DIY gone awry? Maine interior designers have seen it all. Here’s their advice on salvaging a bad do-it-yourself project and preventing it before it happens.

READFIELD — A few years ago, someone asked Interior Designer Karen McPhedran to take a look at their friend’s screened-in porch. The homeowner  had tried giving the room a DIY makeover and the results were . . .  spectacular. Just not in a good way.

“She was inspired by Dr. Seuss,” McPhedran said. “And I’m not kidding.”

When McPhedran got to the Augusta-area home, most of the porch’s walls — and a doorknob — had been painted the kind of bright yellow associated with canaries and bananas. The trim? Boysenberry purple.

Paint cans and renovation remnants littered the room.

It wasn’t the first time McPhedran had been asked to step in after a do-it-yourself project went wrong. And with the soaring popularity of inspirational, aspirational, home-makeover shows like “Property Brothers” and “Fixer Upper,” and the long-awaited return of trendsetter “Trading Spaces,” it certainly won’t be the last.

So what makes a design good? How do you know when a project is too big for you?


And what, exactly, do you do if your paint color is too Seuss?

Maine designers dish.


David LeBlanc, operations director for Simply Home & Banks Design Associates in Falmouth, knows exactly the kind of shows that get a homeowner’s heart beating fast.

He was a fan of “Trading Spaces” during its first run more than a decade ago. (In case you haven’t seen it, the show asks a pair of neighbors to swap homes for two days and redo a room in each other’s place. They get a designer, and a carpenter helps out, but their budget for materials is super low and DIY creativity super high. Sometimes too high.)

Today, LeBlanc loves “Maine Cabin Masters” on the DIY Network, in which a builder and his family transform Maine camps and cottages from woe to wow.

For a lot of people, home makeover shows provide the inspiration. The internet often provides all the stuff needed to turn those dreams into DIY reality.


“In today’s world, people have a lot of resources, and I’m not just talking about money,” LeBlanc said. “It used be in the past that you had to work with somebody in our profession to get access to things. In today’s world, with the internet, people can buy whatever they want. They have a plethora of options. So a lot more people do attempt to tackle things on their own.”

Sometimes that new bedroom paint color/kitchen counter top replacement/bathroom remodel works out. Sometimes not.

“Sadly, at some point it goes awry,” LeBlanc said.

How do you know when you’re in over your head? If you’ve started damaging your house, that’s one clue, Maine designers say. If you’ve run out of money, time or energy, that’s another. Or if you just don’t like it and aren’t sure how to fix it, that’s a clear sign.

McPhedran, who owns Tallwood Design in Readfield and has been an interior designer for 18 years, runs into the situation pretty regularly. A few years ago it was the Dr. Seuss room. Then there was the family who tried to showcase some artwork on a high wall but left half the pieces in shadow and the other half flanked by bright, interrogation-like spotlights.

Then there was the woman who asked someone to paint her bathroom vanity with chalk paint. Not completely DIY since she didn’t do it herself, but she didn’t read the paint’s special directions.


“So all the drawers of her brand new vanity are stuck shut,” McPhedran said.

Brady-Anne Cushing, a interior design manager with the Knickerbocker Group in Portland and Boothbay, runs into homeowners who have the opposite problem. They haven’t made any mistakes with their dream design project because they haven’t done anything at all.

“I think a lot of people don’t know where to start,” she said. “They see a need . . . but they’re not sure how to achieve the end result, where to put the first foot down.”

If you don’t want to end up either frozen in fear or cursing the frozen drawers of a made-over vanity, designers suggest honestly assessing your skills before you start. Have you ever painted anything before? Do you know how to use basic tools? Can you plan out a project and stick with it?

Other good rules to DIY by:

* Read the directions, watch videos and do your research before you start. “Plan, plan, plan,” McPhedran said. “And then plan for the worst.”


* Don’t attempt anything dangerous or potentially damaging if you’re not a professional in that field. “No plumbing. Please. Please, no electrical,” McPhedran said.

* Consider what it’ll cost you if things go wrong. “Can you afford to make a mistake? If you can’t afford the mistake, it’s probably not a do-it-yourself thing,” LeBlanc said.

* Consider your timing. “Definitely don’t start something before your daughter’s wedding (at the house),” Cushing said.

* Don’t be afraid to call in a professional, even if it’s just for a consultation or to get you going. Because projects that look easy on TV may not be in reality.

“I usually tell my friends, when you’re watching those shows, they’re scripted, they’re fabricated. You’re not going to be able to renovate an entire kitchen for $5,000 in two weeks,” Cushing said.


If you’re still determined, designers say, go for it. Just be sure the project is one that’s meaningful to you, not someone else.


“Don’t listen to your friends,” McPhedran said. “People have so many opinions and it’s yours that counts, not your friend who thinks she’s a designer.”

Gail Gross, of Gail Gross Design and Interiors in Brunswick, agrees that it’s the homeowner’s taste and comfort that should rule. She’s a big proponent of try-before-you-buy.

“There are a lot of things that actually go into a very successful interior, but mostly it has to have the objects that you need in it,” she said. “A chair that looks gorgeous but isn’t comfortable is useless.”

That’s one of the reasons she counsels people against buying furniture and decorations from websites — where things can look great on a screen but be horrible in person.

She can’t forget the client who once bought an area rug online.

“I happened to be there when the truck arrived and dropped it off. She was so excited, and we opened the box and poured it out,” Gross said. “It really looked like a dead, molted bear skin. We never even spread it out. She put it back in the box and said, ‘OK, we’ll go to the stores.”


Gross also recommends that homeowners keep details in mind, no matter where they shop. Each cabinetmaker sizes things differently, so DIY kitchen re-modelers have to know their measurements. Furniture makers sell similar-but-different items online and in stores, so buyers have to look closely to make sure they’re getting the piece they had in mind. Some kitchen countertops require maintenance, so families should know what they’re getting into.

“Marble. That’s all the rage right now. People really like marble. And it stains like crazy,” Gross said. “You have to understand, you know, this is what you wanted and it’s wonderful, but when you cut a tomato, you better clean it up. If you spill the red wine, don’t let it sit. And here I am a year out with this countertop, I should reseal it.”

While it seems like design must be either good or bad — Striped with polka dot curtains? Orange floors? Sand-filled living room? — experts say it’s all deeply personal. You know the colors and style are right, McPhedran said, when “it feels good to your soul.”

She knows from experience. Wanting to get out of her comfort zone, McPhedran once asked a fellow designer to paint the inside of her home. With McPhedran’s initial blessing, the designer went with Half ‘n Half, a cream-color paint tinged with red.

“When I walked in, I felt like I was walking into a Creamsicle,” she said.

Half ‘n Half made her anxious. She immediately replaced it with Classical White.


“This is your home. It needs to feel good,” McPhedran said.

Which leads to this last piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to change a design after you try it. And if you drop the DIY for a professional, don’t be afraid to speak up when you don’t like something — even if you initially agreed to it.

“I’ll tell you, I’m glad I stopped (the painting) before it was all done and then tried to live in it. I would have been miserable,” McPhedran said.

A good friend didn’t want the homeowner of the Dr. Seuss-inspired room to have to live with her paint job, either. As a surprise gift, she hired McPhedran to redo her friend’s DIY project.

The designer spent two weeks on the job, swapping canary yellow for deep blue and green, purple trim for something more neutral. She laid down an area rug with a swirling blue-and-green pattern, and filled the room with candles and colorful decorations.

The results were vibrant and whimsical without being Seussical.


McPhedran wasn’t there when the homeowner returned to her gift of a room makeover, but she heard about it afterward.

“I guess she burst out into tears,” McPhedran said, adding, “They were very happy tears.”


Doing DIY? Some tips from professional designers

  • Honestly assess your skills before you start. Read the directions, watch videos, do your research before doing anything.
  • Don’t attempt anything dangerous or potentially damaging if you’re not a professional in that field.
  • Consider what it’ll cost you if things go wrong. If the cost is too high, don’t do it or hire a professional.
  • Don’t be afraid to call in a pro, even if it’s just for a consultation or to get you going.
  • Be sure the project is one that’s meaningful to you, not someone else.
  • Be careful about buying furniture and decorations online.
  • Keep track of details, including style or stock numbers, measurements and the colors you’re using.
  • Look at paint and fabric colors under the light that will be used in the room.
  • Don’t be afraid to change paint color or other design elements after you try them.

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