It was only when, by order of the government, I was forced to stare all day long at the Ikea shelves on my living room floor that I figured I should probably get around to hanging them up. The hanging-up part took only a few minutes, though, and the achievement of having finally done so did not dramatically improve my mood or life. So I went on Etsy and bought a framed painting of a cat in hopes that might work instead. (Results TBD.)
Sheltering in place is a public good, but it’s also a recipe for becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what one’s shelter looks like. Almost everyone I know has experienced this kind of domestic restlessness: A friend has poured herself into refurbishing her wooden furniture; a co-worker created an impromptu accent wall using Drew Barrymore’s peel-and-stick wallpaper collection from Walmart. My editor’s boyfriend was suddenly overcome with a desire to paint one of his tables red, despite never having shown interest in either painting nor the color red. (He has not, as of press time, done so.)
Call it pandecorating: Amateur interior design has turned into one of quarantine’s most popular (and obvious) hobbies. If you’re lucky enough to be spending this time at home — though the coronavirus is not a vacation for anybody, and it is far worse for health care providers and other essential workers — and if you have the luxury of time, space, and money to do it, making your space feel a little bit better is among the more low-effort yet “productive” pandemic tasks.
Some people are rearranging their furniture, as the New York Times suggests, or redecorating, per the Wall Street Journal. (Sample advice: “Dust off that task lamp in the attic and bring in tabletop lights from a decidedly guest-less guest room,” as if everyone has attics and guest rooms). Others are turning their homes into pretend Airbnbs with Vox’s helpful advice, or embarking on DIY projects they wouldn’t normally have the time for.
This is what Gracie Stephenson, a 23-year-old photographer in Richmond, Virginia, did after temporarily moving back in with her parents, who owned an old wooden playhouse that her dad built in the early 2000s. It had fallen into disrepair after she and her sister grew up, so on March 24, she went to Lowe’s.
Stephenson, who had seen people online buying inflatable hot tubs on Amazon, realized she could transform the playhouse into an outdoor jacuzzi. Her father had always been a natural carpenter, and she was able to use tips she’d picked up from him (as well as a few YouTube videos) to begin the process of power-washing, replacing stairs, installing support beams, and staining and painting the wood.
On April 17, Stephenson posted a TikTok video of the transformation, complete with decorative plants, string lights, and a protective rug, which quickly went viral. Commenters have said they’ve been inspired by her project, and now she’s starting on a new one: transforming her parents’ garage into a hangout spot.
“Most of the stores are empty right now,” Stephenson says, “but you go to a home-improvement store and there’s so many people out, because they all just don’t have anything to do.”
Hardware stores across the country have indeed enjoyed a spike in business. With many of them turning to curbside pickup to limit human-to-human contact, owners say customers are buying items like paint, fertilizer, bird seed, and kids’ crafting supplies to keep busy at home. Data from Foursquare also showed that foot traffic to hardware stores was up 26 percent between February 19 and March 20. “Consumers are also diverting funds away from travel and entertainment to focus on spring home improvement projects,” James Bohnaker, associate director and economist at IHS Markit, told Newsday.
Even for people without backyards, gardening has become a way to spruce up indoor and outdoor spaces. “What all gardeners know, and the rest of you may discover, is that if you have even the smallest space, a pot on a window ledge, a front step, a wee yard, there is no balm to the soul greater than planting seeds,” Charlotte Mendelson wrote in the New Yorker on growing flowers during the pandemic.
Another hot quarantine item: peel-and-stick wallpaper. Google searches for the product are currently at their highest ever after rising rapidly at the end of March. Chasing Paper, a removable wallpaper company, says its web traffic has increased by 50 percent, while its online revenue is up 30 percent as of early May.
After a decade of mid-century modern furniture and Swedish minimalism, “Maximalism is back,” says Danielle Blundell, home director at Apartment Therapy. “Everyone is looking around their four walls, figuring out how to add a little more excitement to their design schemes.” Removable wallpaper offers the ability to create a fun accent wall or surface, one you can do yourself. And as fewer young people can afford to buy homes — we even rent our furniture now! — wallpaper that can be easily taken down is friendlier to both design-conscious renters and landlords.
Blundell herself has used quarantine as time to paint a peach-pink arch on the wall over her bar cart, inspired by the work of New Orleans-based designer Liz Kamarul. She used the pencil-and-string method to sketch the borders, and even though she’s renting, she says that’s the beauty of paint-based projects: “It can all be painted back, and still get you your security deposit!”
Other people Blundell’s seen on Instagram have painted the outsides of their doorways and added squiggles or stripes to the corners of rooms. “They’re giving your room charm and sort of faking the look of architecture without it being there,” she adds.
During our conversation, I found myself overwhelmed with the desire to likely destroy my walls with a paintbrush and my extremely limited artistic ability, so I asked how you can know when you’re stepping into potentially dangerous territory.
Blundell says the most common mistake novice crafters make when attempting a home project is skipping the preparatory phase: “In this Instagrammable age of instant gratification, you just want the project to be done now,” she told me. “But prep work is really important, and any time you paint, you really do have to clean the walls and make sure that your surfaces are primed to take paint on. [Take] the time to plan and know what you’re going to do, actually measure and trace things out — the pros do it for a reason. Good work does take time.” (Meanwhile, anything involving electrical lines, like light fixtures or even moving walls, should be left to the professionals.)
Even the experts, though, are feeling the oh-my-god-I-can’t-look-at-this-room-anymore malaise. Emma Crespo, an 18-year-old artist, was quarantining at her parent’s house in Massachusetts, surrounded by the roses and planets she’d painted on her bedroom walls a few years ago. “I came back to my house and I looked at my walls and I hated it,” she laughs. “Seeing it every day for like two weeks and not being able to leave made me really want to do something else.”
Instead of simply covering them up, Crespo decided to take advantage of the opportunity to transform the space into her “dream room.” She updated her TikTok every day with a different project: a series of wall paintings first, then an Instagram-ready backdrop made of CDs, then tie-dyed sheets. Within a few days she’d garnered nearly 500,000 followers. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, searches for “tie dye” are also at their all-time highest.)
Projects like these — hot tub clubhouses, dream rooms, or gorgeous wall arches — are, of course, on the more elaborate end of the quarantine home-project spectrum. But even the little things, like growing basil on a windowsill, moving a couch to the other side of a room, or buying a cat painting on Etsy, can fulfill the parts of us that are begging for novelty. It is impossible to be stuck inside a space and resist the human itch to make it more pleasant. It is, to use the therapy cliché, the one thing you can control in a time when, to use the pandemic cliché, we are experiencing an unprecedented crisis.
It’s not dissimilar to the experience of playing Animal Crossing, that other extremely popular quarantine pastime that’s since become its own coronavirus cliché. Often heralded as “the game we need now” because it requires zero skill and involves no scary things, Animal Crossing is essentially virtual homemaking. Its sole objective is to design an island cute enough to entice other animals to come live there, but just like real life, players can quickly succumb to aesthetic restlessness. I’ve razed and completely redone my island countless times over the 100 hours I’ve logged in the game, and with each viral image of someone else’s impossibly sophisticated island I question the quality of my own. This is possibly even more pathetic than the fact that I have spent the equivalent of five straight days playing a game for 10-year-olds.
A solid strategy for ignoring the horribleness of it all, though, is pretending like it’s a choice. Using your time at home to make your space look cozy is far nicer than the truth of the situation, which is that you have been stuck there so long that to occupy the same room for even one more second might feel unbearable. Here are my new shelves. Here is her new Drew Barrymore removable wallpaper. Here is her new hot tub hangout area, which nobody else is allowed to sit in for probably a few months and maybe more. But at least it looks nice online.