Q & A, Part Three: Designing/Decorating/DIY-ing

So, now comes the part where I put my tail (genetic mutation, don’t worry about it) between my legs and inch out of the room slowly, hoping that nobody notices me. Because remember that thing I said about posting everyday last week with answers to the Q&A? And then only posted twice? HAHAHA, oh me. What a putz.

A very disgruntled reader had this to say, over direct message on Twitter. I couldn’t agree more.

Oh, who am I kidding. My mom sent me that.

In a way, if you think about it, this inability to meet projected self-imposed blogging deadlines only makes this post more timely. Like, thematically. Seeing as, much like blogging, I find that home-related tasks take anywhere from 2-17 times longer than I think they will. So this whole delayed blogging thing = totally intentional, metaphorical even. Nobody understands my art.

Oh well, let’s get on with it.

Where did your home improvement skills come from?

Now, I want to be clear. I did not grow up in a house where people were particularly handy. The extent of hands-on home improvement I did as a kid was “lightbulb patrol,” a task my father and I performed every couple of months. It mainly involved scouring the house for dead bulbs, after which I would run to the garage to find the proper replacement, and he would screw it in. It was all very scientific and advanced.

I barely handled a tool until high school, when I started participating in the crew end of our theater productions. My high school had an amazing black-box theater program, where everything (except for the actual direction of the shows) was completely student-run—including design, building, raising money, and planning the layout of the theater (black box = no fixed seating/stage placement). I did a few different jobs over several seasons, but that was really my first exposure to building things with my hands and having to think critically about materials. But what I found was that none of it was actually very hard. Sure, some power tools can be used unsafely, but that’s the great thing about the world we live in: we have the internet.

Most of the things I do on this blog are things I’m trying out for the first time, so I think it’s really about having a willingness to try stuff, and at least a little willingness to watch it fail. But there are SO many great resources on the internet that explain how to do things, so when I’m in doubt, my first instinct is usually to use the Google machine. Another great thing for me over the years—both from an educational standpoint and from an inspirational standpoint (even if it isn’t aesthetic, than at least the inspiration to get moving on projects)—has been BLOGS. When I discovered “house blogs,” the year was 2006 and I was a teenager  living at home, and happened to read an article that the Washington Post wrote about this !!!great new internet phenomenon!!! where people chronicled their renovations online. This was around the height of my HGTV/TLC phase, and here I was reading that I could look at this stuff online, too? In real time, told by real people? You don’t say! So while some teenage boys have their secret little porn habits, I had my secret little house blog habits. Houseblogs.net and a list of mostly now-defunk blogs were saved in a discreet little bookmarks folder in my browser, and I felt like such a creep knowing not only about so-and-so’s bathroom remodel but also feeling in some way connected to these strangers and their families. Apparently that feeling has since wained, considering I’m now good friends with one of my longtime house-bloggy superstars and started up my own blog.

Where does your style come from?

Baby, I was born this way. Kind of. Sort of. I think my taste comes from a big combination of things. This is probably the subject of a much longer post, but I think my design sensibility has probably been most informed over the years by people who are and were close to me, including several family members with really interesting homes with modern but very personal and varied aesthetics. I was lucky to spend time in these spaces, and with a family that was interested in art as a means of expression. They didn’t draw a lot of lines between their appreciation of visual art, interior design, architecture, performance, literature, etc., and I think growing up with exposure to those things and a support system of people who recognized and appreciated the power of them was hugely valuable to the way I try to approach the world as an adult.

That said, my style is always evolving. I was raised in a home where our bedrooms were very much our own, and we were always allowed to experiment with ideas about how they looked and functioned. And because my parents aren’t the sorts of people who are overly concerned or finicky about the interior of their house, my mom and I especially tended to team up to make decisions about everything from wall colors, furniture, art placement, and other improvements and changes that we could make to our living space. So when I got out on my own, it was only natural to continue that kind of process, albeit perhaps with a bit more fervor and obsession than before. I’m always changing things around and switching things up and making plans and trying to improve upon my existing surroundings, whether that’s tackling a space for the first time or reconfiguring something that I’ve already done. I think I like to joke that it’s just my way of keeping busy, but it’s more than that—to me, the notion of “completeness” in a space is a sad, sad thing. I don’t think living in a static environment is a good thing for creativity on any  level, but the most direct effect is that lack of opportunity to experiment and evolve your style over time and open yourself up to new possibilities.

As your style changes, how do you curate with no regrets? Or are there regrets?

My style has changed a lot in the four years that I’ve lived away from home. I mean, this was my first apartment:

Yeah. Granted, this was when I was living in Canada, which was a very impermanent situation (I knew I would only live there about 9 months, after which I’d have to get rid of almost everything), but still. I loved that apartment. I thought it was so cool. Everything was bought on the super-super cheap, and it all just tickled me. See those needlepoints over the sofa? They were my main passion that year.

While I don’t like to have a lot of excess stuff around, tossing stuff that I once loved or had some personal attachment to does not come naturally to me. It’s hard to get rid of things. One thing that really helps is trying to be really realistic about my current feelings toward something, regardless of what I might have felt for it in the past. Take those needlepoints, for example. I kept all of those needlepoints, and then proudly displayed them on my dorm room walls when I came to college. You can imagine how popular I was. Still, they were attached to a couple of very particular and transformative periods of my life, and each came with its own memory of the purchase, which was usually something absurd. But when I moved into my last apartment, I just found that, as much as I still got a kick out of them, they weren’t really bringing me the same joy that they once had because I knew that they weren’t exactly part of the room or overall aesthetic that would ultimately make me happy with my living space. For a while I just stored them in a series of places, and then I moved with them to Brooklyn, despite having never actually hung them up for a year. I actually just got rid of (almost) all of them—which was really a matter of weighing my actual likelihood of hanging them again (not much) vs. the complications of keeping them (a very cluttered closet). That, and the recognition that the thing isn’t what holds the memory, my brain is. Sometimes it feels better to have a picture, too.

How do you manage to make such drastic changes to a rental? I’m not even allowed to paint! What kind of jedi mind-tricks are you playing on your landlord?

This is one of my most frequently asked questions (or criticisms), and all I can say is, every rental situation is different. One of the huge pitfalls of my building for some people (and serious attraction to somebody like me) is that my landlord just doesn’t seem to care. He’s a really nice guy, but what tenants do to their apartment is pretty much up to the tenants. That’s bad when you need stuff fixed. That’s bad when you want to move into a well-maintained, well cared for, functional and clean apartment. It’s great when you want to be left alone to take down your kitchen cabinets without fear of retribution. That last one is me, in case you couldn’t tell.

I deal with my landlord by not dealing with him. While he did agree to reimburse me $20/gallon of paint (even though a can of Benjamin Moore costs closer to $40), I’ve never asked him to do anything on my apartment, and I’ve never asked him if I was allowed to do anything on my apartment. That’s not to say I totally play fast and loose with it, either—I certainly keep in mind that this is not a place I own, and I need to respect that it’s somebody else’s property I’m altering, which is why so much of the work I do has been focused on restoration. I really don’t make particularly drastic changes, I don’t think, but if my respect for the history of this place or interest in its functional operation outweighs his, then so be it. That said, I have a really hard time imagining anybody, my landlord included, objecting to anything I’ve done or plan to do with this space. I’ve made countless repairs and functional improvements, and ultimately that’s only increasing the value of his property.

All of that aside, I think it’s bullshit that anybody can’t paint their own apartment. BULL. SHIT. Don’t even get me started in nailing a hole into the wall to hang a picture. All of that stuff is so easily reparable and reversible, and I do think any tenant should be allowed to do that stuff as long as they take care in doing it, and are prepared to undo it correctly when they move. There’s some responsibility there, but not a lot. Mostly what I’m saying is, spend the fucking $6 for a little tub of spackle and a sanding block and don’t patch your nail holes with toothpaste. That’s why those clauses exist.

I’m about to move into a new place and start on my own renovation project! But how do you know where to start? Do you recomend starting with the things that feel more fun, or the things that makes more sense (like painting the ceiling). Recommendations?

Of course every space has different requirements, but I think one of the great things about doing work yourself is that you can set the pace. Before you do anything, it’s nice to be able to live in a space for a little while to give yourself a chance to identify what needs to be done to it. Then, lists. Write lists, huge huge lists, and try to be as specific is possible about breaking down tasks into their steps. It’s overwhelming, but it’s nice, too, to really give yourself a realistic sense of the work and keep yourself on track. It’s so tempting to dive right in to something, but half the work of this stuff is planning so that your steps don’t overlap or you end up having to redo work you’ve already done. I know that’s terribly unspecific, but it just depends on the space! For me, that’s usually meant painting first—it’s so much less daunting when you don’t have to completely disassemble a room just to get at the walls. I guess a general rule of thumb is to just try to be practical, and as long as you take the time to plan stuff, the logistics of it all will really just fall into place.

How do you find the time to do such amazing home renovations/decorations? Do you set a day or two aside or do you just make a room over slowly over time?

I don’t have loads of free time in my life, so things have to happen gradually. There’s just no other choice. Being in school, I can’t just decide to dedicate a whole weekend to a project. I think it’s pretty clear from the pace of this blog that it takes a while for an entire room to start to really come together, but even individual projects can stretch out for weeks or even months! I try to work on things when I have the time and energy to, and I try not to place huge deadlines on myself with stuff like this. After all, it should be fun, and I don’t want to end up hating futzing around with my house.

Can you share your thrifting tips? You have the most amazing luck and find incredible things and I don’t and waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

I know it might seem like I’m constantly dragging great stuff home from thrift stores, but that’s really not the case. I have found some good things, but…this is New York. It’s rough out there for a thrifter. People ask me all the time what stores I recommend, and I’ve basically stopped answering—it’s not because I’m afraid of giving up my secrets or anything like that, it’s just because the places I like are shit holes of despair and heinousness and I really don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea that they’re some kind of gold mine.

I think my moderate thrift store success has been attributable to a couple things, though. The first is frequency—you have to spend a lot of time looking at crap and going away empty handed to get that one time where you find something great. The other is ignoring the context. Everything looks ugly in a dump. Some things look great in a house, standing alone, cleaned up and pretty. That’s a skill that takes some work, because it’s really easy to initially hate something, or even just completely miss it because it’s surrounded by so much ugly.

Also, haggle. Always haggle if you can. Good deals take some work and some awkwardness and some assholery sometimes.

What item/piece of furniture or whatever is on your must-have bucket-list?

I love chairs. Give me a house where I have space for 400 chairs without them looking cluttered, please and thank you.

Also, the DeSede Non-Stop Sofa.

Or a Nelson Sling Sofa. I will accept either.

What is your favorite tool for DIY projects? What tools should I buy if I own none?

Probably my teeth, followed by my fingers, followed by my drill. I honestly do not understand how people survive without owning a drill. If you own no tools, by a tape measure, a hammer, and a drill. The rest will follow. (I have a DeWalt drill that is no longer in production, but any non-totally-whimpy cordless will do for most people)

How do you protect the rest of your apartment when you use your circular saw/other equipment?

Whenever possible, I try to do projects outside—either on my fire escape or the roof of my building. When I do something inside that makes a mess, I usually try to seal off the room if I can with a plastic tarp or a drop cloth, but let’s face it—dust is going to happen. Sometimes you just have to accept that the clean-up is going to take longer than the project.

What is the current status of the bizarre hallway in your apartment and the painty windows?

Patience, my child. The windows are still painty. The hallway looks rad as fuck and I need to take pictures.

If you were forced at gunpoint to paint a room in your apartment with color other than white (all four walls!), which room and what color would you pick?

Does black count? Because sometimes I toy with painting my entire living room (including trim) black.

Colors freak me out on walls a little bit, but I really like Victoria’s pink dining room.

Favorite and least-favorite design/decorating trends or approaches?

Favorite trends: I really like this whole neon/fluorescent thing that I’ve seen cropping up places. I think I need to get some hot pink into my kitchen.

Least favorite trend: I hate this “steampunk” shit. Seriously, wtf. I’m also getting really tired of spaces that are so heavy-handedly “turn of the century rustic.” Is this a New York thing? What’s going on here? I don’t know why “Put and Edison Bulb On It” hasn’t taken off as a meme.

Favorite approaches: Original and personal and fun and comfortable.

Least favorite approach: Anna wrote a terrific post this morning about inspiration and creativity, and it hit the nail on the head. While inspiration certainly has its place in a process, one of the trends I feel like I’ve seen exploding on blogs (particularly tumblrs) and other platforms (Pinterest, for starters) is a total, insane excess of “inspiration.” Gathering inspiration has become the process. People are collecting it like it’s in short supply, “curating” their little hearts out, crowdsourcing the shit out of an idea, and taking images out of the context from which they came and stripping their meaning. I think that’s bad. People defining their own creativity solely by the things they can curate from others is bad. People finding 8,000 photos of perfect, beautiful rooms before they can make a decision about their own is bad. I think that total excess is incredibly stifling to actual creativity and originality, and ultimately makes people less confident in making their own decisions about their spaces.

**On that sunny note, keep an eye out for the next installment of this Q&A, coming soon! We need to wrap this business up.**

About Daniel Kanter

Hi, I'm Daniel, and I love houses! I'm a serial renovator, DIY-er, and dog-cuddler based in Kingston, New York. Follow along as I bring my 1865 Greek Revival back to life and tackle my 30s to varying degrees of success. Welcome!

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  1. 4.11.12

    FINALLY YOU LAZY BUM!!! (Just kidding). I really like your perspective (and Anna’s) on Inspiration vs. Creation. Makes sense that if we spent less time “gathering” inspiration, we would have more time actually creating and finishing projects. I sometimes feel guilty about not gathering everything and I find all the information available at my fingertips really intimidating. (I need a therapist, clearly!)

  2. 4.11.12
    Kat said:

    Hi Daniel,
    I’m a long time fan, but more of a lurker than a commenter. Commenting now because I feel compelled to tell you that there’s a nelson sling in black (or possibly a great knockoff, I haven’t looked too closely to avoid temptation) for sale in the window of Time Galleries in brooklyn, on 5th ave between 15th and 16th sts for $850. (I’m only revealing this because there’s no way it would fit in my place.)

    • 4.11.12

      Really!!! New Yorkers get all the best deals.. sooo jealous right now.

    • 4.11.12
      Daniel said:

      OMG, that’s dangerous information. Still wayyyy too much money for us to spend on something we don’t need right now, but holy shit. I wonder how much a kidney goes for these days…

  3. 4.11.12
    Sascha said:

    Okay, if that tweet really was from your mom – I’m in love with her. Also, I am madly in love with Mekko, and this post didn’t mention her once!!! Gail Collins doesn’t write a story about Mitt Romney without including Seamus – we expect the same from you, Daniel. (May I call you ‘Daniel’? I’m old enough to be your mother, although apparently less awesome). Love your blog, and as an about-to-be new landlady, I am taking your advice to heart and will try not to be too anal about my future tenants’ creativity.

    • 4.11.12
      Daniel said:

      It really was from her!!

    • 4.11.12
      Joy said:

      Great post–your mom is the best! I’m looking forward to the hallway reveal.

  4. 4.11.12
    Jenny said:

    OMG…my new favorite phrase of all time is “shit holes of despair and heinousness”…LOL! Love your style!

  5. 4.11.12
    Jenny said:

    Dust happens. Got it. So my random question for you is what kind of vacuum are your rocking?

    • 4.11.12
      Daniel said:

      Well, for a longggg time, I had Eureka thing that was cheap but it got the job done. A couple months ago, though, there was a super sale on the Dyson Ball (I think it’s this one!…the small model) at Target, and I just had to. It was right after we got Mekko, and it was really time for an upgrade, and it’s been great. I love that thing, and it really does work so amazingly well.

  6. 4.11.12
    Kevin said:

    I love when parents drop the F-bomb. It’s kind of like watching a dog walk around on it’s hind legs. You are right about landlords that allow improvements. When we signed the papers for our new apartment the landlord said “You don’t bother us, we don’t bother you” so I took that as “paint your kitchen black”; when I should have taken it as “we wont fix your dishwasher”. Oh well, At least hand-washing dishes in a black kitchen is relaxing on the eyes or whatever.

  7. 4.11.12
    Lena said:

    My sister just painted the tiles in her rented kitchen- she too has a landlord who doesn’t really care. If on the other hand, somebody would do that in the apartments my parents own, they would get really mad- but then, they bought the house 30 years ago when it was in a horrific state, lovingly restored it and even won prizes for the respectful renovation, keep the apartments in a good state & would be open to discuss improvements with tenants. So I get that it really depends on your landlord & different policies can all have their advantages. Bad of course also bad ones exist, who refuse to fix anything and still will complain if you make improvements.

  8. 4.11.12
    Alex said:

    I’m totally with you on the inspiration-overload issue. I feel overwhelmed by my pinterest boards, and I only have about 200 items … I can’t bear to look at them all at once, nor did I actually get to do anything with all that inspiration.

    I actually stopped spending much time on pinterest since – I’m a recovering pin-aholic :)

  9. 4.11.12
    Mom said:

    I cannot even deny. He has the proof. It was me.
    PS. Daniel go get the couch, NOW!

  10. 4.11.12
    Renee said:

    I’m with you on the neon! I’m loving all the pops of color. Sadly, being married to a heterosexual male, I don’t think I’m going to be adding any hot pink to my kitchen in the near future. But I am toying with the idea of some bright yellows and blues (not neon blue though, that’s for space cadets, I want princess royalty blue). I’ve seen a project involving wooden spoons and paint that I have my eye on.

  11. 4.11.12
    Josh said:

    First, I love your website.
    Second, I just about died when I read your least favourite trend.

    “Put and Edison Bulb On It” hasn’t taken off as a meme.

    I need a shirt with an Edison bulb on it now.

  12. 4.11.12
    runswithscissors said:

    First, A HUGE thank you to your mom!! I have to admit I’ve been checking twice a day. That being said, I have aversions to “the deadline” whether imposed by others or self imposed, I rebel ! and so I was content to wait, knowing the resulting post would be fantastic.
    “I just found that, as much as I still got a kick out of them, they weren’t really bringing me the same joy that they once had because I knew that they weren’t exactly part of the room or overall aesthetic that would ultimately make me happy with my living space”
    Thank you. I may print that out and carry it around when I wander around craving clean closets and the guilt of parting withGreatAuntGrandmasMomsTrashfindOnceloved crapola starts to creep in.
    Totally agree with painting a rental. I always did and that started my love of decorating a space to make it mine.
    “Before you do anything, it’s nice to be able to live in a space for a little while to give yourself a chance to identify what needs to be done to it. Then, lists.”
    I think we may be related both for that statement, black rooms, & your love of chairs. So interesting to See your bucket list sofa. Love the Nelson, mine’s a Borge Mogensen.
    And wow, the inspiration/creativity insights. So true.
    This was so worth the wait. Kisses for Mekko

  13. 4.11.12
    bethh said:

    And here I was going to get all defendy of you and point that tweeter to this blog post:
    http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html (Neil’s answer to the first reader question). But since it was your mom, it’s funny!

  14. 4.11.12
    JJ said:

    In which case, I love her to bits. Both of you, actually …

  15. 4.11.12
    Colin said:

    And, yes, you should paint the ceiling. (typed as I stare angrily at the several types of paint above me)

  16. 4.12.12
    Kate said:

    I was totally waiting, listen to your mom :) And more dog please.

  17. 4.12.12
    Simone said:

    Well, just so you know, if you paint something black (or dark purple) it takes a lot of coats of paint to get the wall (or ceiling) a lighter color. I laughed at your first house, I thought it was your grandparents house! But if you take out the lamp and replace the couch with a Nelson Sling Sofa it could be pretty cool actually.
    Is your mom paying for the couch by the way?
    Have a wonderful day!!!

  18. 4.12.12
    annie said:

    Your last paragraph about inspiration — so aptly put. Thank you.

  19. 4.12.12
    Jessica said:

    Daniel, you were frame clustering before the rest of us knew what frame clusters were!

  20. 4.14.12
    Jenn said:

    “Patience, my child. The windows are still painty. The hallway looks rad as fuck and I need to take pictures.”


    But do it in your time, dude. Don’t burn yourself out. The milling crowd can wait.

  21. 4.16.12
    Furpants said:

    1. Your mom is the awesomest.

    2. Steampunk — I double your WTF on that one. Nerds, you can’t count on them for good design ideas.

    3. Edison bulbs; at least in NYC it has some sort of historical logic since those types of items were in use at one time. I hate to see it in a new subdivision in Utah or something, although I suppose the Mormon prairie general store thing could be in play there.

  22. 4.16.12
    JC said:

    I loved your last para too. You are wise beyond your years. Or at least you’ve appropriated a good idea of your friend and made it your own. I’ve got design blog fatigue but I love reading design blogs that focus on process and failure and re-attempts and maybe…ultimately success.

  23. 4.17.12
    t said:

    I am not a fan of pinterest and have not hopped on that bandwagon … it would just create paralysis for me. I need to be inspired by real things…fabrics, rugs, furniture I touch, colors I see in a painting, an object, or nature. I do like blogs with original content and experiences, not just a re-hashing of photos via this or that decorating magazine.

    Thanks for keeping it real!

  24. 4.17.12
    Manhattan said:

    lol Write your … blog!

  25. 4.17.12
    bfish said:

    Great comments about the explosion of inspiration-collecting — sure there are lots of good ideas out there but I find too much input leads to paralysis. I read design/decorating blogs intermittently but the incestuous link parties just keep recycling the same ideas endlessly. Undoubtedly there are some diamonds amongst the coal but I’d rather spend my time thinking about what could work in MY home and garden.

    A couple of months ago I got this irresistable urge — not prompted by anything I’d seen elsewhere — to paint the LR ceiling a dark reddish-brown. It did give me pause, knowing how many coats it would take to look right (still not wholly satisfied with three but too tired to go at it again) and how many, many more it would take to go back to white if I didn’t like it. Fortunately, it’s transformed the room —-

  26. 4.19.12
    amourette said:

    it can be really difficult to keep it up everyday but you do a great job – love your blog and keep it up! :)

  27. 4.20.12
    Milly said:

    I am totally voting for your at Apartment Therapy. Your place is amazing!

  28. 4.22.12
    jana said:

    “I hate this “steampunk” shit. Seriously, wtf.”… “I don’t know why “Put and Edison Bulb On It” hasn’t taken off as a meme.”

    silent laughing.
    nearly falling off my chair.

  29. 4.24.12
    Sinead said:

    Hi Daniel, I found your blog a couple of weeks ago via apartment therapy. I noticed the black doors in the thumbnail shot of your living room in the small cool contest. I think it’s wonderful what you’ve managed to do with your two apartments, while being a full time student. Keep it up!

  30. 4.24.12
    Marissa C. said:

    Thanks for this! I appreciate your perspective on creativity vs. inspiration, and it’s especially timely as I close on my first house this Friday.

    I’ve been agonizing over what Benjamin Moore colors to paint for weeks, but when I actually went to the store to get the chips it was much better. Tactile and personal interaction, field research, and instinct over Pinterest and Google Images any day.

    That being said I will continue to be inspired by you.

  31. 4.24.12
    Caitlin said:

    So, I’ve decided that I have an addiction, much like your addiction to chairs, except my addiction is to lamps. I love lamps. Especially table lamps. I think so many of them out there are so creative and drop-dead gorgeous. Just about every lamp at Anthropologie makes me want to cry because they are so lovely but…..about…..$800. Which is NOT happening.

    Just thought I would share.

    Also, don’t temp your mom to send you another mean tweet. UPDATES PLEASE! :)

  32. 4.24.12
    Dude! said: