When Remodeling Your Life, Remodel Your Space, Too

August 7, 2017

Decorating is the best therapy. Don’t believe me? Just ask Rebecca West, of Seattle.

The former ballroom dance instructor parlayed her life transitions – marriage, divorce, single life, and remarriage – into a niche design business and a book: “Happy Starts at Home” (Bright House Books, 2016). “Recreating my space actually helped me through,” West told me over the phone last week.

She didn’t have to tell me that. When your life is under reconstruction, redecorate, I always say. Take it from someone who has done more change-of-life remodeling than a plastic surgeon.

As we chatted, I realized that if I had I known West before now, we would have together burned through more boxes of chocolates and Kleenex than a sorority row during rush.

West’s design work, which she calls transitional, caught my attention recently because I’m interested in design that bridges traditional and contemporary styles. Only, when I looked closer, I saw that wasn’t the kind of transitional she was talking about. She meant designing through life’s transitions.

Now I was really interested.

Ten years ago, West’s seven-year marriage came to a painful end. She got the house. “But I felt like I was suffocating in it. All around me were the remnants of this failure: the paint colors we picked together, the poster we both loved that hung over the fireplace, the burgundy sofa that was a hand me down from his family, the bed…. I couldn’t afford to move.”

“There was only one thing to do,” I said.

“REDECORATE!” We said in unison.

West traded out the greens and burgundies featured in her married home for pinks, purples and robin’s egg blue, hues that marked her new single life. She hung a feminine painting over the fireplace, sold the burgundy couch on Craigslist for $100 and bought a turquoise one for $30. She ditched the queen bed, and got a twin. “I turned it into a feminine doll house,” exactly what she needed just then.

West, who has a geology degree but had no formal design training, transformed her space in a way that so beguiled her friends that they started asking her to make over their spaces in transition. Next, she had clients. As her business asked for more design skills than she had, she went back to school for her associate’s degree in design. She’s been designing transitional spaces ever since, spinning lemons into a silk purse, making a sow’s ear into gold, and turning straw into lemonade. My favorite kind of person.

“My book is all about using your space as a tool to figure out who you are and where you’re going,” she said.

Told you decorating is therapy.

Eeeveennttuually, West found the courage to remarry. Next, her job was “to create an interior that was less man repellant.”

Since remarrying almost four years ago, West rented out her home, and worked with her new husband to create a fresh space that reflected both of them. She blended the blues she found so soothing in her single home with masculine browns.

“The question for this new relationship and this new home was how do I show up here and have this be about him, too,” she said. “It’s its own wonderful.”

Homes aren’t static. Kids come and go, in-laws move in and out, couples become singles and singles become couples. As households expand and contract, their décor should evolve to support and reflect what is, not what was.

Here are more of West’s tips for those in transition:

  • Move on not out. The key for anyone in transition, for instance those shifting from an “our” house to a “my” house, is to focus on the next chapter, not on the last one. Remodel your home so it supports the person you’re becoming and doesn’t force you to live in the past.
  • Picture starting from nothing. To help you visualize your best life now, imagine, worst case, your house burns down and you must start over. What do you add back? This forces you to become very intentional about what you want in your life, said West.
  • Color your world. Color is the biggest mood influencer, and easy to change. If you want to transform a space from we to me, or me to we, the fastest, cheapest way is with paint.
  • Look for good connections. If a piece of furniture or art reminds you of a negative time in your past, ditch it. Surround yourself with items that reinforce positive feelings.
  • Find your must haves. Whether suddenly single or newly hitched, look around you for the five or so non-negotiable items that ground you, items that tether you so you’re not adrift. Give those a place in your remodeled space and build on them.
  • Add what you’ve been living without. We all give up a little piece of ourselves when we live with someone else. We adapt to their rhythms. But when life leaves you single, or the kids have moved out, it’s now about you. Blare the music in the morning. Paint the walls pink. Turn the kid’s room into a gym.
  • Find your personal brand. We all get so fixated on who we’re supposed to be in the eyes of our families, parents, bosses, and society, that we often lose sight of who we would be without all that, said West. Regardless of how many people are in your home, try to honor your unique self in some way. Ask: who am I without all the trappings and expectations. Now express it.