For a very long time, I confused DIY with DUI. This said more about how I was raised than about my affinity for alcohol. I grew up in New York City, in a series of rented apartments where there was much to improve but also a great risk of losing your deposit if you altered the rooms. So rather than embarking on home projects of my own, I borrowed design books from the library and fantasized about paint chips and indoor murals. Over the years, I've learned many things about doing it yourself, and most of them have more to do with emotional renovation than with actual home renovation.
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2. Lesson 1: You Can't Fix Everything
After college, I moved back to New York and attacked each of my apartments with all the bravado and limited income of youth. One of my first places had a huge living room—big enough to hold a party with 100 guests—but only four small windows. I painted the place in sunny colors and accrued a great deal of debt by charging new furniture and accessories. But the hopelessness of the situation didn't hit me until a friend saw me install an overhead pot rack for the copper cookery that I didn't yet own. "You're spending so much money," he said, "but this place is always going to be a dump." That was my first cold, hard lesson about DIY: You can do a lot of things to transform a home, but you cannot—at least I cannot—manufacture sunshine and fresh air. I've never again had a living room large enough to pass as a roller rink, but I've lived in bright, sunlit apartments ever since.
3. Lesson 2: Tools Make a Woman Sexy
My friend Patty is like the cobbler who has no shoes. She builds sets all day as the creative director for a television show, but she rarely has time for projects of her own. Still, it's Patty who inspired my desire to learn how to use a power drill. She also showed me, through example, that knowing your way around Home Depot can be powerful, in an Aretha Franklin-Annie Lennox, "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" kind of way.
"I work with an assortment of guys," Patty says. "And when a new one comes in and I start to show him the ropes, I can tell he's thinking, Wow!, when I first pick up a 12-volt drill. It's an interesting reversal of the sexes when you're a woman teaching a guy carpentry. But after you prove yourself, nobody gives it a second thought."
It certainly doesn't hurt that Patty is a six-foot-tall former model with gorgeous red hair. But could it be that a power drill is as sexy an accessory as four-inch Louboutins?
Photo: Jupiterimages /Thinkstock
4. Lesson 3: DIY Can Be a Group Sport
Over the years, I've undertaken a number of home projects with varying degrees of success. Once, I so admired a magazine layout in which a woman remodeled her walk-in closet with clear Lucite racks and shelves (giving her clothing the appearance of hanging in a chic boutique) that I tried to do it myself. With the help of my friend Liba, I was able to get Lucite to my specifications, though I soon realized that hanging clothes in my tiny loft bedroom didn't allow for the same effect as a proper walk-in closet. (Memo to self: Next apartment must have a walk-in closet.)
I'm grateful for friends like Liba because, with few exceptions, DIY for me has always been DIWYG—do it with your girlfriends. The same is true for Kelly, who bought a fixer-upper five years ago. For the biggest projects, including tearing down the old popcorn ceiling and ripping up the carpeting to get to the hardwood floors, she asked a couple of friends for help. "There was one gal who hadn't done any home repairs before and said, 'Oh, I don't know if I can do this.' But between myself and my friend Cindy, we were able to show our third friend that it's okay—you can do this."
Victoria, a textile designer, has always known she could do it herself. That's because her mother wore the tool belt in her family. "My dad would come home and make dinner while my mom was drilling holes in the wall," she says. When Victoria and her husband bought their own apartment a few years ago, Victoria was the one who took the lead in the renovation by tearing down the Sheetrock to expose beautiful brick walls. "It's not that hard," she says. "You use a hammer to break the wall. You find the studs, and the Sheetrock just pulls away."
Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock
5. Lesson 4: DIY Can Strengthen Your Relationship
My mother-in-law, Mary Clampet, also brought the home-repair skills into her marriage. "My parents used to buy old furniture that they would strip, refinish, and glue," Mary says, "and I always wanted to do it myself." So when she got married, Mary bought two oak chests with an eye toward refurbishing them. The first, her father determined, was too big a job and, as a wedding present, took it to a shop to be restored. Mary did the second herself. It still sits in a place of pride, in the family's entryway.
Photo: Gary Houlder/Thinkstock
6. Lesson 5: You Can Still Be Your Girly Self
Having a mother-in-law who could sand through 12 layers of paint, sew curtains, and strip furniture set a high bar for me. So when Jason (then my fiancé) asked me to help peel old wallpaper from his hallway, I did my best not to mention that I'd just, that very morning, had a $35 manicure. I'm happy to report that while he likes to joke that my singing voice can peel paint, it turns out that I'm efficient at stripping wallpaper, too. In the end, I didn't even mind that my manicure got totally and completely jacked up. I was proud of a hard day's work well done. And if, when he kicked back with a cold beer, I was honest in my preference for a glass of cold Champagne, then I don't think that makes me any less of a kick-ass DIY chick.
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