Decorating for Two, Then Decorating for One: How I Created a New Home After Loss
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It was the minimal and modern, and I was more into bright colors and boho vibes. During those first few months learning how to live with each other, we were also navigating our style. We filled two IKEA BILLY bookcases with my giant collection of coffee table books and Jon’s medical ones. We purchased a turquoise mid-century sofa from West Elm and paired it with a navy Turkish rug and my grandma’s 1960’s Knoll pedestal coffee table.
We covered the walls around the spiral staircase in art prints and other objects we’d acquired over the course of our relationship, which included a plate from our favorite Philly diner, a vintage sci-fi movie poster, and a few astronomy prints purchased at flea markets. A weird combination of stuff, sure, but our favorite part of the apartment nonetheless. More than anything, this weird little nook felt so in line with who we were as a couple. There’s something so satisfying about being able to show off your things in a way that feels like this was where they were always meant to go.
That apartment treated us well for two years, but a few months after our wedding, Jon got diagnosed with a brain tumor and immediately needed multiple life-altering surgeries. Getting up that spiral staircase was no longer an option, so we put our bed in the middle of our living room and proceeded to live like that as long as we could. It wasn’t great, but nothing was at that point. Eventually the apartment next door — which had no staircase — opened up, and we moved in. Devastated to leave our first apartment and that special staircase, we both knew it was the best option. We tried to get excited about redecorating the new place, but as much time and care as we put into it, it was just never quite as cute as the old one. There was something comforting about hanging all of that artwork again, though this time mixed in with wedding photos in a gallery wall above that same turquoise sofa.
We were still living in that apartment when Jon passed, and after spending a few weeks out of NYC with family, I came back to that place we had built together. I wanted those memories to make me happy, and some of them did, but Jon had never been well while we lived there. My good memories were limited, and the apartment felt like a shrine to a life I no longer had. People build lives and homes together all of the time. The things they accumulate are part of their story, and by decorating, they share a bit of it with friends and family who come to visit. These objects, even the ones that belonged to one person at one point, inherently become part of them both. Everything I was surrounded by — the photos, wedding china, curtains we had painstakingly chosen — they were ours, and I knew they would never feel like mine.
Six months later, I bought an apartment a few blocks away and moved. I took most of our furniture and art with me, but as I started to reassemble our items in my new apartment, I realized none of it felt right anymore. It’s not that I couldn’t bear to look at old photos or that our things would remind me of what happened, because how could I ever forget? I just couldn’t keep everything the way it was when it was two of us, because as much as I wanted that, it was just me now. In some ways, I’m a completely different person now than when we built that first home with the spiral staircase together four years earlier. Nothing in my life has gone the way I thought it would, and I definitely didn’t picture myself living alone for the first time as a widowed 31-year-old.
Just as I had done when I first moved into Manhattan with my friend Michelle, or when I moved into Jon’s and my first apartment, it was time to redefine my decorating style. Living in New York, it’s pretty common to change up apartments and roommates fairly often. This was a change I didn’t see coming though, and I was baffled on how to go from a married 20-something to a single 30-something. So I started on that “Who are we?” design process all over again, this time with my dachshund Leslie (who had way fewer opinions).
I spent weeks looking around online and making a mood board (like an old school paper one) and realized that everything I really liked was kind of, well, out there. In my head, I had thought this new piece of my life would look more like a sophisticatedly subtle Studio McGee space, but that clearly wasn’t want I wanted. After a scary three years, I decided to be fearless when it came to outfitting this new space. I embraced all of my maximalist instincts, choosing a few pieces I knew Jon would have said no to, but I unabashedly loved. I started with the bedroom, papering the ceiling with fruity wallpaper and pairing it with a royal blue velvet bed. The look is bright and weird, but just as I had loved that spiral staircase art wall, I loved this strange combo because it felt so much like me.
Emboldened by the results, I kept just choosing things that made me happy. I hung an iridescent pendant light in the entry and put a vintage hot pink Moroccan runner in the kitchen. I bought a hot pink velvet sectional and paired it with a bright blue rug, and again, my grandma’s ’60s Knoll coffee table. I hung high floating shelves, filling them with wedding photos, paintings, and a bunch of weird skull-themed decor Jon and I had gotten really into. I packed our bar cart with a collection of colorful Depression glassware and rainbow-ized our books on a 1980’s dresser turned media cabinet.
My favorite part, though, might be the little area I created for Leslie. I gathered hundreds of phone screenshots of all the places I want to go someday and had them printed in small 4-inch squares. I put them together in a grid in the corner of the room, and I’ll admit, the measuring to make sure they were evenly spaced was a huge pain. This became DIY wallpaper that was deeply personal, and I put Leslie’s little tent in front of it, and, I think, it’s probably her favorite feature of the apartment, too.
Today, my apartment is bright and cheery, overstuffed and a little messy. It’s packed with statement-making pieces that would likely be the sole focus in most other apartments — but not this one. Just like this phase in my life, my apartment’s nothing like I expected, and it’s not the kind of apartment I would have designed with Jon. It speaks to exactly where I am right now though and the types of happy, quirky things I want to be surrounded by after all of this loss. In that way, it’s kind of perfect.