It has come to my attention that my apartment sucks. Objectively, that might be too harsh an assessment, but it certainly feels true right now. Don’t get me wrong: It has big, sunny windows; appliances that are functional, albeit old and ugly; and an amount of closet space that I would describe as “enough.” But the many things the apartment leaves to be desired—cheap fixtures, landlord-beige walls, and an ancient tile kitchen floor that never quite looks clean—have become unavoidably obvious to me as I’ve sat inside of it for the better part of this year.
The longer I sit, the more the flaws taunt me. The shallow kitchen sink, combined with the low slope of its faucet, makes it impossible to fill a pitcher straight from the tap, but most of my daily drinking water used to come from a machine at the office. The back wall of my kitchen, swathed in white paint, has borne the brunt of gurgling vats of spaghetti sauce and sputtering pans of fried-chicken grease, but I failed to notice the unscrubbable spots when I wasn’t standing in front of the stove preparing three meals a day, every day. The dusty ledges and shelves, unsightly window-unit air conditioners, and scuffed, jaundiced paint job weren’t so irritating when they weren’t my whole world.
In May, when the novelty of quarantine baking began to wear off—one can make only so many galettes out of frozen fruit originally bought for smoothies—my idle hands turned to the problems around me. Armed with my pathetic beginner’s tool kit, I started small. I raised and releveled a shelf that had been crooked for, by my estimation, at least two years. I ordered frames for prints that had been stashed in my closet and charged my long-dead drill battery to hang them. I scrubbed my tiny kitchen with Ajax from top to bottom, and in the process realized that some of my stove’s components weren’t supposed to be the color they’d been since I moved in. I sharpened my chef’s knife. I flipped and rotated my couch cushions. I ordered and assembled a new shoe rack, even though my feet don’t go very far these days.
[From the July/August 2020 issue: Amanda Mull on the end of minimalism]
The sense of satisfaction I got from these projects grew as the weekends went by, along with my belief that I could do pretty much anything after watching a couple of instructional videos on YouTube. I couldn’t control much in the pandemic, but I could control what happened in my own 450 square feet. As summer began to creep toward fall, my ambitions expanded: Install a new showerhead? Paint my cabinets? Put up a peel-and-stick tile backsplash? What couldn’t I do with Google, a Home Depot credit card, and a total willingness to lose my security deposit?
I was stymied only by the popularity of my impulses. As I looked for cabinet paint, backsplash “tiles,” and even a new kitchen faucet, “out of stock” warnings abounded. Gathered around a firepit in a Brooklyn backyard, a friend of a friend complained that the city’s home-improvement stores appeared to be out of lumber, one of the many effects of skyrocketing demand atop shaky supply chains. Millions of Americans had simultaneously decided the same thing: If we’re going to be inside, it might as well be the inside we want.
Gretchen Schauffler had been through this before. In 2008, she and her husband were running a business called Devine Color, which she started by selling customized paint shades to her Portland, Oregon, interior-design clients out of the trunk of her car. The couple was in the midst of selling the brand to Sherwin-Williams, she told me, when the economy collapsed, and with it, all talk of a deal. “The market crashed, and we were buried,” Schauffler said. Homes were being foreclosed upon, not freshly repainted.
In 2018, out of the paint business for years, Schauffler started Design Is Personal. The company makes products for the do-it-yourself projects that you might be inspired to undertake after an HGTV binge—sticky-back wallpaper in fun prints, easy-to-install carpet squares, and wall planks that give you the fixer-upperlook, no nail gun required. In early March, as the United States’ first pandemic hot spot blazed in neighboring Washington, Schauffler was terrified that the same thing was happening again—disaster had come, and it might take her company with it.
But in April, she realized that she had the opposite problem: Orders had started pouring in. Schauffler told me the company’s sales are up 400 percent over last year, and her best sellers—sheets of peel-and-stick white subway “tiles” and metallic mosaics—had completely sold out twice already. “Everyone was at home, they had time, they looked at their environment, and they went online,” she said. They started watching tutorials and ordering supplies.
Home Depot and Lowe’s registered monster sales increases not long after the pandemic began, both on the internet and in their brick-and-mortar stores—which Home Depot lobbied local governments to label essential businesses. That’s in spite of interruptions in residential construction and professional remodeling in many areas of the country.
At Apartment Therapy, a website about home improvement and design, editor in chief Laura Schocker viewed the country’s pandemic anxieties through the prism of her readership, which is 60 percent larger than last year compared with the same period in 2019. “Home, if we’re lucky, is our safe place,” she told me. “Customizing it to reflect back who you are as a person is something positive we can do right now.” Early how-to-sanitize traffic gave way to people looking for tips on setting up home offices and workout nooks, then to those in search of ways to maximize tiny yards and balconies as summer set in. Now, as temperatures cool, people are settling in for the long haul, looking for more complicated DIY projects.
Of all the things that I’ve done to better my apartment, soothe my anxieties, or occupy my time during the pandemic, nothing has worked quite as well as replacing my kitchen faucet. The project cost $75 and took about an hour—it would have been even faster if I hadn’t needed to learn some tricks for removing bolt covers with needle-nose pliers and loosening a seized nut with a lighter. But those roadblocks made it all the more satisfying. Not only does the more functional faucet make my now-constant dishwashing less of a slog, but installing it was a reminder that there are still some problems that can be solved by one person wielding the right tool—or even the wrong one, if you can figure out the magic combination of search terms to punch into Google.
“Humans have a need to be competent, to feel like they have some control over their existence,” says Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist, especially when they’re feeling emotionally tender and isolated. “Nesting” is another way to describe the impulse that is likely driving many of the newly minted DIYers, she told me. It’s a desire to eliminate your home’s nuisances and aggravations in order to maximize comfort. One way that’s done, Augustin said, is by moderating the complexity of your space. “We don’t realize we’re doing it, but we’re always sweeping our environment, visually, and when you have a lot going on, when there are many objects and colors and shapes in view, it makes you stressed.” The same thing can happen when an environment is too spare. Humans tend to like soft lines, colors, and textures.
DIYing, as a pursuit, has some baked-in advantages in these bizarre times. Namely, it’s just you, doing things by yourself in the safety of your own home, without the intervention of outside disease vectors—er, professionals—unless you screw something up. New technology has met the moment. Both Schauffler and Schocker told me that DIY-friendly products have improved substantially in recent years, with adhesives and finishes that are more durable and affordable and less amateur-looking, which might make a weekend project more attractive to people who never would have done home repairs themselves in the past. Then, too, if you’re one of the millions of newly unemployed Americans, finding a way to feel useful might help combat the depressing aimlessness of being out of work—and the internet is teeming with guides for free or low-cost home-improvement projects.
When it comes to the mostly young, mostly female consumers who buy renter-friendly home-upgrade products and read articles about how to make a some-assembly-required dresser look like a million bucks, there’s probably an even simpler explanation for why they’re investing in their environs this year: What else is there to do? The (somewhat shaky) conventional wisdom is that Millennials, who range in age from their early 20s to nearly 40, prefer to buy experiences instead of things. They supposedly rent in exciting cities, travel, go out to dinner, and spend money gallivanting. In a world in which almost all experiences have been precluded by a global disaster and an American passport is basically useless—and in which many of those young adults were striving for a lifestyle that their bank accounts could only occasionally support, anyway—maybe notions about what constitutes an experience will change. You can learn to do anything on YouTube.
This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “Fluffing Your Own Nest.”