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  • Writer's pictureLeslie James

How to Add Character to Your Home (even during COVID)

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

We always want what we don't have, right? It can seem that way sometimes.

There are tons of articles out there on how to modernize an old house, mainly through cleaning, paint , lighting or larger projects like walk-in closets. There are also lots of articles that recommend how to add character to a cookie-cutter, flipped house through small details like window treatments and furniture.

But staring down any kind of changes can feel daunting, especially when we are stuck in the endless COVID loop of social distancing, remote schooling, and work-from-home. Thankfully though, all of that time at home has forced us to slow down and be more mindful of what we truly need in our lives and in our spaces.

For my family that has included lowering some expectations; I can't keep up with the never-ending dust bunnies and it's impossible to have quiet time for my own calls when there are 3 other people on Zoom (unless I am willing to hide in our unfinished basement ALL day).

And it has included raising other expectations; what can I do to make each room feel more inviting so I want to be there and how can I make the space work better for what my family needs right now?

Add Character to Your House with Three Small Changes

1. Form Follows Function. Rearrange Until You Get It Right.

In my own home, we loved the flow that we had for evenings and weekends, but COVID hit we needed to accommodate two children remote learning on Zoom, a husband on work calls ALL day, and me, who needed to alternate between quiet think time and calls with clients.

We don't have a home office. We cannot (easily) convert an already small bedroom into a work space. Our dining room is in the middle of the house so it's not a great place for taking calls with kids running through who want to eat all.the.snacks all day long.

So we got creative. In the first iteration in March (lockdown part 1) my husband commandeered the front room for his home office. It's not perfect, since he is sometimes loud, but it gives him a dedicated place to work with good natural light. Pocket doors help contain the noise. An Italian game table and leather side chair keep it feeling cohesive with the rest of the room.

Work from home office during COVID adds character to the space
The morning light off the snow is so bright it makes the room look a bit dim.

For my "office" (ha!), I took down a wall in our unfinished basement to bring in some natural light from a first floor half-lite door, then added a standing desk in a nearby nook. It's lacking the polish and finish of our upstairs spaces and requires a space heater, but a colorful statement rug makes it more inviting for those times that I just need peace and quiet.

Adding character to an unfinished basement home office with a colorful rug and painting
Carving out a home office during COVID, even in unlikely places. A colorful rug and painting add character.

We sourced vintage school desks for the children to give them "right sized" workspaces that fit with the character of our home. We mounted the chairs to carpet backed boards so they wouldn't scratch the floors, and then moved those desks into the corner of our dining room. The shelving unit provided some privacy for each child, while keeping supplies easily accessible.

Vintage and antique student desks add character to our home during remote learning
Vintage Student Desks from the 1940s. Perfect for remote learning during COVID.

The set up looked cute and worked well for awhile, but soon they were having Zoom calls at the same time and needed audial separation.

In the second iteration, we moved the kids' art table, an antique passed down from my husband's mom, to the dining room corner.

A dedicated art desk adds character to the room and enables multiple simultaneous Zoom calls.
A dedicated art desk adds character to the room and enables multiple simultaneous Zoom calls.

We then pulled the sofa in our living room out from the wall to accommodate the desks.

Adding character to a space using vintage wooden desks for remote learning.
Although not as visually appealing, this end-to-end setup behind a sofa keeps clutter contained for remote learning.

This new setup has worked infinitely better. It allows the kids to work side-by-side when doing focused tasks or goofing around in the evening, but then allows one kid to break off to do Zoom calls at the art table when they have calls at the same time.

It also allows me to hole up on the sofa when writing a blog post or responding to clients, yet still be accessible to the kids when they have questions.

All it took was sourcing the right pieces to work with, and not against, our space, and rearranging until we found the right setup.

2. Bring in More Living Things.

And no, I don't mean quarantine babies or puppies. My brain could not handle either! But plants, those I can handle.

I have a pretty laissez faire attitude toward outdoor plants. I have a green thumb, but I am also not tolerant of things that need lots of TLC -- they make it or they don't. So houseplants have been a lesson in patience and care. They have required more daily tending, but they make me smile each time I see them and are a great fill-in as living art.

House plant on a table adds character to a home during COVID
Houseplants add character and keep the home inviting, even when we are stuck indoors on end.

I especially love how hanging plants help create a vertical tableau in a tight space.

Green plants draw the eye up and add character to a living room.
This corner might just be one of my favorite areas since the plants and art draw the eye up.

It's amazing how quickly they've transformed our space from "room to get things done" to "room I want to be in" and enjoy.

3. Wrap Up Loose Ends and Finish Those Distracting Projects!

Nothing kills my productivity more than getting distracted by things that need to get done. Twelve years ago (eke!) we removed the quarter round on our first floor to refinish floors and strip our woodwork. We spent the first two years stripping baseboards, door casings and even one 5' x 7' window casing, but then have let the project sit at about 60% complete because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ life.

Unfinished stripped woodwork needs to be finished to add character to the home
Clearly this older TV dates us, but the woodwork was just slightly better than what was shown in this photo.

While remote learning, I kept seeing the dirt and dust that would collect on the bare wood and at the gap between the wall and floor in the living and dining rooms. And while it was less noticeable on the weekends, now that we were spending all day every day in the space, it became glaringly obvious that we needed to finish the project.

So we got started! The bulk of the time, after replacing the cords on a side window, was spent sanding, prepping, priming, and painting the windows and quarter round while the kids had a a couple of weeks of in-person learning.

Double hung window being painted white to add character to Denver home.
Painting a double hung window with oil based paint takes patience and a lot of ventilation.

After that, many of the tasks -- installing the quarter round, caulking (a must!), patching nail holes, sanding, priming and painting -- were done at 30 minute to one hour intervals between work. It meant that we lived with a bit more mess for a couple of weeks, but I am so pleased with the results.

Invest in Bigger Pieces to Completely Transform Your Space

Already covered the basics and there's still something missing? Whether you live an older home that needs a bit of love to replace missing pieces or restore architectural features that have come into disrepair, or you are trying to add character to a fix-and-flip from scratch, sometimes you need to tackle the bigger stuff.

4. Add Warmth and Interest with Period-Appropriate Lighting

One of the ways you can take your home from underperforming and blah is to update your lighting fixtures. Ambient lighting sets the mood for your room, and can often act as a critical statement piece. Task lighting ensures you have the right light to get things done. They are equally important to make the space work well.

Here are some recent favorites I've come across during recent sourcing projects:


Unlike housing styles, lighting has lots of crossover between periods. Greek Revival accents, like those on this harp, can show up in almost any era of fixture. Iridescent shades can make a fixture feel older or newer depending on the metal work. This particular fixture was one I had suggested to a client in a 1909 Denver Square.

Art Nouveau

The ornamentation! The polychrome! The feminine aesthetic. This era of lighting, which frequently brings back some nods to earlier Victorian and Colonial Revival styles, may be one of my favorites.

A client of mine recently selected this pattern for her home, which has a lovely mashup of Victorian ornamentation and simple Mission style woodwork.

Virden Winthrop 5 light chandelier adds character to a Denver Square
A showstopping pendant from Virden's 1930s Winthrop pattern

Arts and Crafts

Sometimes harkening back to more metal forward Classical Revival or Gothic, many of the Mission fixtures I've come across recently have had clean lines and a beefy presence.

5. Bring in Statement Pieces to Provide a Focal Point for Each Room

While we are still in the throes of COVID the last thing that anyone wants is to head out to a busy showroom to look at furniture or fixtures. Fear not! There are still a ton of unique statement pieces available online or peer-to-peer without bumping elbows with the masses.

As I stated before, form follows function. What do you need in the room to take it from eh to wow? In my own home those statement pieces are first and foremost functional -- a china cabinet in the dining room, a fireplace in the front sitting room, an antique armoire in a bedroom, and an antique sink in the kitchen.

But just because they are functional doesn't mean they can't also be beautiful and fit with the rest of the character of your home.

Here are some fun statement pieces that items I've sourced or brokered recently:

Wilson & Sons antique upright piano
Wilson & Sons antique upright grand piano in fabulous shape.
A fireplace acts as a lovely statement piece in a living room while the antique light fixture draws your eye up
A Moline Furniture Works fireplace mantel and Virden light fixture draw your eyes in and up.
An oak antique pier mirror adds character and visual interest to an entryway
A lovely narrow pier mirror would fit in almost any entryway.

Whether you live in an old home that needs some rehabbing or a cookie-cutter new build that needs some character brought back in, the perfect statement pieces and little antique accents are out there waiting for you!


Ready to add character to your home? Contact Denver Squared to get started!

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