Reno Darlings Jersey Ice Cream Co. On What It Takes to Be a Fixer Upper

Reno Darlings Jersey Ice Cream Co. On What It Takes to Be a Fixer Upper

Dabney Frake
Oct 29, 2017
(Image credit: Jersey Ice Cream Co.)

Buying and renovating fixer uppers is one of those big life dreams — like starting a B&B or opening your own restaurant — that divides the population: there are those that sit around and talk about doing it one day, and those that actually do. It's been an interesting, non-linear journey for Tara Mangini and Percy Bright, the couple behind Jersey Ice Cream Co., whose unique, organic, and character-filled renovations have been featured on design blogs everywhere and in the New York Times. They've proven they have what it takes.

Their All-In Approach

Instead of a kitchen here or a bathroom there, Tara and Percy only do whole-house renovations, a process that generally takes 3-6 months. Each is a deep dive and completely immersive experience, where they single-handedly design, renovate, furnish, and style every nook and cranny of the structure. To pull it off, they relocate to the area —either living in a place nearby, or actually in the same space they're also making over. We're talking total commitment, blurring the lines between a personal and professional existence. Says Tara, "It's an approach that began out of necessity, but now is a trademark of our process."

A view of the kitchen in Philadelphia's Lokal Hotel, which Tara and Percy designed from head to toe.
(Image credit: Heidi's Bridge)

It also speaks of a genuine love of the house, versus a burning need to get in, get out and move on to the next paying gig. Tara and Percy choose their projects carefully, and are always looking for the next project that speaks to them. Although a new home build would be easier in some ways, it's the old structures that really float their boats.

One, it's no fun getting exactly what you want. Our favorite spots in a house come from the weird quirks - the strange little bump out in the bathroom, the spot where two types of flooring meet, things like that. Two, amazing original details are more inspiring to us than any Pinterest image any day. Old wood, and moldings and windows and layers of wallpaper are so helpful in creating a vision for the house, and we love letting the house speak to us in that way instead of starting from scratch. When you begin with an old house, there's so much character already built in. Even though we've talked about how we'd try to create it in a new house, I think it's a big challenge.

Roll With the Punches

Instead of going in with a firm design plan, Tara and Percy admit that don't always have all the answers, or know what the building will throw at them once they get started. A key to their success is rolling with the punches, making design decisions on a daily basis, and then figuring out to execute them on the fly. This extends to their method of sourcing for materials and furniture, done on Craigslist and places like Brimfield Antiques Market. Percy often custom builds what's needed, sometimes re-using materials that came from the house itself.

I've always been amazed at designers who walk into a room and start calling out what they'd do and what would go where and what walls they'd open up. We definitely aren't those type of designers, and if you have a clear set vision like that and not a million dollars to spend, an older home might throw you some punches you don't want to deal with. In my opinion, if you're thinking about renovating an older home, you need to embrace the house and it's unexpected turns.

Farmhouse dining room with the tinted plaster walls that have become one of Jersey Ice Cream Co.'s signature design moves.
(Image credit: Heidi's Bridge)

Rolling with all those punches doesn't come easy, and there are some days where they look at each other and ask "why do we torture ourselves like this?" To give you a glimpse of the types of snags they encounter, Tara tells this story:

Just a few days ago, when we started to put up the fabric in the ballroom, we had this moment. I ordered this super heavy canvas to put up as wallpaper essentially, but we didn't realize how thick and unruly it would be. For one, the roll alone weights like 120 pounds, so we had to build this contraption to hold the fabric as we try to unroll it. Anyway, we started to try to get it up on the wall and it's too thick to stretch and impossible to manage, and we threw a few staples up just to relieve our arms and looked at each other like "well, this obviously isn't going to work." Which of course, is compounded by the fact that we're on a tight budget, and just spend $700 on 100 yards of this stuff and on and on. After feeling completely defeated, we decided to try to put some wallpaper paste under the fabric and put it up that way instead of just stapling it. And worked like a charm! There were still some dicey moments but we got it up and it looks perfect.

Who Said Remodeling Was Glamorous

Tara notes that people often overestimate the glamour of their existence and would be surprised by how much manual labor they do, and how modest their living situation usually is. They are currently at work on a big seven-bedroom house up in Tannersville, NY — challenge enough because the house is enormous, everything is taking three times longer than expected, and the budget is super tight. Throw in some less-than-ideal accommodations (makeshift bedroom, no internet in the main house) and being away from their Brooklyn apartment all summer, and it could be a miserable existence. But, Tara and Percy really love the project and the clients, and despite all of the hassle, are honestly happy to be up in the mountains working on the project. (And we can't wait to see the finished renovation!)

The Magic Egg, and 18th century farmhouse set in 167 acres in upstate New York.
(Image credit: Jersey Ice Cream Co.)

Their favorite completed project so far? Tara says it was the Magic Egg in Earlton, NY. The place had amazing bones to begin with, but there was also a level of trust that allowed Tara and Percy to really push the envelope with their design — knowing the owners were up for anything — and make bold decisions that really paid off.

(Image credit: AirBnB)

If you want to experience one of their designs in person, Tara and Percy have an AirBnB in Philadelphia, which you can book right here. Otherwise, check out their website — filled with project images and before & afters — over at Jersey Ice Cream Co.

Thanks so much, Tara and Percy!!!

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