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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
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Or maybe I should just pick up some plants

I’m having my annual pre-Spring home-décor-related despair. I spent all winter holed up in here, not caring what anything looked like because it at least it was warm and (mostly) snow-free. But now it’s starting to warm up outside, and every now and then you get a whiff of something that seems Spring-like, and it’s making me a little nuts. I’m aching for color in something, a flower or a cloudless sky or the bright red of a fresh wound. And oh, God, I’m looking around this place and realizing that we’re swimming in a sea of brown! I realize that statement sounds unnerving fecal, but I’m going with it. Poop!

Dear readers, even though we had to dramatically cull our furniture inventory when we moved, everything we kept was wood or wood-toned. We crammed them all into this much smaller space, and now we’ve got mismatched wood everywhere, plus our decorative accents are all red or brown or brownish-red, and how did I not notice this before? How did I not run screaming into the night? The curtains are beige! We have an enormous exposed-brick wall! Even our rug is kind of beigey-vomity-brownish. We have a BROWN LEATHER couch. The kitchen cabinets are WOOD. The floor is WOOD. It’s like a 1970s wood-paneled den, in here! It’s an autumnal forest of horrors! HOW DID I EVER STAND IT?

I announced to Scott this morning that I was painting our crappy Ikea bookcases white, and he was all, can we talk about this? Would that go with the dark-wood dining room table and chairs that are right next to them and the brown everything-else? Then I cried and slammed doors because he doesn’t understand how much I hate all this brown, you guys! He doesn’t get it! He remarked in jest--in JEST!--that we paint everything white, and had I been dressed I would have hightailed it to Lowe’s to buy all the white paint they have. Whitewash it all! It will be like a Scandinavian dream! A marshmallow fantasy! With fuchsia accents!

Why yes, I have completely lost my mind.


A few of you have asked, sheepishly, if I'm looking for advice.

Why yes. Yes, I am.

So much so that I am adding in PICTURES. Behold the brown tones, ye design-savvy, and despair:


I'm sorry it's a little dark in here, but, well, IT'S A LITTLE DARK IN HERE.

Mismatched BILLY bookcases!

And yes, these ARE mismatched Ikea bookcases (the BILLY, of course). These are the ones I'm desperate to paint. I'm not sure if that's possible. I'm not sure if I care.


I don't know why I took this one at an odd angle, but I rather like it. It's almost as if that giant exposed-brick wall is closing in on us. Getting ready to crush our skulls.

Have at it, people. Give me advice. I'll take it all under advisement. And then I'll show you how things turn out.


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Reader Comments (120)

I'd get some lime green up on those living room walls toot-sweet!
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn
I'm not sure how well paint will stick to them, but paint the bookcases, absolutely (maybe use Rustoleum or one of those other paints that sticks to, like, plastic?). And I agree with the readers saying you should paint the wall behind the sofa something light and happy. I adore the Woodlawn Blue (Benjamin Moore) that I used in my office, bedroom and hallway. Nearly impossible to take an accurate photo of a paint color, but this one's not bad.

Also maybe a large abstract canvas over the couch? I bought canvases at an art supply store and went to town when we first moved in, to fill an even more gapingly-large wall. Like so (terrible dark photo of about 10 incarnations ago in the living room). Look, I have the same chairs as you, but in the world's ugliest blue fabric! I rescued them from the Time & Life Building pre-renovation and they are still dressed in godawful felty mid-blue stuff.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate F.
Oh, one more thing: I'd actually paint the whole room (minus the brick since I'm guessing your landlord wouldn't be on-board with that), rather than just an accent wall. Accent walls feel tired, a bit, and also I think it will make the room feel smaller to have two colored walls facing each other with the rental-cream in between.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate F.
Are you allowed to paint the brick? Is this a rental? I'd paint the brick white. Actually, here is what I would do:

1. Repaint the walls. That colour is too far into the grey palette, it's too cold for the room. If you want to stick with a neutral, I'd choose cream (yellow) over taupe (brown), hands down.

2. If you can paint the brick, I'd paint it out white, then you have instant brightness. But painting brick is sort of a pain in the ass, so maybe I wouldn't.

3. Replace the curtains with something more fun. I like this fabric from Ikea because it's super cheap and then you can make matching/contrasty throw cushions:

4. Get a BIG piece of art for over the sofa, that blank space is making the room even more ... dispirited.

5. Painting the bookcases white is not a bad idea, that would make them look like built-ins and definitely brighter. Warning! If you paint Billy, make sure you sand it first or all that paint will peel off because of the slightly plasticy finish that's on the wood. Have done this and it sucks.

6. If you can, what I'd do to finish the room is put a big fat crown moulding around the ceiling. It's pretty easy to do, much easier than you'd think. Then paint the ceiling and the moulding a nice bright, semi-gloss white. Test the whites first because what looks like a bright white in the store can look like a dingy white depending on if you are facing north/south/east/west.

7. Replace the rug if you can with something bright. I love these shaggy things, pick whatever colour matches your palette:

Voila! Instant bright! Good luck!
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
I vote for painting all the Billys white - they would fade into the walls & match each other and "read" more as an intentional design choice. You could then experiment with something funky like arranging books by color (very hot right now, but I can never bring myself to do it because my librarian training insists on books group by genre & alphabetized by author's last name).

I also think new curtains are a *must* - something in a punchy, bright print (I'm thinking a graphic modern floral - you can always keep your old curtains for a more somber winter look) or a festive stripe, or a bright solid.

Since it's a rental, I would suggest that you hang a huge mirror on the brick above the fireplace. It would reflect in some of that lovely light back into the room & break up all the brown brick - Candice Olson just did this on her show & it was great.

If it's in the budget, a new rug would make a big difference too.

Almost *any* accent color works with brown - I love all the suggestions so far for lime green, yellow, teal/aqua, orange, red, even a clear bright blue would be lovely. Go for it!
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteryasmara
Light blue walls.

White bookcases.

Patterny curtains (if you can get new ones, great. If not there are all kinds of iron-on designs you can do).

Something big and colorful on that brick wall.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjennie w.
Why is Brooklyn always so brown? It's strange. All our apartments have looked just like yours. Paint your brick. Ask your landlord, maybe? Or don't, depending on how much of a sec deposit they have? Landlords don't usually consider white painted brick a rental liability, if he even remembers it wasn't white. :)

Also, paint your walls bright scrubbable white and choose a wall or two for amazing color. Or go all-white walls but consider painting the window sills and frames, Greek-style. For walls, don't fear dark colors. It all depends on the shape of the room and the light.

Paint your Billy bookcases as suggested but oh yes you must must prime them. They're covered in some kind of light varnish and painting over that unprimed makes them look streaky and you'll need 1800 coats. Agree with sanding. OR...cover sides in cool paper. Might be quicker than painting. Don't worry about covering the shelves...they're covered in books. Or just sand the front edge of the shelves and paint those, and paper the sides, skipping the tops and backs of course.

Fabric district, woman! Find some sheer, delicate, cheap fabric that might not even need to be hemmed. Or if it's cheap enough, and you're not a frequent curtain washer, keep them for a year and when they're grubby, replace!

Consider some cool material that can be affixed to your coffee table as a surface. Even another layer of plywood that you can paint a funky geometrical or what-have-you. Go all Rothko on its ass.

Clear all clutter and make sure any color/object is strong. One awesome huge pillow is better than two small, silly ones.

Enjoy! Make big sweeping changes! Small ones will get swallowed up.

Get going. Post photos ;)
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoe
Say...don't you have a friend who recently got her own show on HGTV?? Why not have her come do a make-over??

FWIW, I love the idea of patterned curtains, big and bold print. And then bring in color: love the aqua idea with all your brown. Also need some big statement piece behind the couch, perhaps family photos like Dooce has shown?

Overall, it is a warm and lovely space and it won't take much to punch it up. Can't wait to see what you come up with!
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkate
First, I think your place looks cozy and nice, but I understand how The Cabin Fever can take hold and impel you toward change.

Instead of aqua I myself would lean toward a light sagey green to relieve the brown without conflicting with it too much. But I may be hopelessly behind on interior decorating trends. Also, for me, painting everything white is a) too much white, b) makes me feel cold, c) gets dirty really freaking fast, and d) makes it look too much like an anonymous rental.

But, you know, do what you want.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaria
I covet that lamp.Maybe a way to add more color would be different (and lighter) throw cushions. And some art work behind the sofa. In a non-brown color scheme.And I think your quest for plants is an awesome one. I see a need for greens and blues in these pictures.If you must paint, choose a wall instead of the furniture.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershokufeh
And? @NothingButBonfires? Will you please please please remotely decorate my rooms too? I need help sooooo bad!
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaria
New curtains'll git 'er done.

White curtains with a bold, colorful graphic.Turquoise curtains.Mmmm.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPorkchopz
I'd check with the landlord about painting that brick wall. If you can't, then hang some extremely large white canvas pieces on them. Like some huge minimalist white paintings? We had the same problem at one point-- brown floors, brown sofa, wooden furniture... my husband couldn't see the problem but I used to have huge fits about all the brown. Changing the lighting helped, and eventually we got rid of the brown sofa. I have no idea why we stained our floors such a dark brown-- at least your floors are somewhat light.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRG
I would paint the walls and the Billy's white. And get new curtains in some great color (you could do whatever you want since everything else is neutral. Hell get a few from Ikea and and you can change them weekly!). FWIW I would avoid the brown+aqua color scheme, but clearly it's loved by others.

But then I pretty much want to paint every wall white right now so maybe you should ignore me.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjennifer in sf
Oh god I have the exact same apartment disease (is this a NYC thing?), right down to the beige (beige!) curtains and the wall of books. Brown, it's so practical! Look at how our wood furniture all matches! I bought a bunch of bright orange and red pillows last year; it helped in the way sprinkling some rose petals over a compost pile might. Thus, I've got no advice. I'm just hear to steal ideas and pass them off as my own.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdeb
Just started reading you a few months ago and I have never commented. But I so identify with your horror at the realization that all is brown. My boyfriend and I moved in together a year ago and in the culling of our furniture, we too have ended up in a brown room. Brown bookshelf, coffee table, side tables, brown leather armchair, tan Ikea couch, dark brown hardwood floors. It bothers me every time I walk in the house. I totally agree that aqua could be good, and I even have a color for you. Benjamin Moore Palladian Blue. I googled images of it and came up with this site (scroll down to see it). Totally helps un-brown the room.

That and some cool throw pillows to match, such as: or or
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie
I sort of see painting as decor equivalent of that expensive dress you buy on impulse when you hate everything in your closet. Momentarily satisfying, but ultimately unhelpful because, really, how often do you end up liking that dress once you come to your senses?

I'd leave the walls and brick alone and focus on the bookcases and textiles. A bright (not earthy) red area rug in place of the one you have now plus a long bolster pillow for the couch. White table cloth on the dining table with a white bowl/vase and some red flowers or fruit. Tie back the panel curtains with red sashes.

Spraypaint the blond wood bookcase glossy red. Like, Kitchenaid mixer red, and move the vase to the center of the mantle. Add white flowers and brown branches. Maybe hang the photos currently living on the mantle in an interesting configuration above the couch in combination with a large mirror?
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
I would paint, but that is my answer to everything and surprisingly, it works!!

Use ivory though and not white.

Sadie at heyMamas
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSadie at heyMamas
I will go ahead and Nth the blue or aqua thing people seem to be championing - you've got SO much warmth in there, you need some cool colors to balance it out. Light blues, light greens, nothing with red undertones. And plants, even though you may have been joking. Start with succulents if you're new at plants, they are really hard to kill. I think one of these guys would be adorable on the table next to the type writer -
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne
The furniture isn't the problem -- accessorize, baby! Paint those walls some sort of color, get colorful drapes, big honkin' colorful pictures, you name it. Then the brown furniture will be warm and soothing in delicate contrast.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlice
After reading many of the comments, I'm reminded of my sister, who is the sort of energetic and stylish person who fixes problems in her house with frequent applications of paint. She has a great eye for color, and no mater what she does, it looks fab. But painting is a LOT of work. Not for me, unless the room/bookcases/whatever really need it. So my reaction to my own recent fit of springtime "I hate my house" was to go buy a funky, brightly colored ceramic vase and fill it with tulips. Yeah, the tulips die after a week or so and I have to replace them, but at $26 for the vase and $5/bunch for tulips, I figure I can get a lot of cheap and low-work enjoyment. I suggest you start with a small change like that and see if it quells the spring fever ... if not, you can go on to more drastic/time consuming/expensive measures later.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErin
Oh, and also, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't paint the brick wall. It's beautiful.
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne

I love you guys. 

I'm taking notes. And oh, I cannot wait to implement some of these ideas! 
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlice Bradley
Try just taking those curtains down, all the way down. You can put more up later if you need the privacy, but I think you'll dig the light. Buy yourself a bunch of big, bright flowers for that coffee table (I vote for yellow or white tulips, they're everywhere now). Find a cheap, colorful replacement rug (maybe this one: and look around your house for some bright/colorful things you already own - a floor lamp, a throw blanket, trinkets that make you happy - and put them in the room. Good luck!
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth
Elizabeth: I love that rug! 
March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlice Bradley

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