All-American Make-Over

By Sarah Van Arsdale on September 7th, 2009

We were the Kamikaze Decorators, and we were ready to rumble.

My niece had just moved into her first apartment post-college, and my sister Rachel and I had to take action.

My niece had found an apartment share across town from the nest, with two of her old childhood friends, but she hadn't yet found the way to make her bedroom look less like a dorm room and more like a room a grown-up person with a job would like to come home to.

multi-colored lantern lights

This is one of the most difficult transitions in life, from college to, well, life. And it poses one of the most difficult decorating dilemmas. You've still got your stuff in the old stic boxes you've been dragging around for four years, you're still using a milkcrate for a footstool, and your artwork consists of ragged-edged posters riddled with thumb-tack holes.

Rachel and I showed up to help Zoe put up her new curtains — which were a terrifically tasteful white with little flowers on the edges. Up went the curtains. Up went the string of multi-colored lanterns. Great, we all agreed.

And then we looked at the desk. At the giant TV glaring from the top of the dresser. At the bed, with mis-matched, ancient sheets, an old terrible comforter, a blanket that didn't belong. The idea of anything matching anything else was not in evidence anywhere.

And then there was the furniture: a plastic thing with drawers served as a bedside table, for the important job of holding two half-empty bottles of seltzer. At the foot of the bed there sat a clear plastic trunk, filled with all kinds of things, from bath supplies to insurance papers to books to an extension cord.

bedroom before
desk area before

As soon as Rachel and I were in her car, we looked at each other, and said, simultaneously, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

But we didn't drive right then to Bed, Bath and Beyond. We showed great restraint and waited until the next day, which was Zoe's day off. She liked our proposal: we'd take her shopping, and her mother would match Zoe's cash outlay.

The Kamikaze Decorators were on the job.

We started at TJ Maxx, where mostly we just checked prices. There wasn't much in the colors Zoe wanted — blue and green — except some cute polka-dot sheets that were the wrong size.

On to Bed, Bath and Beyond, where we found comforter, sheets, throw pillows, towels, wastebasket. Zoe impressed us both by pointing out that she needed a new fan, to replace the big standing fan that took up a good percentage of her floor space, and we found one of those, too.

comforter, calla lily prints

Now, all of this stuff had a cheery, youthful look. When we got to the art department, I was afraid Zoe would head for some brightly-colored daisy print or something. But no; she liked the elegant black-and-white photos of a single calla lily in black frames. She also found a set of three small mirrors in wood frames, which added to the elegant note. The graceful line of the calla lilies would echo perfectly the lines in the throw pillow, as would the lines in the frames of the mirrors.

Zoe asked if the photos and mirrors would go with the bouncy, youthful look of the bedding, and I assured her that they would — in fact, they would provide just the right balance, and would add a necessary note of sophistication to the room.

At BB&B we found almost everything except furniture. One of the big challenges when you're just starting out is getting furniture that is a cut above plastic bins but that isn't going to eat up your paycheck. At BB&B, there were a couple of night tables that would have done, but they were too dark, and just not right.

nightstand wicker baskets

So on to The Christmas Tree Shop. At first, I didn't understand why we'd go there, thinking it must just sell Christmas trees and things that Christmas tress like, but it turns out that it too sells low-priced furniture and home accessories.

There, we made the big find: a white night stand with wicker baskets, and a matching cabinet to replace the big plastic trunk. We also found a plain white lamp and white shade. The rough texture of the baskets is a nice balance to the playfulness of the bedding, but the white keeps things cheerful.

Somehow we fit it all into Rachel's car, and we drove back to the apartment in question, where we gathered up the old bedding, including many miscellaneous ancient towels, sheets, and blankets, and installed the new. There were a few difficult moments in getting the framed photos to hang at equal levels, but between the three of us we got it.

It all looked great. The room had gone from a collegiate clutter pen to a really pulled-together, coordinated sanctuary, and Rachel and I had learned that Zoe has grown up to have great taste. We all took a moment to admire our work, and then Rachel and I took off, leaving the rest of it to Zoe.

Our job was done. The Kamikaze Decorators had earned their cocktail hour.

Tips for an All-American Makeover

comforter sheets and pillows

If you're going for a less-cluttered, cleaner look, do not get anything with a pattern. If you get a solid, or a subtle stripe, you can dress it up however you like. If you get a pattern, you're stuck. Leave the patterns to the professionals.

If you don't love it, don't buy it. Zoe almost went for a blue and green reversible comforter, which was in the right colors, even though she didn't love it. When she saw the blue watery stripe, she knew right away that this was it. You will know it when you find it.

You can match different patterns, as long as they're the same color. We found green and blue polka-dot sheets in the same blue as the comforter, and green pillow cases in the matching green — and they were made by different companies. It's just as important to match tone and shade; Zoe wanted to match the lanterns she already had, and was tempted by an early comforter contender in turquoise and brown, until I pointed out that the turquoise and brown was too specific a combination to match with the parti-colored lanterns.

lamp shade

Match colors, but know when to stop. Zoe almost went for the green lamp shade, but instead went with the white, avoiding pushing the room from pleasingly coordinated to ridiculously monotonous. For the same reason, we were all glad her new curtains were a simple white.

You can match elements other than color. We matched the lines of the throw pillow with the lines of the calla lilies and of the decoration on the frames. The three framed mirrors echo the multiple hanging lanterns at the window, and the round shape of the lanterns matches the polka-dots.

Choose the bigger items first, and match the smaller items to them. At first, Zoe thought she had to match the color of the old throw-rug she had, which was lavender. No. First, decide what color you want. Then, go look for it. We started with Zoe knowing only "blue" and "green," not knowing what tone or shade of either. She considered a couple of navy blue things, but decided they were too dark. Once she found the comforter, the rest fell into place.

Be careful matching colors if you don't have them with you. This is probably why stores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond are so popular — they have everything. We were able to get all the bedding, including a very cute throw pillow, and then blue and green towels as well. Later, when we went to The Christmas Tree Shop, Zoe found another cute throw pillow, and luckily, it did match the green, but it was a close call.

When you're working with someone, whether it's your own newly-hatched child or a client, make sure you ultimately let them make the decision. Rachel wowed me by never failing to ask Zoe the all-important question: which one do you like? If the person asks you — as Zoe asked me about the mood of the photos — go ahead and spout out the advice. But a made-over room will only work if the person living in it really loves everything there.

Time and Money

finished room

The whole thing took us about three and a half hours, and cost about five hundred dollars.


  • State-of-the-art fan
  • Two framed photos
  • Mirror
  • Comforter
  • Two Sheet Sets
  • Two extra pillow case sets
  • Two towels
  • Lamp
  • Bedside table with baskets
  • Cabinet with baskets