What happens when a noted design authority takes on her first family-home renovation?

This isn’t really a confession, although it may sound like one. For seven years, I was the editor of a modern architecture magazine. I spent hours either visiting breathtaking homes or poring over photographs of them.

I was a vicarious renovator, one who watched with equal parts empathy and awe as modest shacks were transformed into Scandinavian-furnished, Wolf-ranged, outdoor-fireplaced, floor-to-ceiling-glassed houses worthy of, well, the pages of a modern architecture magazine.

During much of this period, I lived in an incredibly lovely – though decidedly unmodern – apartment in San Francisco, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge from its bay windows. My furniture fit the modernist bill; the mansard-roofed Edwardian, perhaps not.

But I was off the hook, both personally and professionally. For one, the apartment was a rental, so we couldn’t interfere much beyond the odd coat of paint or window covering. And besides, my 9-to-5 immersion in Viking, B& B Italia, and the Eameses fulfilled all my personal design cravings.

Then my husband and I bought a 100-year-old house. And at almost the very moment we became homeowners with the right to renovate, we also had a baby. We soon discovered that the desire to fix one thing and then another (and another) increases in inverse relation to your ability to act on it.

Because as anyone with a newborn can tell you, not only can you not operate heavy machinery, no one else can come to your house and do so either.

We closed escrow on the 10th of December; our daughter was born at 7:39 a.m. on the 28th. In those two and a half weeks, we tried to beat the clock, taking on (in no particular order) the painting of all rooms, electrical and plumbing upgrades, and the meticulously researched purchase and installation of an energy-efficient dishwasher and washer-dryer.

Inexplicably, we decided to rip out the bathroom sink and cabinets and replace them with new ones. (The nesting instincts of a woman 34 weeks pregnant worked wonders to motivate the normally lackadaisical plumber and contractor.) We also furnished our daughter’s nursery, assembled a Bugaboo stroller – which, by the way, comes with instructions on DVD – and, with great ceremony, installed a stainless steel house number on our front door.

And then? To the extent we were able, we continued the madness, replacing our roof (necessary) and all 28 windows (also necessary). These undertakings each involved three estimates and the infuriating end result of knowing you can’t quite “enjoy” a roof in the way you might, say, enjoy an Italian sofa or Italian vacation – either of which would have cost less.

In the groggy haze that defines new parenthood, we tackled our home’s various architectural oddities, like the living room’s fake fireplace (which we demo’d, giving us back 25 percent of the floor space), or the hidden pantry in the kitchen that had been mysteriously walled over. (We were half-expecting to find a skeleton or a suitcase full of cash.) Did I mention that we had the back deck rebuilt?

I’m not sure how all of this was accomplished; in retrospect, such domestic surgical strikes seem impossible. But last summer, we made one last Herculean attempt at that holy grail of renovation: the kitchen.


Now we were in no way going to attempt a full-scale transformation; our daughter, now 2, is home all day, which makes construction work in the kitchen impossible. Also, we were quite fond of our circa-1960 stainless steel oven and stove. And even though cabinet space was tight, the room’s layout was functional.

But the floor depressed us. Over the months, as we’d pulled and scraped and torn out various aspects of our home, we’d always preferred what was underneath. We were convinced that the lovely vertical-grain Douglas fir found throughout our house was also underfoot in the kitchen – suffocating under the squeaky, standard-issue landlord linoleum – and it was our duty to release it. So after six stressful, dusty days, we did. And on the seventh day? We gave it a rest.


Our daughter is active, playful, and curious, qualities that manifest throughout our 1,200 square feet in piles of Uglydolls, crayon masterpieces, and mismatched pink socks. We don’t fight it; instead, we’ve chosen to embrace it, allowing our dreams of architectural perfection to be relegated to our cache of ripped-out magazine pages in a binder.

Our Moroso coffee table has been transformed into a spaceship for stuffed animals. The red Eero Saarinen chair is the refuge of choice for middle-of-the-night readings of Goodnight Moon. And the place of honor at the head of our dining table? Once it was a Thonet chair circa 1920, scored on eBay by my husband, the superior scavenger. Now it’s a Scandinavian high chair encrusted with Play-Doh, purple glitter, and dried cherry-tomato seeds.

There are many parents who childproof their homes within an inch of their lives, banishing anything unpadded or that dares to have a corner. We simply put all breakables on higher shelves and then stand by – not unhappily – as the form-equals-function credo is put to the test. Our daughter has long since mastered the childproofing gadgets anyway, looking at me with a devilish glint in her eye while expertly cracking the safety lock on the bathroom cabinet.

As for the kitchen, of course we couldn’t do just the floor – we had to rip out the wainscoting so the planks could match, so let’s just say the walls are a little rough around the edges. But no matter. We’ve tacked up this great stuff called WallCandy, which are basically panels of chalkboard for drawing. We’ve put a stand-up easel and a generous supply of crayons, chalk, and paint next to the island. We’ve effectively turned our kitchen into a toddler art studio that’s also used for cooking. We have not so much renovated as reinvented this room, and apart from the pillow-filled corner in the nursery where we plunk down to read Knuffle Bunny for the 784th time, there is no cozier spot in our entire house.

Arieff is the former editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine, the author of three books, and a columnist for The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco.

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