Michelle Gage’s hunt for her forever home began like most real estate searches do: with an aimless late-night Zillow search. When the Philadelphia-based designer and her husband, Alex, discovered the home that would eventually be their next big (and hopefully final) move, it had only been up for a few hours. It checked nearly all their boxes. Chief among them, it was a true fixer-upper.
No stranger to renovations, Gage and her husband spent three years making over their first property. While they loved their starter home and had no real reason to move, this time around, they knew it would be different. This time, they would put down roots.
“The one thing that did change from the last home to this one was the investment we were willing to make,” says Gage. “We didn’t want to skimp on anything in this house, even if that meant waiting a little bit to do the work.”
Following suit, every room in their 1927 Villanova abode is infused with personality. With good bones to boot, Gage did what she does best—bringing in bold prints, sunny colors, and rad art into a historic property.
“I would say my style is artfully bold,” says the designer. “I find that, no matter how long I like to stay in one space, my designs are always evolving. I have very few commitment issues when it comes to design.”
Read on for five design lessons we learned from Gage’s soulful forever home.
Be smart about the projects you outsource
Gage and her husband learned a lot about what it takes to renovate a home in their last place, but this dream project presented new lessons. Discovery number one? Time is money.
“We were flat broke when we bought our first home. We had no choice but to do all the work ourselves,” recalls Gage. “However, in selling, we had a little bit of money that we were able to access [for this space]. We strategically considered who to hire with that cash.”
For the projects that fell into the realm of manual labor or detail-oriented work, Gage and her husband hired others to get the job done. Taking on some of the work themselves lessened some of the financial stress, but it also gave them an opportunity to leave their own mark on their potential forever home.
“We learned what our strengths and weakness were in the last home. We split a lot of the work up, where Alex would start the job— like framing the wall for the dining room built in—but we’d hire a detail-oriented professional to come in and finish it up,” explains Gage.
Make your mark with art
The big showstopper downstairs is undoubtedly the never-ending gallery wall in the living room. The all-encompassing arrangement isn’t just impactful, but it’s also totally bewildering. How did she do it?
“I started with the collection itself,” explains Gage. “You can’t create a gallery wall if you don’t have enough art. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but a lot of times, when people are trying to create impactful designs, they don’t have enough stuff.”
You need art to build a gallery wall, just like you need books to style a shelf. From there, Gage lets everything happen organically. There’s no particular rhyme or rhythm to her gallery wall tactics—other than the fact that she tries to keep two inches between each piece to maintain a sense of uniformity.
“I usually start from the center and build it outward. I rarely have a map or plan ahead of time; it’s organic,” she says.
Repurpose childhood memories
The living room doesn’t double as Gage’s office (don’t worry, you’ll get a peek inside her real workspace soon), but there is a charming desk in there. “I think my favorite piece in the living room would be the vintage blue writing desk, mainly because it was essentially abandoned,” she shares.
Gage grew up with the desk. It had sat in the basement of her childhood home, collecting dust, for as long as she can remember. “I don’t think it was even ours,” she recalls. When Gage and her husband bought their first home, she was eager to claim it from her parent’s place.
“They had no qualms about me swiping it. It wasn’t in good shape, but that’s what I liked about it. It spent the majority of its life hidden under a Brother fax machine, but now it has a prominent position in my favorite room,” says Gage.
Shop for wallpaper with an edited eye
“I’m a big fan of bold wallpaper,” says the designer. “I always look for something sophisticated yet playful. I never want a space to read too seriously. That said, there’s a lot of bad wallpaper out there, so I always try to choose with a discerning eye.”
Seeing that their dining room gets great light, Gage decided it was the perfect opportunity for a charming yet sophisticated print. Elsewhere—specifically the living room and office—Gage decided to stick with paint.
“In the studio, I originally wanted wallpaper, but when we chose to expose the stone wall, I threw that idea out,” she says. “I don’t believe there’s any wallpaper in the world that looks good against stone, so I stuck with paint and brought color into the space in other ways, like in the rug, desk chair, and chandelier.”
Make your office a fun place to be
Gage’s bright and airy studio space boasts no shortage of character. “Coming from a former office space that was just a spare bedroom, I really wanted this one to have a different vibe,” says the designer.
Her must-haves for a great office space? It needs to feel fun, especially if it’s in your own home. The original stone wall brings a storied dose of texture to the room, but it’s the playful hits of blue and pink that make you want to plop down at the desk and get down to business.
“You have to want to go to it every day, so it better not be boring,” she continues. With enough space to spread out swatches, take meetings, pin-up inspirational images, and store samples, this workspace is a designer’s paradise.
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