“How’d you come up with this???”
Is the question most often asked by folks visiting the whimsical and color filled homes I’ve lived in over the last 13 years.
I’ve never really known how to answer this question. None of it makes sense. I mean, I spent two decades working as an insurance lawyer, for crying out loud.
But I’ve always tried to give a reasonable answer.
‘Cuz I’m a reasonable person.
Sometimes I say, “Well, it’s inspired by the art.” Other times, I say this or that object d’ décor set the scheme.
More often than not, I just say the wine made me do it. There’s probably more truth in that than anything.
But it didn’t start out this way.
I was on a different path. A straight ‘n perfectly paved path, lined on each side with boxwood shrubs groomed like gumdrops and beige stucco ice cream stands and matching symmetrical posies that smelled like nothing that would make me sneeze.
There was no dog poo on that path.
No shrunken Mr. Potato Heads.
No floods, no fighting with the neighbors.
No slovenly house painters.
No way, man.
I was a serious gal with a serious job living a serious life and I was in complete control of the trajectory of my path
Period. Exclamation point.
The Starting Condition (Maybe???)
Of course we have to go back in time. Don’t all paths start at the beginning?
It was 1995. I had just started out my post-law school life as a single gal with her own apartment.
Back then, I was all buttoned up strict and prim and proper. As were my surroundings and everything that surrounded my surroundings. I liked everything in my universe upright and uptight, with soft whites and ladylike beige and pillows perfectly placed on old lady furniture with a doily flung here and there for emphasis.
(Photo #1. Little Miss Muffet Sat on Her Tuffet. This is me in 1995 in my first apartment in Santa Ana CAREFULLY decorated by me. My auntie Gayle took this picture, and I’m glad she did, because these might be the only pictures documenting my profound rigidity.)
(Photo #2. The Santa Ana apartment from another vantage point. That’s my beloved grandma Mona at the front door admiring her granddaughter’s décor. See the fridge in the background? There was an ice chest there until my mom told me it was immature not to have a refrigerator. Feeling chastened, I bought one at Sears. The only thing I put in that fridge for the first four years was a huge bag of potatoes I bought at Costco and divided up into multiple glassware containers my mom bought me for Christmas. I kept the potatoes for four years, packing and moving them from one apartment to the next, for no good reason except I knew they'd reek. By the time I rose above my dread and threw them taters away, they looked like shrunken monkey heads. Much to my surprise, they did not stink, possibly because they were fossilized.)
(Photo #3. The bedroom in my first apartment. The art is the only interesting thing going on in the room. It’s a painting by my grandma Missy, which I still display with great love and pride.)
(Photo #4. Another picture of the bedroom in my first apartment with another painting by grandma Missy along with a Miro lithograph I inherited from my great aunt after everyone else in the family passed it over. So free of mess and excess!)
(Photo #5. A job change took me to my second apartment in “the Valley” circa 1996. Just call me Polly Perfect.)
(Photo #6. The kitchen in my second apartment was so neat and tidy! I lived here almost two years and never once used the oven. I used the stove one time, I think to heat a can of soup. I used the dishwasher for the sole purpose of washing coffee mugs. The only thing in the fridge were the shrunken potato heads resting in neatly-stacked pink glass containers.)
(Photo #7. Another job change, and here I am in December 1998 at The Metropolitan Condominiums in Irvine, California. I skipped over one other place, but I barely remember being there anyway. The condo at the Metro was a rental which I later purchased and then fully remodeled through no fault of my own.)
(Photo #8. My serene color-free bedroom at the Irvine condo, again circa December 1998.)
(Photo #9. Here is the Irvine condo again in December 1998, this time facing towards the kitchen. I have only one bar chair because I was single and not very optimistic, so a second bar chair seemed pointless if not downright stupid. I still had the potatoes hidden in the fridge, bringing their life span to four years, which is approximately the same amount of time it took me to pay off the fridge.)
Even though my home décor back in the beginning was sugar-free plain vanilla, I did appreciate beauty. Craved it, actually. I wanted my home to make up for the fact my job left me no time to travel anywhere except the trash chute 15 feet outside my door.
I wanted my home to look like I actually had a life.
Fake it ‘til you make it, right?
I just lacked skills and inspiration necessary even to fake it.
After numerous failed attempts to make my modest Irvine condo look like a sexy House Beautiful centerfold, I asked my beloved friend (and upstairs neighbor) Leessa for advice and counsel. I always admired Leesa’s flair for balancing the traditional and sophisticated with the quirky and edgy. Her wonderfully curated home was a multi-dimensional triptych of art and world travel, a tapestry of intrigue and balanced beauty.
But you just can’t teach fabulous, right?
Nonetheless, Leessa was more than willing to try.
Jingle, jingle went my phone one day in, oh, I don’t know, 2000-2001. Ish.
Leessa announced that she had developed a retail purchasing strategy. My only input would be a credit card.
Within ten minutes, my cheerful and light-hearted friend was marching through the front door in flip-flops with a bottle of wine and a dog-eared Ballard Designs catalogue covered in yellow Post-Its. We sipped wine while Leessa flipped through pages annotated with her scrolly elegant handwriting, pointing out this and that mass-produced oddity made in China. Polyurethane court jester figurines sitting cross-legged with bells dangling from pointy hats. Novelty flower candlesticks with matching dandelion snuffers.
Bullfrogs on canvas.
I mean, this was Ballard Designs before it became elegant and European.
In any event, Leessa clearly had expended some mental energy on this, and she was trying to boost my confidence.
But for me, it was overwhelming. Yes, all this stuff could make me appear more interesting than I was, but where the hell would I put it?
“You could put three of these on top of that over there and one of these here and one of those there and move this here and that there,” etcetera and so forth she explained happily while expertly waiving her half-filled wine glass here and there and everywhere.
Not surprisingly, I still didn’t get it.
My imagination was sadly limited. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t conjure a vision of anything extraordinary.
I stuffed the Ballard Design catalogue in a drawer and continued on my little beige struggle bus for another year or so.
Struggle struggle. Struggle struggle.
Running out of fumes . . .
Dan Dan The Paintin’ Man
Something made this safe and serious gal skid sideways and lose her shit.
Of course there was paint involved.
It was around 2001. Or so. Building C at Irvine’s Metropolitan Condominiums was being converted from apartments to condominiums and we renters were forced to choose.
Buy or get out.
I was too busy working to move, so the choice was obvious.
I had to grow up and become a big girl homeowner. So I did. And all was right with the world.
But then . . . a thought.
I was no longer shackled to the constraints of a rental agreement.
I could paint my walls any color I wanted.
Now, I’m on a mission.
For the next couple weeks, I spent all my lunch hours at Sherwin Williams stalking the color sample bar, obsessing over splotches with titles along the lines of Agreeable Gray and Perfect Greige. After hours of painstaking research and analysis, I finally settled on a lovely palette consisting of pinky taupe and light chocolaty brown.
Feeling obligated to show off my selections to Leessa and her husband Greg (also now homeowners), I traveled upstairs to obtain approval and see how they were going to paint their place.
“We’re doing the living room and kitchen yellow and the guest room blue and, over there, we’re doing a red accent wall,” Leessa explained after evaluating my much less interesting colors.
Hmmm, I thought.
A red accent wall?
That sounded interesting.
“Do you think I should do an accent wall?” I queried, little wheels in my brain now squeaking round and round.
Squeak squeak. Squeak squeak.
Maybe I could do a red accent wall too? I always liked red. I mean, that is, I always liked red in small doses.
Leessa confirmed a red accent wall might do me some good, so off I went to ponder its placement. I finally decided on the far wall in the bathroom. The wall was small, so the red wouldn’t be too scary. And, I thought, the bathroom was a safe place to experiment with color way bigger than my imagination.
Oh boy! Here we go!
Leessa and Greg had already hired a painter named Dan. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t do the same.
On painting day, Dan arrived early in the morning, wearing a pristine white painting outfit and ready to rumble. I had already gone through my color selections and where they’d go with Dan when he quoted the work a few days prior, but I figured, what the hell.
A little reinforcement couldn’t hurt, right?
I handed Dan my teensy tiny stack of color splotches, all of which included handwritten notes indicating where each color should go. He seemed irritated by the repetition.
Well EXCUUUZZZ me for making sure we’re all on the same page, I thought.
Refusing to recoil from my assertive demeanor, and in fact now wanting to emphasize it, I walked Dan around, one more time explaining exactly where to put each color.
I caught him rolling his eyes.
“I GET it, okAAAYYYY?” he said all snappy like.
I didn’t care. Again, I repeated, light taupe on the kitchen walls, kitchen ceiling, living room and den walls, and all but the far wall in the bathroom. Darker taupe on the living room ceiling, chocolate brown on the bedroom walls, and last but certainly not least, the star of the show, my red accent wall in the bathroom.
Confident Dan took all this in, I left the asshole to his own devices and headed to work.
I got home, I don’t know, 8:00 or so that night after Dan Dan the Paintin’ Man had departed. Feeling really darn excited to see my freshly painted home, I opened the front door and was greeted by one of my favorite fragrances in the world.
Can’t wait to turn on the lights and see it!
I hit the light switch and peered into the kitchen on my left.
I blinked and stared.
I whipped out my phone and speed dialed Leessa and Greg.
“Yeah, Michelle?” says Greg.
“The ENTIRE KITCHEN IS RED!!!” I blurted out while trying not to hyperventilate. “It’s supposed to be TAUPE but it’s F*UCKING RED!!! What the F*CK!!!!” shrieked me.
Etcerera and so forth.
I can tell Greg thinks it’s funny. He says they’ll be right over.
Literally 40 seconds later, Leessa and Greg have arrived. Full pours in hand, they step inside and stare at the scene.
Greg laughs, appearing more pleased than he should have been.
Maybe Dan had been huffing fumes, he postulated.
Leessa said she liked it.
Until that moment, I was too shocked shitless to embrace the possibility of actually liking a red kitchen.
But what if I could? Was it possible? Could I be free spirited and foot loose and fancy free enough to coexist with an all-red kitchen?
Stranger things have happened.
Ten minutes later, I recovered from a state of apoplexy and the three of us made our way to the bedroom and bathroom to complete the inspection. No surprise here. Nope. No accent wall in sight. The entire bathroom was floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall red.
Already inured to the fast-food colors on my walls, I was less bothered by the entirely red bathroom than by Dan hanging my towel bar crooked.
“He’s Dan Dan the Paintin’ Man, not Dan Dan the Towel Bar Hangin’ Man,” Greg reminded me as if I was the idiot.
I decided to let Dan off the hook and didn’t make him repaint the kitchen and bathroom. But I did make him clean up his hugely crappy cut lines and all the paint he splattered on the furniture, cabinets, toilet, stove, floors, door knobs, light fixtures, etc. Oh, and the buffoon had painted around the electrical plates – of course, with everything still plugged in them – and gobbed paint on the plates, plugs and cords in the process, so I made him remove the plates and do it all right.
I also pulled some lawyer kung phooey and made Dan replace the linoleum floor in the kitchen, which he had ripped open when he was shoving the refrigerator around.
Frankly, I was surprised he bothered to move the fridge and didn’t just paint around it.
“That really bothers you?” Dan said incredulously while probing the ginormous gash in the kitchen floor with his pudgy fingers.
He didn’t see me roll my eyes.
“I can glue it together,” he suggested hopefully.
A few years went by, and I learned to like my red kitchen and bathroom. So much, in fact, that I expanded the red here and there and even got a little more confident with my décor.
All compliments of Dan Dan the Paintin’ Man.
At least I think it was Dan. Might have been Greg. I guess I never considered the possibility he slipped Dan a fifty to start that shit show.
In any event, while the whole experience was liberating, I knew my home décor still was just so-so. In a slightly jarring sort of way.
I just couldn’t figure out what to do about it.
Fortunately, in the meantime, I met my dear friend, Catherine Monaghan, who is an amazingly gifted interior designer. Catherine stumbled on my place while she was on a door-to-door knocking spree trying to garner support for her side of some sort of intergalactic battle royal with the HOA board.
I wasn’t home at the time, but Cath peeked in my kitchen window and was delighted to see red walls.
“Ohhhhh, a red kitchen! I just kneeewww someone hip lived there!” Catherine later told me in a voice elevated with delight.
As if I had anything to do with it.
But whatever. I’ll take a compliment when I can get it.
(Photo #10. The same Irvine condo in 2004-ish. The red kitchen is in the background. As you can see, I’ve started to embrace color and have even traveled to Mexico where I bought some doo dads and butterflies to put on the walls. By this time, I had succumbed to peer pressure and bought two matching barstools. Ya’ never know, right?)
(Photo #11. The art collection is slowly expanding.)
(Photo #12. The red bathroom. The wall backing the green hall table was supposed to be the accent wall.)
(Photo #13. Another pic of the red bathroom in 2004. As you can see, the accent wall spans the entire bathroom.)
(Photo #14. The Irvine condo in 2004 from another vantage point.)
Nothing inspires creativity more than spending time in creative places, surrounded by creative people. I spent a lot of time with Leessa, Greg, and Catherine in their homes. It therefore was inevitable that any creativity lurking in my subconscious mind would, somehow, SLLOOWWWLY poke out its head and crawl into the light.
Unless an epiphany sped the process.
Or a flood.
As of 2003, I’d been contemplating a redo of my kitchen and bath, but I didn’t have a clue how to go about it or even the look I wanted.
Catherine said she’d help, and she had all sorts of ideas.
“Just call me when you’re ready!” she said.
I was busy, and I knew a remodel of my small, one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo would be a pain in the ass.
So I kept kicking that can down the road.
‘Til it ricocheted off a pothole and zinged back at me.
Right in the noggin.
(Photo #15. Me.)
It was about 6:00 a.m. on a warm sunshiny California day in January 2005. I was sitting on the sofa, flanked by my two little fluffy white poochie poos, slurping coffee and planning my work load for the day.
Ehh? What’s that noise?
Drip drip drip.
“I wonder where that’s coming from?” one side of my brain said to the other.
I got up and followed the drips, finally locating the source in the bathroom. They were coming from a light can over the shower.
“Huh,” I thought.
Water in a light fixture. That can’t be good.
I went back to the sofa and dialed the HOA management company. After I explained the scenario, the rep promised to send someone out later that day.
K. Sounds good, I said before terminating the call and tossing the phone to the side.
A few minutes went by. Now the drips were starting to sound bigger. And faster.
I huffed a sigh in annoyance at the inconvenience and grabbed the phone to commence a more emphatic discussion with the management company.
I didn’t get that far.
Did my ceiling just break water and go into labor?
I threw down the phone and stood up, frozen in amazement as water began pouring from the living room ceiling, running down the walls behind my art collection and on top of me and the dogs.
Thrown off my game with no idea what to do, I ran to the bathroom. Why not?
By now, the flood bordered on biblical. Water continued to gush from the ceiling, accumulating at the floor level and flowing into every room.
Oh, the joys and perils of living at the bottom of a four-story condominium stack.
I sloshed back to the sofa and dove for the phone. Half dressed, hair wild, teeth unbrushed, I provided a pithy, profanity-laced explanation of the scene to the management company.
Five minutes later, my doorbell rang. I swung open the door, not sure what to expect.
Multiple remediation workers of varying shapes and sizes stampeded into my tiny home.
Water was raining down on top of everyone, more or less unabated, so the panic level was high. Workers clutching orange Homer buckets shot back and forth between the rooms, hurtling and spinning off each other while yelling things in Spanish and throwing towels back and forth. Two small wet dogs were running around, bouncing and jumping and panting, wagging their tails and barking at the highest decibel rating known in the natural world.
“¡Mierda, qué maldito desastre!" shouted one of the workers, his eyes wild with alarm. “¡Esta lloviendo!” observed another. “¡Necesitamos más cubos Homer!” yelled a third while waving his arms enthusiastically.
Pandemonium reigned supreme until one gringo, apparently the Remediation Team Leader, strode into the unit, parting the sea and making his way directly to me.
Coolly, in English, Team Leader asked me where the water was coming from.
“The ceiling!” I exclaimed, throwing my arms open and upward towards a heaven I was now unsure actually existed.
Team Leader stared at me. His clear, blue eyes narrowed as if he might be assessing the authenticity of my answer.
Wet hair was plastered to my face.
“Do you know where the building shut off is?” he asked, his voice calm and steady.
I blinked in amazement at Team Leader’s reassuring presence, his calm under pressure, his grace under fire.
“Do you think I’d be standing here like a dipshit if I knew where the shut off was?” I shot back, wanting badly to let him have it but biting my tongue after considering the potential negative outcomes.
Off he went in search of the building shut off.
The next two hours went by in a flash. As I was informed, the culprit was a burst plumbing connection behind the shower wall on the fourth floor. And a lady who apparently liked to take 30-minute showers despite having no water pressure. The units on the second and third floor above me had also sustained damage, but nothing like my place.
By the time the remediation crew was wrapping things up and had all the fans and dryers and whatnot strategically placed and whirring in all directions, half the ceiling and walls in my home were gone. Furniture, soaked throw pillows, blankets, clocks, t.v. remotes, dog chew toys, piddle pads, and varied items of saturated soft décor and assorted trash were stacked to the ceiling in the center of the living room and bedroom. All my art was piled against the wall on the balcony outside.
At least I saved the art.
I sat sprawled on the floor, staring blankly at the destroyed wall in front of me. My gaze lowered to my feet. I was noticing the right shoe didn’t match the left when it occurred to me that I didn’t want to go through the hassle hell of a build back and end up with exactly what I had before.
Boring white ceramic tile. Flying saucer light fixtures. Ugly 90’s vintage plumbing fixtures.
My first step was to tell the demo guys they’d be giving the bill for all the work they’d done so far to the H.O. fricken’ A.
It was on me.
I told them to rip out the bathroom to the studs. And the kitchen.
Next, I picked up my phone and punched the speed dial. I didn’t have a vision, but I did have an equity line of credit.
And I had Catherine.
Catherine to the Rescue
How do I describe Catherine Monaghan?
It’s like she’s a southern girl. Except she’s from Dearborn.
Catherine arrived about thirty minutes after my desperation phone call, around the same time two guys were schlepping a toilet out the front door. She was, as usual, wearing a cute and very pulled together outfit with kitten heels. Her hair and makeup were flawless.
I still was in the process of locating matching shoes.
Catherine took in the scene, raising her eyebrows as she surveyed the chaos as well as my state of dishevelment.
“’Ya missed the circus,” I said while continuing the shoe hunt, my voice punctuated with no sense of humor whatsoever.
“Oh. My. Goooooodness!” she exclaimed liltingly, trying not to laugh. Her upbeat, sweet voice was a comfort, as was her offer to feed me lunch then whisk my sad soggy ass straight to the design center.
I think she wanted to say, “Bleeesssss your heart, you poor thing!” but she kept that thought to herself.
In truth, I was, actually, feeling a little sorry for myself. However, I also was beginning to sense there was a silver lining to this fiasco.
Mood now improving, I zeroed in on some matching sandals, waved bye bye to the mutts and headed out the door with Catherine to one of the hap hap happiest places on earth: Home Depot’s Expo Design Center.
On arrival at Expo (as we lovingly called it before Home Depot shut it down in 2009), Catherine shuttled me up to the bath section where I instantly located a fabulous fiberglass bathtub made to look like draped cloth.
As soon as I saw the tub, it all just clicked. I knew what I wanted.
I wanted a fantasy. I wanted to feel like a mermaid floating weightless in her underwater lair. I wanted the bathroom to be blue and turquoise and dark and deep and mysterious with a dreamy subaquatic vibe.
After all, it had been under water all fucking morning.
In total, it took only 45 minutes for me to plan the bathroom and pick the tub, toilet, shower and floor materials, hardware, and sink vanity. I planned the art in my head then stormed through the design center like Sherman’s March to the Sea. No hemming. No hawing. No “what do you think about this?” or “do you think I should do that?” Just “I’ll take this and that and sign up this and give me that over here and this over there and that and that and that, that, that. And chop chop chop! Make it quick!”
Catherine was shocked by my lack of indecisiveness.
Of course, plotting the bathroom kicked the crap out of me so I left the entire kitchen and pretty much everything else to Catherine. My only request was a hot pink rope light under the bar. And I wanted my cabinets to be a sort of worn looking glossy black with zips of hot pink peeking through. I know that makes no sense to normal people, but Catherine understood exactly what I meant.
Oh, and I wanted bejeweled hardware.
And a grommet in the counter so I could plug in a sparkly lamp.
And a fabulous chandelier or two or three right in the middle of all this.
My Groovy Pad
I think it took five months for the remodel to be completed and let me tell you this. It was nooooo walk in the park. Leessa and Greg were kind enough to take in me and my two dogs, which was not easy, because neither I nor the dogs were very well behaved.
Catherine designed an extraordinarily beautiful home for me. She also has a keen eye for detail, so nothing in that condo was ordinary by the time she was done with it. She redid door casings, crown, baseboards, registers, and floors. She reworked the configuration of the bathroom, designed beautiful mirrored and glass doors, built-in cabinets, cornices, and lavish, fringed and jeweled portieres to separate the den. She also talked me into marvelous, jaw-dropping trompe l’oeil ceilings.
I learned VAST amounts just by watching her process.
But what, pray tell, was my input other than other than the bathroom, some blingy drawer pulls, and sitting on my ass watching Catherine in action?
Catherine and I were enjoying a glass of wine and pondering paint colors for the great room/living room and den. I had a color in my head but I was afraid to say it. Mostly out of fear of criticism, since the color would span half the residence.
Catherine had worked so hard on this. It was sort of her baby.
But WTF I thought. Plus, I was tipsy.
“How ‘bout black?” I said. “And I don’t want a black accent wall,” I said. “I want all black. Ceiling too.”
“And I want hot pink curtains,” I added. “Red ones too.”
Catherine stared at me without speaking, a surprised look forming on her face.
Here it comes, I thought. Not good.
“That would be AMAZING!” she exclaimed before explaining she never thought I’d do something so avant-garde.
That makes two of us.
(Photo #16. Isn't it swanky? The Irvine condo in 2005 from the same vantage point as photo #9. This was before the ceilings were painted. By now, I’ve gained enough confidence in my social skills to add another bar chair.)
(Photo #17. My kitchen, designed by Catherine Monaghan, again before trompe l’oeil went up on the ceilings. It looked like a jewel box. Unfortunately, I have very few photos of the condo, and no photos of the flood damage. I wasn’t a shutterbug back then.)
(Photo #18. The Irvine condo bathroom in 2005, in its post-flood condition and taken from the same vantage point as photo #12. This, with some help from Catherine, was my primary design contribution to the remodel. Mermaid art hangs over the cool tub designed to look like draped cloth. The lamp on the table to the left is the one that inspired the exterior paint colors on my next house. The flooring is a really pretty tumbled granite which I selected during the Expo afternoon rampage. I also wanted glass doors, because this was MY underwater lair and I wanted it to be MY way.)
(Photo #19. P.S., I still have that Venetian mirror.)
(Photo #20. Catherine and me guzzling some wine. Notice the butterflies flying over my head?)
(Photo #21. During this remodel, I learned an important lesson about design: black walls are more neutral and unifying than beige or taupe walls. Just about everything – even stuff that doesn’t match – looks good against black.)
(Photo #22. Catherine designed the trompe l’oeil on the ceiling. This is the same vantage point as photo #7.)
(Photo #23. This is the only photo I could find of the den area, which Catherine sectioned off with some spectacular striped, puddling drapes that she had made. My dogs used to lay in the puddles so I dubbed them the “dog pockets.”)
(Photo #24. I still have those butterflies. Some of them float up the staircase in our current home.)
(Photo #25. The puffy “clouds in the sky” trompe l’oeil in the bedroom was my request.)
(Photo #26. I loved waking up to the dreamy art on my bedroom ceiling. BTW, the gal who bought the condo from me painted over it. White ceilings are de rigueur in Irvine.)
(Photo #27. As usual, butterflies abound.)
Moving On . . . And Out
Remember the intergalactic HOA battle royal I mentioned?
Initially, I was reluctant to get involved. But they wore me down, and I surrendered. I allowed friends and assorted neighbors to drag me into the fight and lead the homeowner insurgency.
The result? What do you think?
Surprise! I’m a lawyer.
In Irvine. Of all places.
Some things in life really aren’t that unpredictable.
So after more than a year of tolerating a lot of very pissy people and relentless neighborly acrimony – and less than a year after finishing a hugely expensive remodel – I found a charming historic cottage in Old Towne Orange and I GTFO of Irvine.
So many possible paths. One shift, and there would be a different outcome.
I don’t think so.
* * *