The coronavirus crisis has caused a sea change in how we use space—and a surge in reconfigured households, especially young adults moving back in with their parents. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States were in this category as of July 2020. Even accounting for students who would normally be on campus, that is the highest rate since the Great Depression.
All over the world, for the Gen Z and Millennial sets lucky enough to have the option, moving back into their childhood bedrooms has meant navigating new family dynamics, reckoning with mental health, grappling with identity—and renovating outdated spaces to meet the needs of their adult selves. We spoke to five young people about how they redid their rooms and, in the process, overhauled their outlook on the new normal.
Daunted by an unstable job market and the prospect of committing to another 12-month lease on her apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona, 26-year-old interior designer Julieanne Whitt found herself pulling into her parents’ driveway in Phoenix last April.
Having graduated from Arizona State five years ago, she knew it would be a rough transition. "For me, the biggest part of moving out was being able to create my own environment of peace: living the way I wanted to, speaking the way I wanted to, and thinking the way I wanted to," she says. "Coming back here, the conversations and attitudes are much different."
Julieanne’s transition home also coincided with a downturn in her mental health as the loneliness of the pandemic began to take its toll. Having suffered a raw breakup right before Arizona’s shelter-in-place order began, she was also weathering changes in her personal life. The four walls of Julieanne’s bedroom finally saw her try out therapy and begin to have conversations with her parents about her emotional needs. "I finally came to the point where I said, ‘No, I need help,’" she recalls.
In her journey toward empowerment, Julieanne also confronted her chartreuse walls, selected by her former 16-year-old self. "Imagine feeling sad, anxious, stressed in an ugly green room," she says. She immediately coated the room in white paint to evoke a new beginning and create a soothing work-from-home environment: "Once the paint color changed, it was like everything in here changed. It provided this blank canvas where I could do anything."
Julieanne’s green thumb provided another healing outlet. "I’ve always really loved plants, and now I have 50," she says. "It’s been really therapeutic for me because they take a lot of time, care, patience, and creativity. It’s so inspiring and refreshing to see change and growth."
Months later, she now sees her time at home as a necessary step in the process. "Coming back moved me backward in a way that allowed me to charge forward, like a slingshot," says Julieanne. "Now, I can’t imagine being in any other space and going through what I went through. I’m so grateful. As hard as it is to be here and as brutal as it’s been, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do this on my own."
"This space is filled with special memories and lots of growth, and I think the renovation embodies that."
Like Julieanne, 23-year-old Mercy Garriga was a young creative striking out on her own when COVID-19 unraveled her plans. Based in Chicago, she’d left a graphic design position in January 2020 with multiple promising leads for employment lined up, but the opportunities were postponed, then fell through altogether. Without a reliable income, Mercy moved back in with her parents and younger sister in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where her teenage bedroom in the attic had been turned into a storage closet.
It was a rocky reentry, says Mercy: "I’ve noticed that there’s the adult me versus the childhood me that are constantly clashing. It’s really about navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood." Toward that end, she knew that she would have to make some changes to the room itself. "If you’re in a space where you constantly don’t feel you belong, you’re going to be more closed off to everyone else in that space," she says. "It’s definitely been a process of reclaiming the space for myself, not only physically but also in my family—especially as a middle child. It was like saying, ‘Hey, I’m here, I matter, and I’m part of this family.’"
To acknowledge her parents’ roof over her head—that is, to acknowledge the pseudo-guest state of a child returning home—Mercy first digitally rendered her room makeover before presenting the ideas to her family.
The most impactful change has been a swath of dark green paint dividing the sleeping area from the rest of the room. "The color-blocked paint really emphasizes the unique dimensions of the space," she says. "Even though I only move three feet from bed to desk, they feel like different spaces, which is extremely helpful in a work-from-home environment." The white backdrop behind her desk creates a DIY photography studio, mimicking the setup that Mercy had in Chicago. For Mercy, her room in the attic has become a place of personal respite where the world feels like it’s still turning.
The renovation has not only earned Mercy a stronger sense of self and autonomy, but also renewed respect from her family. "My parents will say, ‘She’s able to do this whole process without asking anybody else for their opinion or for any help,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I graduated with a degree in painting! What are you talking about?’" she says. Her older sister has also enlisted her help in decorating her apartment. "I don’t think she would have done that before," says Mercy.
Echoing Julieanne’s situation, the months at home have helped Mercy prioritize her mental health and reach out to loved ones for support. "Last year was the final tipping point of a mental health struggle that I had been feeling for a few years," she says. "Depression really hit hard at the end of June, and that was the moment when I was like, ‘I’m going to tell my mom.’ I feel more open about asking for help, and I don’t think I ever would have before."
"I’ve noticed that there’s the adult me versus the childhood me that are constantly clashing. It’s really about navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood."
For Bradley Dreha, a 21-year-old fashion promotion student at John Moores University in Liverpool, England, the lockdown has also been a kind of incubation period. When school transitioned into full remote learning last spring, Bradley returned to his childhood home—and like the others, found it a jarring experience.
"It’s like going from an adult to a teen," he says. "The house is compact, so we’re basically on top of each other all the time. There’s no confrontation or anything, and we get on, but being locked down with family can take a toll." The summer afforded the luxury of being in the garden or visiting friends—though his parents were eager to know where he was going and who he was seeing at all times—but as the season changed, so did his routine. "With the winter lockdown, we’ve literally just been stuck in," he says. "I wanted to take my mind off things, and that’s why I did up the room, because it shows progress. I’ve changed, and I need to feel like I’ve changed."
Comprising countless DIY projects—usually undertaken at 3 a.m.—Bradley’s room transformation draws from his creative influences. "I’m mainly inspired by painters, sculptors, and graphic designers, people like Barbara Kruger and David Marinos," he says. A band of gray paint creates a faux wainscoting effect in the room, and now a mural inspired by the illustrator Charlotte Taylor covers the wall behind his bed. Even the window treatment took on new life after Bradley applied a row of polyester half-cylinders—think sliced pool noodles—covered in crushed satin. "Before, the room wasn’t me. It didn’t resonate with me. [Now] it has a positive light," he says.
As he worked, Bradley posted his progress on TikTok, attracting thousands of followers and positive comments. "A video of my renovation unexpectedly went viral, and I was getting good comments, which motivated me," he says. "I feel like that’s what we need right now. The online community keeps us connected." The influx of interest in his art has even prompted Bradley to launch an Etsy page for his cheeky multimedia prints, a promising step for the budding artist.
"I’ve changed, and I need to feel like I’ve changed."
As a 35-year-old creative strategist in Brooklyn, New York, Justin Izzo was at a different stage in his creative career, but found himself at a similar crossroads at the beginning of the pandemic. Having worked with clients like Adidas and Nike, Justin was ready to make some professional strides before COVID-19 ushered him back into his mom’s house a few miles east in Atlantic Beach. Forced into the attic by allergies to his mom’s new cat, Justin set up shop for the long haul, predicting the immense strain the coronavirus would place on city life.
Underneath the piles of high school memorabilia, Justin found an opportunity to focus on mental clarity and personal growth, which ultimately informed the design of his bedroom. Before the pandemic put the brakes on, he’d been planning to build out a freelance team of creatives for upcoming projects. "I felt like I was regressing when it came to the skills I had learned," he says. "I definitely needed to be mindful of writing and keeping my mind busy by drafting proposals and emails. It got to a point where I would just make fake proposals and work my brain out to not turn into mush."
Within days of returning home, Justin launched into his renovation, ripping up old carpet and sifting through keepsakes. "Physicality translates into everything. If there’s clutter, you’ll feel cluttered," he says. Citing Dieter Rams as his inspiration, Justin envisioned a spare, minimalist space with a focus on modularity and longevity: "Everything needs a purpose."
Gesturing to his bare walls, Justin notes, "I purposely didn’t put art up here because I wanted everything to speak for itself, following the Buddhist idea of clarity and cleansing of space." The only exception is a painting by his eponymous great-grandfather. "I just have it on the floor and can move it around wherever it needs to be. Every aspect is modular—it’s honest and has longevity."
As with Mercy, parental compromise was foundational to the renovation. "There were ideas my mom axed—like replacing a couple of old windows with one that’s eight feet wide," says Justin. His mom had her heart set on Restoration Hardware’s Cloud Couch and suggested buying the 80-inch version for the attic. Justin had a better idea: "I said, ‘Wait, how about we get the sectional [version] that fits here [because] one day you’re going to want it somewhere else in the house, and you can just add pieces to it.’ It’s never going to change."
The question of the couch illustrates the sticking points in multigenerational living. "What is this space going to look like in the future? I don’t know, but we have it set up so that you could always add to it or take away from it," he says. "The modular aspect was also influenced by [my mom] because she’ll be able to use this meditative space after I’m gone as well."
Though there were moments of negotiation, Justin also made some executive decisions—such as the move to knock down the half-wall dividing the office and living space: "My mom would come upstairs and ask, ‘Oh, when did you do that?’"
"Physicality translates into everything. If there’s clutter, you’ll feel cluttered."
In Justin’s case, designing with family members in mind meant creating a flexible and adaptable space. For sisters Brianna and Elise Macdonald, the process was even more collaborative. Brianna, a 21-year-old communications and architecture student at University of New Hampshire, was competing in the World Junior Alpine Skiing Championships in Norway when the coronavirus sent her back home to Toronto, unable to return to her closed campus. Elise, two years older, was finishing up her last semester of a biology and business degree at the University of Otago in New Zealand, when she, too, traveled back to Toronto to finish the school year remotely before starting as a full-time associate investment analyst in August.
Unfortunately for Brianna, and perhaps fortunately for Elise, Brianna’s summer internship with an interior design company was cancelled as Toronto went into lockdown. While focusing on online interior design classes instead, Brianna decided to build out her portfolio, and had the perfect client one floor up: her sister and a room outgrown years before.
Upon arrival, Elise walked into a room full of staggered renovations from times gone by: three separate paint colors covering the walls and ceiling, a headboard turned yellow with age, mismatched lighting—all tied together with string lights popularized around 2013. "I didn’t realize how outdated my room felt until I came back, because I had been gone for five years," she says. "I told Brianna what I was feeling—a big wave of grief—and she figured out how to help me feel like a young professional instead of a high school student."
Quickly, the sisters got to work, covering the blue ceiling and patchwork walls in white paint, bringing light into the space. Because Brianna was enrolled in an AutoCAD course at the time, getting familiar with the rendering software, she put together a full pitch for Elise, complete with a mood board to make sure they were on the same page.
Of course, sisterhood is a compromise, and before handing over her credit card, Elise had to make sure the renovation was fully representative of her values. Having recently finished a degree in biology, Elise opted for sustainable alternatives throughout her renovation, spurring Brianna’s DIY and reuse agenda. With the help of her handyman father, Brianna designed a cantilevered desk to fit Elise’s WFH needs. She also curated a Zoom-appropriate gallery wall with photos from New Zealand and their hiking trip across Ireland. "This really, really, brought my mindset up before starting my full-time job," Elise says. Weathering major life transitions during a pandemic was a demoralizing experience, but with the help of her sister, Elise found peace in the turmoil.
"I told Brianna what I was feeling—a big wave of grief—and she figured out how to help me feel like a young professional instead of a high school student."
For the young adults we interviewed—and millions of others the world over—returning to the nest was not in the plan, but provided an unexpected opportunity to reset and redefine progress. Although moving home can be a frustrating experience, creating a gulf between where we are and where we think we ought to be, it can also teach patience, gratitude, fortitude: lessons that will no doubt stay with us as the world reopens and finds us once again navigating new spaces.
TopicsWhere We Live Now
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