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From a quick glimpse at her sunny Instagram account (@dee.diary), you would never know what Dee Eke and her family went through last year. On top of the COVID crisis, Eke entered the pandemic battling mysterious health issues. She’d been feeling unwell for months, but her doctors chalked it up to her pregnancy. However, after her second son, Zak, was born in February 2020, the headaches and fogginess did not go away. With New York City locked down and a newborn and a 2-year-old at home, Eke spent months trying to figure out what ailed her.

When she finally learned, in June, that her symptoms were stemming from a brain tumor, she had just started a new job. As the mother of two young Black boys, she was also processing the death of George Floyd on a deeply personal level. (After surgery and follow-up care, Eke has returned to good health—thank goodness.) Amid all the personal challenges, she turned her attention to the thing she could control: her home. 

Eke and her husband had moved into their two-bedroom apartment in Long Island City before they became parents and decided to stay when their eldest son, Max, was born because they loved the neighborhood. A professional in the pharmaceutical industry who often works remotely, Eke carved out a nursery in her home office. But with the arrival of Zak and even more hours spent at her desk thanks to COVID, some upgrades were in order. She wanted to make the room calming and restorative, but it also needed to function as a bedroom for two kids and a full-time workspace. 

Design has always been a passion of Eke’s, and staying at home every day pushed her to dive deeper into decor. “I didn’t have time to dedicate to getting projects finished when I was traveling so much,” she says. Once she started sharing glimpses of her home on Instagram, she was surprised how much her online community enjoyed it. She says it’s become a way to express herself: “My job does not have a creative side, so I needed an outlet.”

Here are Eke’s best tips and lessons learned from designing a kid’s room that does double duty.

Invest in Your Well-Being

Desk and Task Chair, Herman Miller; File Cabinet, Poppin; Wallpaper, Chasing Paper.

One thing Eke decided to splurge on were pieces that would make the office more comfortable: A new standing-sitting desk and an ergonomic chair from Herman Miller help with posture and back pain. As an added bonus, the desk acts as a signal that her work is done. When Eke is finished for the day, she raises it all the way up and tucks the chair beneath. The kids know this means Mommy is all theirs.

Add Meaning Through Wall Art

Eke created the You Matter artwork that hangs beside her desk while staring down a brain tumor diagnosis and reeling from Floyd’s death. “Last year was pretty heavy, and this was me getting my emotions out—it was like therapy,” she says. “But it was also a message for my boys to see every day, and I hope that they remember that.” To make it, she painted right over a piece of art she already owned (with some remote coaching from artist Alison Ford, whose works she collects). 

The Chasing Paper Indigo Mud Cloth wallpaper adds color and texture to the room—it’s also peel-and-stick, which is renter friendly—while reminding Eke and her husband of West Africa (Eke is originally from Ghana, and her husband is from Nigeria). 

Embrace Happy Accidents

Lego Boxes, Amazon; Carpet Tile, Flor; Book Ledges, IKEA.

When Eke first incorporated Max’s nursery into the office, she opted for Flor tiles in the crib area to differentiate between the two areas. However, over time, she realized they were making the room feel smaller, so she decided to extend them to the rest of the space. The only problem? Flor had stopped making the original tile. So Eke decided to go with contrasting colors and alternate them with the original designs. The patchwork-like carpet is now one of her favorite elements.

Seek Out Flexible Furnishings

Cribs, Stokke.

Eke bought a secondhand Stokke crib for Max because she liked its narrow footprint (the rounded mattress corners save a surprising amount of space) and how it grows with a child. The crib has now been converted to a toddler bed, and Eke bought another one (also secondhand!) for Zak. While staying at home, she discovered that the crib’s castors are a handy feature: “We could move it around when we had conference calls,” she says with a laugh.

Do Sweat the Details

File Cabinet, Poppin; Drawer Organizer, Three by Three.

Eke describes herself as someone who enjoys organizing, so it’s no surprise that the insides of her drawers are just as stylish and tidy as the rest of the room. She says even people who are not lit up by tidying up should take time to optimize their drawers. In a small, hardworking space, every corner needs to function efficiently, and that satisfying feeling of everything being in its place gives her family a foundation of calm and order.

Choose Toys Carefully

Eames Hang It All, Herman Miller; Play Kitchen by Hape, Maisonette; Toy Car, Vilac; Paint, Clare.

There is no separate playroom or basement to hide the kids’ playthings, so Eke has made it a point to pick out toys that are pleasing to the eye. She’s also strategic about limiting the number of larger pieces to just a few that are easy to move around, like the Hape play kitchen on wheels and the Vilac ride-on toy car.

Use Design to Guide Their Path

Eke chose IKEA’s Flisat book ledges because they’re a great way to store her children’s books in the tight space (each shelf protrudes just 3 1/2 inches from the wall), but she also had ulterior motives. “I like books, and I want my kids to like books,” she says. With 11 display ledges, Max and Zak are almost guaranteed to grow up to be bookworms, too.

The Goods:

Favorite paint brand: Clare. “I love that you can order its peel-and-stick samples to see how it would look in a space before you make a choice,” says Eke. “And Clare is super kid friendly. Because it doesn’t have all the harsh chemicals other brands do, it doesn’t even smell.”

Color theory: “Don’t be afraid to bring color in,” says Eke. “I think a lot of people are wary of trying color at home, but it makes such an impact.”

Secret source: “I got our cribs on Craigslist—both times from people who lived on the Upper East Side.”

Favorite Instagram follow: @carmeonhamilton “I really love Carmeon Hamilton. She has this bohemian look with an African twist. I was drawn to that,” says Eke of finding the designer’s account. “I knew my aesthetic was out there somewhere.”

Most surprising small-space hack: Hanging her baby’s bouncer and play gym on the wall.

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