A Chicago Condo That Will Restore Your Faith in DIY Projects


Welcome to Make Yourself at Home, a collection of home tours as told through the items within them. Up this week, in the third of four installments we’re running in honor of Renovation Month, Jesse welcomes us into the DIY-ed condo she shares with her husband in Chicago.

When Jesse was 25 and freshly over her last ex, she told her friend Alex she wanted to go out. Being a loyal friend, Alex agreed, and took Jesse to a Chicago bar with a cute bartender named Paul. It wasn’t a setup, exactly, just encouragement. But someone else caught her attention instead: Paul’s boss. Brad, 30, owned the bar, and he and Jesse attached to each other right away, spending the night making fun of people in the “super hipster” dance room in the back. Three months later, Brad proposed. At the time, Jesse was surprised, but knowing Brad now, she’s not as much. “When he gets into something, he’s obsessed,” she told me. Something about it felt right, so Jesse said yes. They moved in together right away and were married nine months later. Paul was a groomsman.

Brad and Jesse loved their shared apartment, but a few years into renting, Jesse suggested they look into buying, so they kicked off a slow and plodding search. A couple years passed. Nothing. Then one day, Jesse stumbled upon a place online that checked all their boxes. It’s too perfect, she thought. It’s going to go off the market too fast. I can’t even think about it. So she didn’t. And she didn’t say anything either. Little did she know, Brad had also seen the place online, and decided to not say anything either out of the same fear. Soon after, during an appointment to see another place, their realtor suggested they go see this other spot instead—unplanned. Naturally, it was the one. They both freaked. It felt like fate.

Originally they wanted a single-family home, and this was a condo, but it was unique in that it had multiple levels and ample private outdoor space, so they were satisfied. In 2015, they moved in (along with their female dog, Kevin). Brad now owns a second bar and Jesse works in marketing, but part of her regrets not pursuing interior design at a younger age. She’s had so much fun decorating the space—“Brad didn’t lift a finger”—especially the parts she was able to DIY through sheer force of will. She’s picked up some freelance styling work as a result (follow her on Instagram here). Below, in her own words, five things that made their house a home; some by very impressive means.

#1: The Cabinets I Painted and Refinished in the Kitchen

The cabinets were the first thing I did. I knew we didn’t have it in our budget to immediately replace them, but they weren’t the right finish. [Ed note: here are before and after pictures of her kitchen.] So I just did a lot of research and cobbled together my best approach and went at it. We got our keys on a Friday and I started that weekend, completely overhauling them before we even moved our stuff in. I knew that if I pulled the trigger on it immediately, I would actually do it.

Brad wanted to veto the project because it was so much work, but I was like, “Well, what if you don’t have to do any of it?” And he was like, “Fine.” So that’s what set the precedent. I grew up in Kentucky on 21 acres with a family that does everything ourselves, and he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with a stay-at-home mom, so our handiness is on different levels.

A lot of people mistake the cabinets for being white, but they’re actually a very pale gray. It took me forever to figure out what color I wanted. And then I think it might have been a couple of months later that I finally did the hardware, because that was really tough—I had to drill all the holes and line everything up properly. It took a lot of time and calculation. All in redoing the cabinets probably cost between $350 and $400 dollars, and it took about 20 hours with some help from my friends.

The way they came out, it actually looks like we did replace the cabinets and a lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them I just painted them. I think it’s going to be a big asset for us when we do end up moving eventually.

#2. The DIY Marble Backsplash in the Kitchen

Originally there was this horrible—in my opinion—backsplash in the kitchen, with little 1″ x 1″ square tiles of different textures. It was very 1995. When I started to try to get the tile off I discovered they were basically sealed with cement, so this was my first foray into completely cutting out all the drywall and replacing it. My stepdad actually came up and helped me with this. He’s my DIY guru. I could have done it myself, but his help made it a lot faster. We cut all the backsplash out and then replaced all the drywall.

It took me a little while longer before I got the marble up due to financial and time restraints. I would say the marble is one of the most expensive things I’ve done to our house thus far (all in about $1,000 dollars). What I did instead of doing just a slab, was get 12″ x 24″ marble tiles and put them on without a grout line in between so that it kind of gives the illusion of a seamless single slab. And right now we only have the bottom done, but eventually I’m going to do above the cabinets with the same marble as well. (There’s a highlight in my stories of me doing the marble.) [Ed note: Holy shit you’ll be impressed.]

It was a lot of research. That’s my thing. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to research it for hours and hours and hours. This project was terrifying and it was also super exhausting because I had to carry eight 100-pound packs of marble up to our roof deck to cut them with a wet tile saw. All of it was completely terrifying, but we got through it and it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of because it’s really my blood, sweat, and tears.

#3. The Decorative Island Separating the Kitchen and the Living

We have this really large peninsula and, after painting it white, it was just too boring for me. I wanted more visual interest under there. But I didn’t want to do a traditional wainscotting or board and batten—I didn’t want it to look like anything else. And then I found this coffee shop that had an amazing pattern on their coffee bar, but they were doing it with 2′ x 4’s and cutting it out with a miter saw and gluing it all together. [Ed note: Here’s the coffee shop!] So that was my original plan, but then I realized it was going to be too thick on the back of the island, so after some back and forth, I came across these 1” balsa wood strips that would give me that texture but without weight. I cut them all with an X-Acto knife. Material-wise it was perfection, but then I had to do a bunch of math and map out the entire peninsula to get all the angles correct. (I have a tutorial on this on my highlights as well.)

I glued up all the balsa wood strips and then repainted the parts that are same color as the cabinets with the same cabinet paint, and then the wood insets are actually a really, really high-quality, textured contact paper. So it looks like it’s actual wood when it’s not. It was a really painstaking process but it was completely worth it. All in I would say the island probably took about 14 hours but the cost was only about $100.

I feel like a lot of people move into a place and they want to get everything done at once, but because these were all my visions, and a lot of times it was all my money too, it’s been a slower process. But right now the kitchen is definitely my favorite part of the house. I’m slowly working through the rest of it to make it exactly what we want it to be, too.

#4. The Blue Cabinet in the Living Room

The blue cabinet actually belonged to my parents before I was even born. Then it was in my childhood bedrooms my whole life, and then it moved up to Chicago with me, after I was out of the dorms. For the longest time when it was in my parent’s house, it was their spice cabinet, so it still kind of smells like cinnamon when you open it. It’s very nostalgic for me; it smells like my childhood.

It’s been painted and repainted a number of times. I painted it blue when we moved into our place. I don’t even know why I chose that color; it just spoke to me. All the hinges I repainted in gold and changed the hardware to these beautiful pulls that I got from Anthropologie that are teak and marble. They’re gorgeous. It used to have a painting etching on the glass, but I scraped all of that off because it was just a little too busy and I wanted you to be able to see the glassware that’s in there now. In it we keep a collection of beautiful glassware and amazing mugs that we’ve gotten from traveling and friends of ours in the industry and that kind of thing. And so it’s a perfect almost-China cabinet vibe that is a great transition between the kitchen and living area.

#5. The Gallery Wall in the Living Room

This one took a really long time too, and I think one of the reasons I love it so much is my husband and I both are collectors of different types of art, and this was one of the places where I got to take a lot of his beautiful pieces and incorporate them into my own design in our living room. Almost everything was stuff that we had on hand. It was not about, “I want the wall to look like this.” It was more like, “Well, what do we have and how can we make it look the best?”

A lot of them already had frames or I shopped my house. I don’t know if you can really tell, but below the plant, that green frame—I’d actually bought it with a print from a thrift store and ended up tearing the print out. And the map itself is actually a piece of art paper from Blick, but it’s a historic map of the Chicago Transit System.

I didn’t plan the wall out or anything, I just threw the stuff up there. I started with Bowie. That’s the Ziggy Stardust print in the very middle. And mind you, this is the 7th iteration of the way that this looks. There were so many different configurations and I just kept rearranging it—it probably took me about two years to get everything the way that I wanted it. So many holes. So much spackling. The main thing I always say to everybody who asks me is to just take your time, because I think people want to get it done and want to get it right the first time, and get really discouraged if they don’t like the outcome of a project. But I think it’s just being patient. For me, at least, I’ll only know when it’s done when I see it. And that’s definitely what happened with this.

Photos by Jesse Maguire Bolt.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

More from Archive