Before and After: An Unused Basement Becomes a Relaxing 1970s-Style Hangout for $3,000

published Sep 13, 2023
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Want more DIY tips, tricks, and inspiration? Check out more stories featuring the 2023 Apartment Therapy DIY Collective. This content is presented in partnership with The Home Depot; it was created independently by our editorial team.

In general, neglected basements tend to fall into two categories. Either they are bare-bones bunkers that act as convenient storage units, or they are dated time capsules that likely haven’t been changed since Nixon was president. Basements come with tons of potential — and can be ideal for large families or social butterflies — but giving them a often falls to the end of a home’s to-do list. 

If you have a basement (or even just an underappreciated living area), you’ll want to take inspiration from this redo from DIYer Marcel Dagenais, a member of Apartment Therapy’s DIY Collective.

Marcel’s 1940s Milwaukee home, which he shares with his boyfriend, Ben, fell into that first category of being an unfinished space for storing almost entirely forgotten stuff. “It had cinder block walls with chipping paint and some old wood paneling that had been roughly cut out at the bottom from the previous owners installing a drain,” Marcel says. “It was cold and full of spiderwebs when we first moved in, and not a place we ever wanted to hang out.”

Other homes in the area inspired a retro project idea.

Marcel is originally from California, where basements are rare, and knew that the Wisconsin winters he was getting used to could be isolating. But after being invited into nearby homes that had finished basements, Marcel saw how cozy they could be for an intimate crowd. “The one common theme I noticed was that most have a basement bar from the ‘60s or ‘70s, and I love that,” he says. “I’m not much of a drinker, but the idea of having people over for a little cocktail party in the dead of winter totally made me want to create that kind of environment in our home.”

The basement’s paneling already gave it a mid-century vibe, and Marcel aimed to capitalize on that with his $3,000 budget. Besides creating a bar where friends and family could gather away from the cold, he also wanted to designate a living space to its side. A portion of the budget would be used to spruce up a bedroom and bathroom in the basement’s corner for future guests, too. “I wanted people to feel like they were stepping back in time, so I had very specific design ideas,” Marcel says.

The first step was installing flooring and insulation for warmth.

Before any seats or light fixtures could be picked out, though, Marcel had to turn his attention to the basement’s infrastructure. He started by cleaning and waterproofing the cinder blocks before installing insulation, and then hired professionals to frame the walls of the living and private spaces. In the midst of that, he had the pros frame out a fireplace, too. “I was intimidated and didn’t want to mess up my home’s structure,” he says. (He later added the faux stone finish on its exterior.)

Next, Marcel and Ben installed dark brown carpeting on the concrete floors for form and function — as in, groovy vibes that conceal stains and bring cozy warmth to the cold concrete — and made the choice to add carpet to the wall behind the bar, too. 

“I was going back and forth between wallpaper and paint, but the idea of installing a carpet wall came about while I was researching ‘70s interior design,” Marcel says. “I’m so happy I made that choice, because it makes it super warm and cozy.” He created a hidden door behind the bar (and one in the wood paneling) for storage, and even built the bar himself (find the full DIY plywood bar how-to here).

One wall kept the retro paneling, but the others got fresh drywall.

If there was one challenge during this construction phase, Marcel says it was mudding the drywall on two of the basement’s walls. “I did three coats on all the joints and sanded until my fingers couldn’t sand anymore, but when I put that first coat of Behr’s Linen White paint on, all the imperfections showed through on some parts of the walls,” he says. “I had to go back to add more mud and then sand it down again in order to make it more level. That first coat of paint never lies.”

Vintage-style furniture and decor suit the MCM vibe.

When it was finally time to focus on the basement’s 1970s-inspired interior design, Marcel and Ben had fun looking for furnishings of the era at secondhand stores and shopping for items that fit that theme. The pair of olive-hued side chairs, a velvet rust sofa, and “I Dream of Jeannie” lampshade are just a few of the details that nail the far-out look.

Marcel loves how the basement turned out, and is proud of the ways he personalized it with DIY projects that kept costs low. But if he could go back, there’s one small thing he would change. “The Formica bar top doesn’t have as much of an overhang as I would like, but that’s just me being a nit-pick,” he says. “No one would notice it unless I pointed it out.”

Marcel and Ben plan on hosting many hangouts when the weather starts to chill, and have already enjoyed movie nights in their new downstairs living room. “It’s nice to be able to curl up on the sofa and turn the fireplace on,” Marcel says. “But my favorite thing has to be the carpet wall. There’s something so unique about it, and it adds to the overall aesthetic.”

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