back to the guest bed where it originally came from.

Having to make things work allowed for some joyful discoveries. I couldn’t find a shade I liked for the skylight at a reasonable cost, so I made my own from a strip of fabric, blackout liner, and pair of tension rods. I chose the awning stripe to reinforce the beachy atmosphere, and figured if it didn’t look good I could swap it out later. But it turns out that light-dark contrast is particularly appealing to newborns, and we spent many grateful minutes lying on the bed under the shade, Graham content simply to stare up at it.

I’d love to be the person with the home that looks pin neat and perfectly styled, but I could never handle the pressure of living that way (especially with a baby!). Remembering that I’m aiming for joy, rather than perfection, has freed me to experiment, evolve, and really live in my space.

If you have one of those spaces you’ve been neglecting or unsure about, I hope this helps kickstart your process of reimagining what that space could be — and to do it your way.

And if you’d like a little more inspiration, please do join my workshop 5 Secrets to Designing a Joyful Home. I’ll break down the biggest barriers to finding your style and creating your home on your terms, and walk through some specific exercises to help you apply these ideas to your own space. Sessions will be announced this week. You can sign up for the waitlist here.

Images: all by the author, except the photo of Ingrid and Albert, by Johnny Miller.

January 3rd, 2021

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    Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. Carol on January 3, 2021

    I really love this post!! It’s the first time I ever gave any thought about how I want a room to FEEL as compared to how I would want it to look. You explained everything so clearly and I could just feel the comfort and happiness within that room! I’m really excited to give some serious thought to improving our home! Thank you so much for the inspiration!!

    Reply
  2. Jeanne on January 4, 2021

    Thank you for sharing your process. It gave me a very practical way to follow in looking at many spaces in my house. Can’t wait to reread and apply!

    Reply
  3. Jude on January 4, 2021

    Thankyou for this inspiring detailed account of your thought processes designing Graham’s nursery. It looks fresh and inviting. And during a pandemic with all its restrictions it shows what can be done. I loved reading it.

    Reply
  4. Megan Kennedy on January 4, 2021

    Hi Ingrid –
    Thank you for sharing your thoughtful insights. I’m a corporate interior designer at a large corporation, and this year I’m very focused on what it means to “go back to work”. I’m intrigued by applying the strategies we use for designing our homes to our office spaces. Often, office design is very practical and impersonal. After speding so much time at home, it’s hard to think anyone will want to return to such impersonal spaces. Your post has inspired me by giving me great questions to ask of our internal team as we move forward in 2021 and beyond. I especially like your thoughts on : How do we want the space to feel, and emphasize moments not stuff. Especially in a post-COVID workplace, thinking about what needs to happen there, and what we want to happen there seem more important than pre-COVID.
    Thank you for sharing your joy!

    Happy New Year!
    Megan

    Reply
  5. Leah on January 4, 2021

    I feel the same way about books. Babies can love them from day one if only by the cover. And reading to a kid is second only to feeding them. (well…add changing/cleaning them and make make reading third…!) And I see some great books including two of my perennial favourites: The Snowy Day (Ezra Jack Keats) and Blueberries for Sal (Robert McCloskey). Look for One Morning in Maine (also by McCloskey) if you don’t already have it!
    Aiming for joy instead of perfection is a healthy practice.

    Reply
  6. Megan on January 5, 2021

    Thank you for this, Ingrid! This is an extremely refreshing guide on creating the spaces in your home and having them naturally evolve. It’s such a beautiful balance. On one hand, we have a lot of careful analyses about brain science, perception, aesthetics (from you and others!) that give us the power to control, to some degree, our experiences in these spaces. At the same time, we can accept, and even celebrate, how these spaces are never finished, that they grow with us, and are often given something like a familial soul through the process of creative repurposing or redefining of the things we have within reach. This has been a great read to help cleanse me of my Pinterest guilt and reassure me that my eclectic, personal style in my obviously lived-in spaces will create more joy than carbon-copied decor!

    Reply
  7. Mark Palmer on January 5, 2021

    Would you mind sharing the source of the rug & pillow? Very nice article!

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on January 7, 2021

      Yes of course! The rug is Annie Selke. The pillow is from Etsy, I’ve had it for a long time so can’t remember exactly where but search “ikat polka dot pillow” on Etsy and you should be able to find something similar!

      Reply
  8. Karolina on January 7, 2021

    Dear Ingrid,
    This is, in terms of the philosophy of home decor and organising space, the best, the warmest, the most realistic and boundary – eliminating thing I have ever read in my life:) Thank you for opening my eyes!!!
    Karolina from Poland 🙂

    Reply

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