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paint it black (well, some of it) – a finally functional upstairs kitchen

So I finally got the balls to paint a wall in the kitchen with black chalkboard paint…against the advice of mostly everyone.

I had a slight wobble half way through when it looked like crap and I thought ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ (is there anything worse than a wishy washy ‘not quite’ black when decorating?  It’s like when you try and match black clothing and discover you’re wearing about 4 different shades of dark grey) – but I loved it when it was finished and had the second coat.

black wall

We’re not finished here (hopefully somewhat obviously), as we’re planning a cabinet above the range hood and few decorative tweaks (so ignore the wire ok?) – but now I realize that for blogging purposes this is all a big ‘so what?’ as I haven’t even properly documented the upstairs kitchen at all.  And of course I forgot to take a ‘before’ photo of the white wall in my haste to get started; my excuse being that with an infant, when the planets align and you get time to actually accomplish something not mom-related, your brain is just saying ‘GO GO GO!!!’ and you don’t want to dick around composing blog photos.

Just imagine a very blah expanse of white.

So my big moment (well, in my world) was a bit anticlimactic for ‘reveal’  purposes – except, I suppose, if we go right back to the beginning (like we should have in the first place).


kitchen in progress   new island close up

Ta Da!

Can you even believe the stove used to be there?  It was just all freestanding crazily against the chimney brest sticking out from the wall like it might start to walk across the room.  Insane.

The above is actually also a recent development as we only just got the kitchen island seen above – an amazing $80 auction score (it’s the Ikea Varde unit).  Before this completely serendipitous purchase a few weeks ago, we were still using the blue drawers our former tenant left behind that Sam had raised up on a base:

sam making cabinet basenew:old cabinet

It looked kind of fun, and served us well for the past year, but it wasn’t particularly functional.  The drawers didn’t really open or close properly, and having the table so close (I don’t think the above photo is representative of the table/drawer proximity) meant it was pretty much unusable as a surface when anyone was over – plus, who wants to face the wall when working?

We were actually planning on putting the Ikea unit right where the blue drawers were, but something clicked when it was delivered and placed in the middle of the room, as in: ‘why not just leave it here?’.

A revelation.

new island

I then decided to use my leftover chalkboard paint to cover the disgusting sink cabinet doors (chalk artwork thanks to 4 year old Georgia who was visiting), and the whole kitchen was completely transformed.  Here’s a tip though: if you, like me, pretty much only ever wear black, having white chalk on cabinets that you work in front of is not the smartest idea.  Duh.

We tried to use the old kitchen table (another parting ‘gift’ from our tenant), but it was too squished between the wall and fridge (or we were too fat to squeeze into the chairs), so we dusted off our old teak dining table from the basement (you might remember it downstairs here).

new kitchen table

Much better.  Plus I missed it.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much more functional this layout it.  It’s changed the way we use the kitchen (as in, now we hang out there), and actually makes me want to cook a lot more.  People aren’t constantly underfoot as we’re preparing food but can hang out and enjoy our scintillating conversation!  Everybody wins, right?  Amazing what just having a work surface can do (especially one with a view out the window).

So finally, just because they are so gross, and thus make me feel better about life (well, my life NOW), here’s photos of the kitchen as it looked when we first viewed the house:

kitchen first viewingkitchen first viewing 2kitchen first viewing 3

The photos are a little weird and fuzzy as we felt a bit awkward taking them.  It’s not the most comfortable thing to photograph someone’s place as they’re living there – well, if the place looks like a shit hole (we’re not talking about shooting an Architectural Digest feature which would possibly be uplifting, and use better lighting).  So the pics are a bit ‘stealth’ – but I think you get the idea of what we started with.

And here is what we were left with when we moved in (you might recall, or want to review how the whole place looked here  ):

kitchen in progress 2 kitchen in progress 3 kitchen in progress 4

It’s always reassuring to look back on these when I feel like nothing is progressing around here.  I look at these and think, damn – we’re doing ok…

table from windowblack wall  view to pantry  new island

…but note to my mom friends coming over this week: it’s definitely not going to look this clean by tomorrow…


we have a new pantry…oh, and a new baby

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Yes, it’s been quiet for a while on the blogging front.  Surprisingly, having a newborn is not really conducive to spending hours naval gazing about your renovation. I know – shocking!

Some people manage it, but I have no idea how (see Young House Love for folks we love to hate – their weekly photo project of their daughter is damn cute, but as I could barely dress myself during my first month of motherhood, such things were beyond me).  I had to wait a while as this blog was in grave danger of becoming about parenting as looking after a newborn actually does take up EVERY minute of your day, and thus is pretty much all you think about.  But frankly, I spend enough time now obsessing about being  a mom on Facebook, email and in ‘real’ life, that I don’t need to write about it here too.  Plus, the hilarious Amy Morrison at Pregnant Chicken has that shit covered.

But without further ado, here’s what we made:

Ok, she’s not always so red and angry (not always…), but she does have, let’s call it ‘personality’.  Here she is looking more angelic:

Her name is Finley Rose, though we usually just call her Fin (or the monster/poo machine/peanut, depending on the day).  Yep, she came out with a shock of red hair, and without much drama (though she does drama quite well now thank you).  But she’s pretty much amazing and awesome.
We did good.

So…back to the house.  It’s been easy to forget sometimes that we live in a glorified crack house, but there’s nothing like family visiting to remind you of all the projects that are still ‘in progress’.  I feel like I spent weeks constantly apologizing and explaining – ‘oh right, that shouldn’t really be there’ and ‘yes, that’s supposed to be painted/fixed/less dangerous/not a hole’.  It’s amazing what you learn to live with and then just forget about.  Whoops.  My mom and my two sisters were here (My dad declined: ‘why would I want to go to Halifax in February?’  Why indeed.  And my brother also stayed home, ’cause brothers are like that.), and as Fin was almost 2 weeks late – cue feeling unbelievably sorry for myself and other pregnant dramatics (idiot, someone should have told me it only gets harder) – my family and I had a lot of time to discuss what still needs to be done to the house.

My mom, always one for a project, took on the pantry at my request.  She has a thing for pantries (we’ve never had a house without one, which in North America, is something of an accomplishment), and ours didn’t really look much better than when we first moved in:

Ok, it looked a bit better, but I don’t have any photos.  The walls had been painted, but not the ceiling, and the floor was still the same, as were the gross shelves.

Cue supermom.  She’ll hate me for doing this, but here she is installing floor tiles to match the rest of the kitchen (I think she looks cute, but she’ll be horrified she’s ‘on the internet’):

She painted the ceiling, put up new shelves, reorganized everything (or I should say organized – there was no ‘re’ about it as it had just been a dumping ground), and even bought me a new broom and hooks to hang it on.  Actually, they all made me buy a new broom as mine was deemed ‘dickish’ – though I had bought it at a home show from a guy giving a demo with a headset (when are they ever wrong?) and thought it was the bee’s knees…

So here’s the pantry progression:




Hurray!  It’s not gross anymore, and now there’s actually room to put stuff.  Even the random crate of tools we’re too lazy to keep in the basement has a place (though why we need a saw in there I’m not quite sure).  I even have somewhere to put non-kitchen stuff, like rolled paper and canvas, bottles, and diapers, which is great, as there is only one closet in this entire apartment, which, as you might expect, is full.

There’s also room for the vacuum that I desperately need.  I know, I know, I don’t own a vacuum. Don’t judge – it’s a long story involving wet dog smell and carpet that I SWEAR crept into the vacuum I had so I had to get rid of it, even though, yes, no one but me could smell it.  Anyway, now I live in a house that smells like dirty diapers so I guess the last laugh’s on me.

So it’s not quite finished – my mom will kill me for posting photos without the final shelf up (there’s a small one for spices and it still bugs her that she left without having time to put it up – hmm, guess where I get my obsessive personality?), and she wants us to round the edge of that wooden counter top as she says it looks ‘stupid’ as it is beside the window –  but really, if I waited to post this until it was totally finished we might be waiting another 4 months…

It may not be a design marvel (despite the poster of cheese varieties I recently re-discovered and put up – I know, check me out!), but it works.  There’s even some lovely mom touches that I only noticed after she’d gone:

Thanks mom, you’re the best.  I should have a kid every year – just imagine how much you could accomplish!

stop press – new renovation starting july 1st!

I know, I haven’t even finished down here yet (or finished even updating this blog with our progress thus far), but sometimes life just happens this way.

Yes, our tenant upstairs is officially moving out!  Being on a fixed income it’s been difficult for her to find a place, but social housing has stepped in and – voila, a place has been found.  She’s happy, we’re happy, it’s all good.

So now  – more renovating!  I barely even remember what it looks like up there, but it is bigger, so we’re pretty excited to move.  I’m especially excited about getting my hands on the kitchen as there’s actually room for a table.  Imagine – a table!

Of course I’ve already been thinking about what we might do up there, but I didn’t want to get too carried away as I wasn’t convinced she was really going to leave (she’s been there over 30 years, so legally, and ethically, there wasn’t a lot we could do).  But now – all bets are off.

So, in the spirit of getting carried away, let me share my latest obsession, the most amazing decorating books we recently found at auction: House & Garden’s Complete Guide to Interior Decoration from 1970, and The Doubleday Book of Interior Decorating and Encyclopedia of Styles from 1965.

Holy crap were people more adventurous about decorating back then!  The colours, the patterns, the sheer BALLS of some of the design decisions will completely blow your mind.  We are so incredibly boring now in comparison.  What happened?  Did people live in their houses longer back then and were less concerned with re-sale than today?  Or were bright colours simply the trend?

I’m planning an entire blog post (or two) about them when I can access a good scanner (there are so many images there that need to be shared), but throwing photo quality to the wind, given today’s developments, here’s two kitchens from the House & Garden book that have rocked my world:

The colours are even more lurid in the book (really), but I think you get the idea.  I love the caption in particular.  Who wouldn’t want ‘vertical reaches of uncompromising orange and yellow’?  I also enjoy that fact that ‘efficiency loses nothing by wearing a vivid face.’  Too true.  But my most favourite part is where they refer to the Andy Warhol  as ‘a naïve flower picture’.  Awesome.

Then there’s this one:

Admittedly, it’s a little scary when all the cupboards are closed, but you’ve got to admire anyone who paints the inside of their cupboards blue, yellow AND red.  I also thought the layout of stove facing sink was pretty inefficient (though cool looking), but I notice they do have a tap beside the stove, which does seem a little ahead of its time – unless this was common then and is only recently making a comeback.

This section on kitchens was also entitled ‘Centers That Cater to Creativity’.  Nice.

Now obviously, these aren’t for the faint-hearted, but when one already has a lime green kitchen, where does one go from there?  Luckily the 70’s seem to have the answer…

kitchen floors, and other nightmares

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Pulling up old linoleum (am I the only one who has trouble pronouncing that?  I always say ‘lino’ so no one notices) promised to be one of the more satisfying jobs of the kitchen reno and I couldn’t wait to start.  The day after we got keys I was in there trying to yank it all up.  Total fail.  Not only was there more than one layer of lino, the old glue used looked like black tar and was just as impossible to shift.

Like a good DIY-er I blamed my inadequate tools and scooted off to buy a proper scraper and some stuff the guy promised would remove the old glue.  But before I even got to use the magic toxic liquid I made a stomach churning, ‘sit down suddenly and try not to cry’ discovery: rotten floorboards.  Oh crap.

This was definitely one of those moments when you really wish you hadn’t started a project, and for a fleeting moment, wonder if you can just carefully put back everything you’ve disturbed and just tiptoe away hoping no one will ever notice.  This is probably how Holmes on Homes got started.

Realizing this wasn’t going to be one of those ‘Carly fixes everything on her own’ moments (actually, there weren’t going to be any of those), I knew I needed 3 things: friends, advice, and a stiff drink – not necessarily in that order.

The aforementioned Neal somewhat gleefully pulled up the remainder of the lino, and we assessed the damage.  Luckily it looked like the rot was confined to two areas – under the sink and near the stove where we think they had a washing machine at one point.  So it made sense, which always makes me feel better.

We called in a plumber who confirmed it wasn’t even our sink but our tenant’s upstairs.  In fact, it wasn’t really her sink at all, but her leaking taps and pipes.  Yep, just a leaking faucet, slowly seeping water that was running down the pipes to our floor – unattended for over 5 years or more; just new taps, a new washer and presto, no leak.

So now our friend Nick – photographer by day, DIY expert by night (actually probably the other way around) – offered to help, always game for a good reno challenge.  We had got down to the sub-floor by this point, only to discover a second sub-floor.  There was a bit of humming and hawing on our part about leaving it, particularly as we had been living without a kitchen for over a month now, but Nick is not a guy to do things by halves, so sent us away with his car keys to get supplies while he tackled it alone (no we don’t own a car – major renovation liability!).  We came back an hour or so later to find no more sub-floor, no more rotten boards, and a quite a bit of blood on Nick.  Waving aside our concerns, toilet paper wrapped around his hand, he and Sam put in a new sub-floor and, hooray! the floor was fixed!  With only minor injuries!

A week or so later – fully recovered – Nick returned and we installed new sexy flooring.  ‘Burnt Mocha’ (black) bamboo (which yes, is as hard to clean as I was warned, but I still love it).  Nick cut it to size and I used the air floor stapler thingy.  Once I got over the fear of nailing/stapling my foot I was like a woman possessed – that thing is ridiculous satisfying fun.

So thanks to Nick, we have a kitchen floor.  Though no flooring skills in the world can compensate for my shoddy measuring:

Yeah, no worries, the cabinet will totally cover this far…

the kitchen: before and after

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Ok, without further ado, here’s what the kitchen looks like before and after:

So how do you make a kitchen work that’s only 12ft 9in. long and 7ft 1in. wide?  Well, it’s not easy that’s for sure.

I wanted to call this part ‘this is how we do it’ after the 90’s Montell Jordan song, but the good folks at Young House Love  (whose blog I’m addicted to) beat me to it.  Or they put they idea in my head in the first place.  Unlikely though, as 1995 was my TIME!

So let’s indulge:

Right, where were we?  Oh yes, designing the smallest kitchen of all time.

The first casualty was a full-size North American fridge.  Yeah, I know, I say ‘North American’ in the lame way that only someone who has lived in Europe will.  But seriously, we both lived for many years with small under the counter fridges without many problems so we figured we could do the same here.

But we really didn’t have much of a choice.  The problem was that however I laid out the kitchen, a normal fridge looked like a gigantic monolith channeling something from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I used Ikea’s kitchen planning tool to map out various configurations before getting it right (though I do need to stress: we do not have Ikea here in Nova Scotia!  The nearest Ikea is about a 13hr drive away in Quebec – so not even a weekend trip. Yes you can order online, but it’s not the same as seeing things firsthand right?  We should all get extra home renovation points in this province…).  The fridge would also block the window, and reduce the amount of already severely limited counter space.  So a normal sized fridge was out.

I wanted to have a countertop stove to save space, but the price was too prohibitive, and then we actually scored a free stove through a friend of a friend who was renovating.  So the decision on the stove was made for me, which was actually kind of a relief.  They also gave us their full-sized fridge, which we put in the basement and use for the freezer and small-fridge overflow (which, to be honest, normally becomes the ‘oh shit, forgot I put this down here 2 weeks ago’ fridge).

The sink was yet another challenge – the available counter space being only 32in. long.  I managed to find a 1 1/2 bowl sink that would fit – a 2 bowl sink was out of the question (and yes, you’ll notice we had to do a bit of ‘finessing’ to get the counter and cabinet to fit by removing a little of the door trim – a further little kick in the ass from not being able to move those pipes beside the chimney.  But the door and trim may be transformed one day in any case).  This left us with the big question – where to dry the dishes? (don’t even talk to me about not being able to fit a dishwasher – it’s a sore point.)  To the internet!

After an obsessive search, culminating in the painful realization that the French dish rack I coveted was, well, in France, and too expensive anyway, we settled on Ikea, primarily because Sam was heading to Ottawa to see his parents and this little (fold-able) guy could actually fit in his luggage.  I like how it looks, and it’s also handy for storage – those small plates live there permanently – but it does need a tray to collect water to stop it dripping on the wood counter.

Add it to the list…

Along with: baseboards, trim, extractor fan (currently in a box in the basement acting as a handy shelf), and oh yes, door handles! We did buy some second hand ‘vintage-y’ ones to try and offset the Home Depot-ness of the cupboards, but we haven’t had the balls yet to actually install them.  Given that older handles have different dimensions than the pre-drilled holes in the back of today’s cabinets, it’s a bigger leap than we’ve been able to make to put in new holes we might regret.  Plus, we can’t even decide whether to install them horizontally or vertically.  I think there’s a decision making limit with some projects, and that was when we reached ours.  So we live without handles, and have got really good at the ol’ toe tuck under the cupboard door edge.  I hardly even notice anymore except when someone comes over and can’t open a drawer.

And one day soon I’m going to actually peel the protective plastic off the cupboard doors.  I know, I know – my laptop still has a yellowing cover over the mouse pad…don’t judge.

(I realize I’ve forgotten to mention the whole drama that was the floor – can anyone say ‘rot’?  That actually deserves its own post.)

tequila lime or english apple? major life questions.

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Colour obsession.  It’s a bitch.  I became overwhelmingly obsessed with finding the exact perfect green for the kitchen walls (not all of them – I didn’t totally lose my mind).  Yes, green.  Millions disagreed (well, most friends), but I stuck to my guns.  Green it was going to be.

Primarily I was inspired by this fabulous kitchen in Domino Magazine:

In fact, the above pic became pretty much the basis for the whole kitchen design (minus what appears to be a sink and stove top made for children).  White cabinets were a given and I have always wanted wooden butcher block counter tops, both because I love how they look and also because you can simply sand them down if/when they get stained (though having lived with them for nearly a year I can tell you that this whole ‘simply sanding’ thing is a bit a of myth – it’s much more effort than I would have thought).  I also started thinking about open shelving (thanks mom!), primarily because the kitchen opened up so much when we took down the upper cabinets that were blocking the light from the window.

Anyway…back to colour.

Kelly green, as above, was going to be a bit much in such a tiny space, but I was really loving the lime green from my set of Joseph Joseph bowls:

They still make me go a little weak in the knees when I look at them.  Really, I’m like a small child when it comes to brightly coloured stacking things.  Sigh.

So around this time I’m also taking summer courses as part of my fine art degree.  I was in ‘Open Studio’, which translates roughly to ‘do whatever you want’.  I was absolutely incapable of separating house from art and art from house – which is not really cool when everyone in class with you is around 10 years younger and looks at home renovation as something their parents do.  So I was questioning my reno obsessions as very unworthy in the context of 20-something art school angst about life and the universe.  Worrying over paint colour (and losing sleep over it – yes, really) seems very lame in the grand scheme of things.

The pivotal moment was when I had been staring at a test patch of Benjamin Moore’s ‘Tequila Lime’ for days and couldn’t decide if it was right.  Off I went to Home Depot to return with ‘English Apple’ from CIL.  I put up English Apple beside Tequila Lime and behold! – they were exactly the same.  I had finally lost my mind.

Of course, they weren’t exactly the same…

It seemed clear then that this was what my final art project would be based on – this moment when the absurdity and the obsession and the ridiculousness of the whole thing peaked at the point where I would choose the same colour twice.  The fact that I still felt torn between the two became an important part of illustrating how I am simultaneously repelled and seduced by home decor/renovation, as in, I know that more important things are happening in the world but I often spend more time worrying about flooring and paint colour than the national debt or world hunger.  I’m not proud of it, but there you go.

So I covered my studio space with alternating swatches of each colour – both a penance and an homage to my obsession:

And how did it end?  Tequila Lime baby…

But the panels I made in class now hang in the kitchen, a reminder not to take everything quite so seriously.

(one on the left is tequila lime!)

the kitchen: before

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Who doesn’t love a great before and after?  I live for them (don’t worry, pics coming soon).  I always knew our kitchen pics were going to be dramatic, basically because – well look, have you ever seen a worse ‘before’ kitchen?

It wasn’t even a question of not liking the kitchen beforehand – there simply wasn’t a kitchen.  God only knows what had happened to it, but someone, at some point had pulled out almost all the cabinets and removed/sold all the appliances, probably to buy crack or something (more on our neighbourhood later).  Well, that’s what it felt like standing in there – like bad shit had happened and everything of value had been pilfered a long time ago.  I’m assuming of course that there was something of value in there, once upon a time, long, long ago.

Anyway, we were left with some unreachable upper cabinets, a sink, and two cupboards of questionable origins.  Grossest of the gross was the interior of one with what looked like animal scratch marks.  Yes, really.

We wondered (not for too long obviously or we might never have returned) what could have got stuck in the cupboard.  A cat?  Too big.  A mouse?  Too small.  The R word was left unspoken (as in – AT).  Ugh.  I prefer not to speculate further.  In any case, that was the first thing in our newly hired dumpster (skip for my UK friends – I will outline later the trouble your language got me into when I would completely forget the North American word for renovation-specific terms – learned during my developing addiction to UK renovation programmes.  More on my TV renovation addiction later too…).  This is why there are no pics of the actual cabinet itself, just the disgusting interior – the cabinet itself didn’t last long enough!

The upside of all this was that of course, whatever we did was going to look better than before.  I could sponge paint the walls for Christ’s sake and it would still be an improvement (sponge painting makes me want to barf in case that’s unclear).  Really, the best part was that we could screw up however badly and it wouldn’t really matter – quite a relief when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

The biggest challenge was the size, and the second biggest challenge was not being able to really do anything about the size due to a) the bathroom being on the other side of one wall, b) the basement stairwell being behind the other wall, and c) the chimney – in use for the furnace – being in the middle of the wall and beside the plumbing.  So we were stuck with dimensions 12ft 9 in. long x 7ft 1in. wide.  Yes, TINY.  And of course some of the length is taken up with the hallway that runs through to the back door so isn’t usable in terms of workspace.

So what did we do?  Photos coming next post…

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