We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

For hands-on advice from designers and pro DIYers, plus more scrappy before-and-after transformations, subscribe to Reno. Let your in-box do all the hard work—for now.

On the morning of January 1, 2020, Erika Marini’s son woke up; moseyed into her home office; and noticed a strange, wet, squishing sound coming from underneath the carpet. Marini, a fashion-industry veteran–turned–interior designer (she’s the principal of Fixe Design House), and her husband, a home developer, soon learned their refrigerator had a freak leak while they were all out to dinner the night before. “You can’t make this stuff up,” she says of the unfortunate timing (little did they know at that moment they’d be in lockdown in a matter of weeks). Water was not only seeping into the subfloor of the nearby workspace, but it was gushing into the walls and cabinets in the kitchen. “We immediately called the mold remediation company to bring in fans,” she recalls, but the area was a near-total loss. 

It just so happened that the couple had been pondering a renovation before the flood even occurred. They had bought their Newport Beach, California, home in 2000 and remodeled it in 2003 before welcoming their three boys (now ages 16, 13, and 10), so the place was overdue for a refresh—they just never expected to tackle the job under such unusual circumstances. “Suddenly we’re designing a kitchen in the midst of a pandemic, when we had no plans to,” she says.

The family spent the better part of 2020 navigating daily life without a functioning kitchen, office, or laundry room (we’ll get to that part later), only leaving their house for two months to stay in a waterfront Vrbo when the construction crew came in. “It seemed like a fun thing to do, except that was the weekend our governor closed the beaches,” she says. Timing was never quite on their side, but here, Marini shares how they made the best of it. 

The Waiting Game

When Marini says they had to fight tooth and nail with their insurance company to set their remodel in motion, she isn’t exaggerating. “Nothing was easy,” she recalls. For three months the couple went back and forth, providing proof of the value of certain features that were ruined in the flood. “They’d try to tell us our hand-stained walnut floors were worth $5 per square foot,” says Marini. As both are in the industry, the pair knew that was not the case. “We weren’t going to accept anything less,” she says. 

The Survival Skills

Marini has no regrets about taking the time to get their money’s worth (peep their new light oak floors), but the downside was they had to get by without a proper place to cook from January until June. “We were literally DoorDashing for six months,” she says. While super-convenient, it didn’t take long before her children realized they could have McDonald’s breakfast delivered on the regular. In the dining room, she set up a makeshift cooking space complete with a microwave and hot plate (something she never thought she’d have to purchase preflood). Some nights the family would take their plates into her eldest son’s bedroom, where they could watch TV and eat. “He was less than pleased with that,” she says, laughing. 

The kitchen unfortunately shares a wall with the garage, where Marini keeps the washer and dryer. To no one’s surprise, the machines were toast, uprooting her laundry-day routine. “We’re a family of five, so that’s a lot of clothes to take to the laundromat,” she says. 

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

In the kitchen she marked a fresh start with high-contrast cabinets. Not wanting the space to feel too sterile or too dark, she landed on a combination of black and white cupboards. “I love how you can still see the grain of the oak behind the black stain,” she says. As for the old refrigerator that started this whole mess in the first place, a new and improved appliance stands in its place, except this one is fully integrated into the cabinets, so it’s not a constant reminder of what happened on that New Year’s Day.

In addition to repairing the parts of the house that had been damaged by the flood, the couple made other changes that had long been on their to-do list, like modernizing the traditional fireplace with a plaster-like finish and ripping out the distressed wall-to-wall carpeting in the kids’ rooms. “It was nice when they were little, but it didn’t age well,” she says. 

Marini took this opportunity to also redo a bathroom that two of her sons share. She swapped the dated tub-shower combo for a plaster shower void of grout lines and clad the floors in sleek terrazzo. “It’s great for two boys who don’t clean up after themselves,” she says. 

In her youngest’s room, Marini clad one of the walls in tambour wood. The IKEA bunk bed, on the other hand, already existed. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” she says of the sturdy piece (each of her kids has slept in it at some point). Most of the art in this space had been there ever since its nursery days, like the vintage football toy that once belonged to Marini’s brother and a hand-carved sign made by her father. If there’s one thing she took away from this whole thing, it’s that what’s old can always be made new again. 

Photography by Charlotte Lea

Our Winter Renovation issue is here! Subscribe now to step inside Leanne Ford’s latest project—her own historic Pennsylvania home. Plus discover our new rules of reno.