This Condo’s the Perfect Example of How to Design and DIY a Gorgeous Home Out of a ‘Soulless Big White Box’

published Jan 26, 2021

This Condo’s the Perfect Example of How to Design and DIY a Gorgeous Home Out of a ‘Soulless Big White Box’

published Jan 26, 2021
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Name: Mariana Cotlear Vega, partner Jamey, and puppy, Ruby
Location: Washington, D.C.
Size: 850 square feet
Years lived in: 2 years, owned

After years of apartment living, brand strategist, artist, and AT home tour veteran, Mariana Cotlear Vega, was ready to purchase her first home in Washington, D.C. And when she landed on new construction, she was focused on bringing character into her home through her signature style. She wanted to keep things affordable and sourced many items secondhand, using what she already had, making what she didn’t, and investing in a few unique pieces to create her one-of-a-kind “upcycled minimalish” oasis.

Although her condo is new construction — and initially lacked some of the charm she loved about her past apartments — she brought life into the space by mixing her own paint colors, curating unique furniture accents (to include many incredible Craigslist finds!), and placement of her personal artifacts and artworks.

“I loved my last apartment, which you all know well. It was teeny and old and awkward and wonderful. When it was time to leave, I spent over a year looking for a new home and saw — no exaggeration — over 100 places,” admits Mariana. “Almost none of them were new construction, because I wanted something older, with character, where I could make my mark. Funny enough, I came upon this place through happenstance while visiting a much older home nearby. The sun was beaming through those giant south-facing windows, giving the whole place this feeling of warmth and luminosity. As someone who really struggles with seasonal depression, direct sunlight was one of the key factors I sought, and boy did I get it. We affectionately call this place ‘the greenhouse’ because it gets real warm in the winter with the direct sun — like hot-yoga studio warm.”  

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Upcycled Minimalish

Inspiration: Since quarantine, I’ve had to take most of my inspiration from the internets. There are several amazing home design influencers/makers I follow, such as @hotpinkpineapples and @reserve_home. Aspirationally, I love Sarah Sherman Samuel. She makes spaces that feel clean and grand but inviting and full of personality.

For this home specifically, my mindset was focused on how do I make this space feel unique and not like a soulless big white box. I also wanted to keep things affordable by sourcing things secondhand, using what I already had, making what I didn’t, and investing in a few things that could really make a difference.

Favorite Element: The painted arched wall in my kitchen was one of the first dramatic moves I made in this home. Nowadays you see painted archways all the time, but originally it was inspired by these archway mirrors that Bower makes. They are a trompe l’oeil designed to make it look like you’re walking through an archway. Originally I was going to paint it so that it appeared to have depth and felt a bit more like an optical illusion, but I chickened out.

The floating shelves are from this company called Dakoda Love, which makes the most affordable custom floating shelves I’ve found — they made the one in my bedroom, too, and I can’t recommend them enough.

Biggest Challenge: New construction tends to lack character and all look the same. All of my homes in the past have been rentals in prewar buildings with plenty of character but no updates (read: crappy cabinets, peeling paint) and I was much more comfortable with that environment. I had to figure out how to add some of the missing character into the space using paint, furniture accents and placement. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out but there’s still so much more I want to do!

Proudest DIY: Gosh so many. The entryway cabinets are IKEA BILLY shelves I hacked to appear somewhat built-in. I made custom doors for them, and they’re actually unfinished — you can tell by the hole in the plywood on the lower right hand side — but I’ve come to find that quite charming. Eventually I am going to cover them in half-round trim and paint them white for a sleeker, mod look. Another DIY I really love is the sink cabinet in the guest bathroom. I covered the existing cabinets in contact paper and then painted the funky stripes on that. That way, if I get sick of it (which is likely) I can just rip the paper off and start over.

Ooooh and one I can’t leave out: my coffee table. This was a major Craigslist score. I bought it for $50 from a woman probably an hour away in Virginia. It had super thick varnish and was covered in scratches and dents. I sanded it all off to reveal this beautiful wood grain and then just finished it in a simple Danish oil. Turns out it’s a Lane original. Go figure!  

Biggest Indulgence: The chandelier over my dining table, mainly because I had to hire an electrician to put new wiring in, which I had never done before. It was pricey, but worth it. They had to put SO many holes in the drywall but did an unbelievable job.

Best Advice: You can find amazing things secondhand or on Craigslist. Two of my favorite pieces — the credenza in my living room and dresser in my bedroom — come from my ‘furniture guy’ Tim, who refinishes old mainly MCM pieces and then sells on there. He always has amazing things for a fraction of what you could find anywhere else.

What’s your best home secret? My home secret is to always mix your own paint specifically for the room and wall you’re going for. If you make your own sample, the hardware or paint store will be able to match it with these fancy scanners they have. This is especially great if the color you want is always between two shades they have available. I would definitely recommend against buying paint you haven’t tested directly on your walls, as the hue can feel dramatically different depending on the kind of light you get. That’s how I ended up with a pink bathroom that is *way* too pink (you can see both shades in the pics) and a guest room that is *way* too blue. I’m actually going to repaint it the same gray as my kitchen as soon as I can muster up the energy to do so!



  • All custom shades — Benjamin Moore


  • Cabinets — IKEA Billy Hack
  • Mirror — CB2 Acacia Arch Mirror
  • Donut Vase — H&M Home


  • Percy Sofa — Room & Board
  • Lane Coffee Table — Craigslist
  • MCM Credenza — Craigslist
  • Rug — Rugs USA
  • Saddle Leather Chair — CB2
  • Pom pom cushion — Pampa
  • Sheepskin throw — IKEA
  • Alpaca pillow — Crafts market in Lima, Peru
  • Woven basket — Crafts market in Lima, Peru
  • Marble side table — Craigslist
  • Large chevron painting — Made by me


  • Reclaimed Dining Table — Custom made in Brooklyn, obtained secondhand
  • Hayes Linear Chandelier in Dark Bronze — West Elm
  • Dog Crate — Unipaws
  • Infinity [Up] Painting — Made by me!


  • Wood cabinet pulls — Custom made on Etsy
  • Floating shelves — Dakoda Love
  • Wooden Cutting board — IKEA
  • Painting — Made by me with frame from a crafts market in Lima, Peru


  • Three women painting — Made by Cuban artist Edel Bordon, a master who I am lucky is a friend of the family. This is the first real piece of art I’ve ever bought and I love it deeply.
  • Nightstands — Urban Outfitters
  • Bed — Hacked IKEA headboard
  • Ledge Shelf — Dakoda Love
  • Kiss artwork — Made by me in high school
  • Jute Rugs — Rugs USA


  • Fianna Murphy bed — Wayfair
  • Desk — IKEA
  • Copper rug — CB2
  • Cotton Canvas Pouf — West Elm
  • Flowers Painting — Goodwill


  • Besta Cabinets — IKEA
  • Half round door handles — Amazon
  • Black and white print — Rose Jaffe

Thanks Mariana!

This house tour’s responses were edited for length and clarity.