Published on May 10, 2019

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Photography by Kevin O’Gara

IKEA furniture, string lights, and the odd college pennant: All things one might expect to find in the residence of a university student. Not on the itinerary? A melange of antique goodies, contemporary accents, and bespoke artwork, and yet, these are the components that make up 21-year-old Kevin O’Gara’s sophisticated dining room.

Then again, O’Gara is hardly your average 21-year-old. The Cornell junior is the voice behind design blog Thou Swell and already has a rug collection under his belt. He fine-tuned his style by redecorating both his parents’ homes numerous times; in fact, this latest transformation is a dining room in his mother’s recently bought house, which he is fully renovating himself from the ground up. “The house was very outdated,” says O’Gara, who cites his hometown of Atlanta as a major source of style inspiration. “Everything was stuck in time: Wall-to-wall carpeting, floral wallpaper in the bathrooms, warm, yellow-toned woods… I wanted to update it and make it feel more sophisticated.”

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Photography by Kevin O’Gara
imagePin It
Photography by Kevin O’Gara

He did this by mixing old heirloom furniture, like an antique buffet table and dining chairs upholstered in a lemon pattern, with more contemporary touches. The first order of business? Swapping a polished brass chandelier for a sleeker option. “Changing it made such a huge impact because it’s a focal point at the center of the room,” says the blogger.

Following a few minor updates—he changed the door and ripped out the carpeting—O’Gara’s first renovation ended up being a huge success. The balance between old and new in this space is executed so well you’d think it’s the work of a seasoned pro. We spoke to O’Gara to see how he mastered the art of juxtaposition in this charming dining room.

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Photography by Kevin O’Gara

Pick an item to highlight, and then work around it

For O’Gara, this would be the antique chairs. “I’ve always loved that fabric so much,” he says of the chairs. “But they’ve always been in warm-toned rooms with an orange-y color palette. I wanted to see them in a room that pulled the blue-green out of the print.” Enter: Clare paint’s Headspace. The refreshing hue, paired with the yellow from the chairs and the pink from the curtains, makes for a slightly unexpected color palette.

Use color to strike a balance

Speaking of the blue walls, they are the key to making the antiques-filled room feel airy, rather than stuffy. “When it comes to the dark wood you’ll find on vintage pieces, I think it looks super fresh with a cooler color palette—it’s a good way to balance out some of the richness you get from the wood,” explains O’Gara of his pairing choice. If you’re dealing with similarly dark furniture, try a zingy wall color like a blush pink or lemon yellow to keep your space from looking one-note. Conversely, richer hues (like jewel tones and dusty colors) will play up the old-school feel of darker antiques.

If necessary, fake character

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Photography by Kevin O’Gara

According to O’Gara, the dining room was previously just a cookie cutter–style plain box. Layering in older pieces definitely infused charm, but the blogger also turned to visual trickery to feign architectural detail where there previously was none by painting floor-to-ceiling bookshelves the same color as the walls. “Bookshelves are a great way to add architecture to a space without having to renovate anything, and painting them will make them look custom,” says O’Gara. “They look built-in and add a lot of structure to the room.”

Consider scale

“Having a chandelier that carried a lot of weight in the room was important,” says O’Gara. He knew he wanted to swap out the Williamsburg-style chandelier for a more contemporary fixture but says blending old and new isn’t as simple as bringing in a modern piece. You have to consider the details. “Make sure that when you do bring in new pieces, they have the same visual impact because you will often get smaller dimensions with modern pieces,” he cautions.

“Bookshelves are a great way to add architecture to a space without having to renovate anything.”

Opt for contrasting materials

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Photography by Kevin O’Gara

O’Gara knew he was working with a base of darker wood, so his mission was to incorporate a variety of materials that would provide an unexpected pairing. His go-to is marble, which he says balances out richer finishes and still feels super classic. “I also liked the idea of bringing in some matte white to the space,” says O’Gara, pointing to the sculptural vase on the dresser. “For the painting above the buffet, I really wanted a lot of white and cream to make it a little warmer and bring it into the chairs.”

As for the origins of that painting? It’s an O’Gara original. “I actually painted it for the room. It was so much fun to dive into that—it’s one medium that I don’t practice regularly, but I do love,” he says.

See more dining rooms we love:
We Never Wanted Bird Wallpaper Until We Saw This Dining Room

Everything We Love About Mid-Century Design in One Dining Room
These Dreamy Dining Rooms Will Inspire You to Ditch Clutter

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