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Anna G. Larson, Published June 22 2013

DIY design: Creative homeowner makes affordable décor updates

FARGO - Colleen Stevens has a knack for re-creating, and proof of her talent is sprinkled throughout her home.

A $30 dresser that was once gaudy and “totally 1970s” is now painted white, updated with new hardware and looks like it came from Pottery Barn. An oversized picture frame that hangs above the couch is refashioned as a trendy chalkboard. A pair of chairs that cost less than $20 are painted and reupholstered in a bright, flowery Alexander Henry print, totally transformed from the blue velvet Victorian look they’d previously had.

Other examples of Colleen’s handiwork are weaved throughout the home she shares with husband Jason, the couple’s three young children, Natalie, Ella and Owen, and cat Minneapolis. Colleen, a decorator and organizer, doesn’t buy many items brand new, preferring to scour thrift stores, yard sales and warehouses for furniture and décor that can be reworked.

Thrifting and DIY projects have become more popular in the past few years, Colleen says.

“I’d rather have something that I did myself, with a story behind it,” she says.

Colleen’s been decorating her entire life and incorporates family treasures like old books and photos into home décor. A photo of Colleen’s mother and sister from the ’60s decorates a canvas in her basement. Small books from her husband’s youth sit on a shelf in Owen’s room. A suitcase her dad used at college in Boston rests on the living room mantle under a wooden box that once held her husband’s G.I. Joes. Weaved baskets Colleen’s collected throughout her life dot a guest room wall.

“It has to be a place you’re going to relax and enjoy. It has to tell your story. Otherwise, it could be anybody’s home,” she says.

She’s also an expert on making a house a home since she’s moved seven times with her family because of her husband’s career with Cargill. She typically makes only cosmetic tweaks to each home since she knows the family will move within two or three years. Lucky for her, the eclectic design style she’s honed translates well to any home.

“I like the style because it’s not generic. I’ve had the same taste for so long, everything just kind of comes together,” she says. “It’s comforting, it’s warm. I think it’s nicer to have everything with a story behind it.

The New York-native, who has no professional training in interior design or decorating, says her love of creating comfortable, meaningful spaces started early in life. She grew up watching her antiques-dealer mother hang wallpaper and refurbish furniture. Being around an antiques dealer, Colleen says, helped her learn how to distinguish junk from treasures.

One of her greatest home treasures is the trestle table she and her husband bought used online when they lived in Iowa. The Americana style table came with papers from the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia.

“I don’t care how much my style changes, that thing … couldn’t you just picture it with metal industrial chairs around it?” Colleen says, alluding to her latest design interest in midcentury modern style.

She says her style is always changing, so she’s learned to incorporate her latest likes with past design styles. Her home is a mix of country, which was one of the first styles she adored, vintage furnishings and the midcentury style she’s currently admiring.

“I can’t just throw everything away, so I’m kind of inserting it here and there,” Colleen says. “What happens is your own personal style, it’s what’s history to you.”

Becky Lasch McGrath, of Fargo, discovered her personal home décor style when she met Colleen through a group for moms. Becky checked out Colleen’s blog, 58 Water Street, and decided she was the perfect person to help her transform her living room into a “bright, happy, funky” space that’s “more modern, less boring.”

Colleen guided Becky through the design process, and eventually the boring white walls and orangey-oak built-ins in Becky’s house were gone with a few coats of paint.

The two women shared tips for creating a personalized, DIY space.

• Create a mood board.

When Colleen worked with Becky, she created a mood board to depict Becky’s vision for the room.

A mood board, Colleen says, helps people see elements that will be used in their home, like wall color and fabric. The mood board won’t necessarily have the exact accessories and furniture that will be used, but it gives the client an idea of the room’s style, she says.

Becky says the mood board helped her see that her ideas for the living room could become reality.

• Don’t be intimidated.

The idea of painting the built-ins was daunting to Becky at first, but once Colleen explained how to pick the right color and paint the wood, Becky was excited to transform them.

“I’m always scared of making a change and scared I will screw it up,” Becky said. “Colleen’s philosophy is you can always repaint it, so go ahead and make the plunge, and if you don’t like it, it’s easy to change.”

E Shop your home.

All of the art used in Becky’s living room was already in her home.

“There are so many things that can make a space work that you don’t even realize,” Becky says. “I was able to repurpose what I already had.”

E Make it meaningful

Old family items, like the books Colleen uses in her son’s room or the suitcase from her dad’s college days, makes meaningful décor, she says.

“I try to pull stories and find things in other areas of the house that might mean something,” Colleen says.

She pulled a photo of Becky and her husband in Prague into the décor of the living room for a personal touch.

• No degree necessary.

“There’s a whole new breed of decorators and designers who aren’t classically trained,” Colleen says. She has her degree in human resources and learned the art of decorating by doing.

Becky learned some decorating techniques from Colleen through the collaborative design process and felt comfortable enough to tackle her den alone.

• No rules, only guidelines.

Gone are rules like don’t mix woods and everything has to match, Colleen says.

To keep design flowing, she suggests establishing a color palette. Cool colors like grays and blues are trendy right now, she says.

• Need more tips? Colleen will be teaching classes at Eco Chic. For more information, visit www.beingecochic.com.

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Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525