When Beverly O’Mara and Mark Uriu converted their loft in Jersey City, N.J., into a live-work space in 2015, they envisioned an airy, open apartment where Ms. O’Mara could have an art studio and Mr. Uriu could work from home on occasion.
They added elements that made sense at the time, installing shoji screens that provided privacy and light, but no sound barrier. And for a while, it worked beautifully.
Then Covid changed everything. Suddenly the couple found themselves working from home full time, trying to come up with makeshift solutions for a space that had already undergone a $250,000 renovation.
For millions of Americans, the pandemic ushered in an era of remodeling, as they used the time at home to remake kitchens, bathrooms and living spaces to accommodate a more domestic lifestyle. (Year-over-year spending on home remodeling grew by more than 9 percent from the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2021, to $357 billion a year, according to the Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.) But what if you renovated before the pandemic — and spent a lot of money on it — and now you had to redo it to reflect a new reality?
Like many others, Ms. O’Mara, 66, and Mr. Uriu, 65, found themselves running headlong into the limits of a design imagined for a prepandemic lifestyle and wondering what modifications, if any, would make their home more functional.
“We’ve seen these interesting new demands put on our spaces, and they are absolutely a byproduct of the shifting lifestyle,” said Jeff Jordan, a Rutherford, N.J., architect who designed the couple’s renovation and is seeing a shift in how homeowners think about renovation.
For those considering remodeling now, Ms. O’Mara and Mr. Uriu’s project offers some useful lessons. The creative, cost-saving strategies they adopted early on, like choosing affordable building materials, are even more valuable now, as material and labor costs are high. But other decisions they made have proved problematic.
Here’s what hindsight born of a pandemic taught them about renovating.
Creating a Functional Live-Work Space
Ms. O’Mara and Mr. Uriu bought their 2,800-square-foot condo in 2012 for $837,000, moving from a Victorian in Montclair, N.J., where they had raised their children. The Jersey City loft, on a leafy street in the Hamilton Park neighborhood, was dark, as the only windows were along the southern wall. Interior walls closed off the back of the space, blocking natural light and making the kitchen, master bedroom and upstairs rooms feel dim and a little claustrophobic.
The apartment, with its dark wood floors, brassy fixtures and cherry cabinets, had a dismal “’90s New Jersey banker” aesthetic, Mr. Uriu said. But they could see its potential.
It was on the first floor of a 19th-century building that once housed Wells Fargo stagecoaches, and it had ceilings that were nearly 19 feet high, spanned by steel beams. One still had the words “No Smoking” painted in big block letters across it.
“You could remove everything, you could make it a completely empty box and you could build anything you wanted,” said Mr. Uriu, an owner of Uriu Nuance, a Manhattan company that installs interior finishes on high-end renovations.
First, the couple needed to decide how much space to dedicate to work and how much to living. Ms. O’Mara, an artist who works in mixed media with materials like paint, paper pulp and ceramics, needed a studio like the one she and Mr. Uriu had built on their Montclair property. Mr. Uriu needed office space so he could sometimes work from home. And they had grown children who lived nearby.
“At a different point in my life, I would have said ‘one-third live space, two-thirds work space,’” Ms. O’Mara said. “But given we have a family and they visit, and grandchildren, we wanted it to be gracious and welcoming to our family and friends.”
They decided to dedicate roughly a third of the space to a studio, reserving the rest for family life. They took down walls, dividing the main floor with a partition wall, with Ms. O’Mara’s studio and the master bedroom on one side and a living area on the other. They turned the upstairs loft into two spaces: a guest room and a home office for Mr. Uriu.
What they learned: Dedicating more space to family life proved to be a prescient decision during the first year of the pandemic, when the grandchildren often visited, using the open living space as a playroom, a respite from their small, cramped Brooklyn apartment.
Other decisions did not hold up as well, particularly putting Mr. Uriu’s office directly above Ms. O’Mara’s studio, with no wall to act as a sound barrier. Desperate for more space and quiet, he turned the 4-by-7-foot closet in the guest room into his office. To enter, he has to duck under a beam.
Two years into the pandemic, he finds himself working in a space that Ms. O’Mara likens to the dwarfed 7 ½ floor in the 1999 film “Being John Malkovich.” When he is seated, Mr. Uriu can look out under the beam and see across the apartment and out the windows to the street below. “When you’re sitting down,” he said, “you don’t feel like you’re in a closet.”
Plenty of Light, Not Much Silence
Another goal of the renovation was to bring light into the apartment from the windows along the front wall. “We identified early on that if we wanted to make this place work, we had to figure out how to get the light from this one facade all the way back,” Mr. Uriu said.
They added two 4-by-4-foot windows above the front door. But interior walls still blocked light to the back of the apartment, and “the upstairs rooms felt like tombs,” Ms. O’Mara said.
Mr. Uriu, who is of Japanese descent and wanted to incorporate a Japanese aesthetic, considered translucent shoji screens, which could provide privacy and filtered light. Working with Mr. Jordan, he designed screens that would open along a track behind a balcony railing of thin cedar slats, designed by Ms. O’Mara. Close the screens and the rooms are private, with light filtering through; open them, and someone upstairs has a bird’s-eye view of the apartment below.
“If you’re standing on the floor in the main room and the lights are on in the room above, it’s almost like a streetscape,” Mr. Uriu said. “It reminds me of being on intimate streets in Kyoto, where you literally have screens with light coming through. You have a sense of a different life happening.”
In the middle of the apartment, they added a partition of cabinets running the length of the space, from the entrance to the back of the kitchen, dividing the apartment in two, but allowing light to pass above.
They also lightened the feeling of the space by installing new lighting and finishes, painting the steel beams a pale gray and the ceiling white, and bleaching the wood floors. Mr. Jordan added an LED strip to the beams for uplighting and used extension rods to suspend track lights from the high ceilings.
What they learned: Those shoji screens and partition walls provided light, but at the cost of sound reduction. With no sound barriers, the couple have spent the past two years desperate for quiet and separation.
There were days when Mr. Uriu was on the phone trying to salvage his business, which was collapsing during the initial shutdown (it has since recovered), while Ms. O’Mara was trying to keep the attention of children as she taught art classes over Zoom, with nothing but shoji screens separating them.
“Suddenly sound became an issue. He couldn’t be screaming about the PPP loan — not that he screamed, but he was really intense,” she said, while she was in the middle of a class.
There is a solution, but the couple hasn’t committed to it yet. They could replace the screens with translucent glass and acoustically detailed sliding doors with an interlock or gasket to help reduce sound transmission, said Mr. Jordan, the architect. “The beauty of the shoji is the transparency for light, but you can’t see through it,” he said. “The drawback is that it’s paper thin, so you hear everything.”
The Quest for Affordable Materials
When Ms. O’Mara and Mr. Uriu designed the space, they kept the budget down by retaining the original floor plan, reusing some existing materials and finding affordable new ones — low-cost finishes in keeping with their modern, minimal aesthetic.
They kept the high-end kitchen appliances, including a wine refrigerator and a Viking stove with a water filler, but replaced the cherry cabinets with simple white ones from Ikea. They bought a stainless-steel utility sink for Ms. O’Mara’s studio from a restaurant supply store on the Bowery in Manhattan. They built the bookshelves, cabinets and the partition wall out of AC plywood, a construction material not typically used for finishes. “It’s a workhorse material,” Mr. Jordan said, but “when thought about differently, it can become quite beautiful.”
The couple went to a lumber yard to select the plywood, looking for a cut with an interesting grain. The one they chose had “a soothing, psychedelic rhythm to it,” Ms. O’Mara said.
Had they been renovating during the pandemic, when lumber prices soared, Mr. Jordan said, they might not have chosen plywood. (Lumber prices rose almost 90 percent during the year ending in April 2021, the largest 12-month jump since January 1927, when data were first collected, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) But the couple’s willingness to choose unconventional materials allowed them to find savings where others might not have.
For a few splurges, they enlisted the help of friends in the design industry. Art in Construction, in Brooklyn, designed the pigmented plaster waterfall counter on the kitchen island and the veneer-plaster vanity counter in the master bathroom. An ironworker friend made the banisters for the two staircases.
Mr. Jordan looked for creative ways to add storage to the open space, installing built-in bookshelves on the staircases, along with a Putnam rolling ladder. Other playful flourishes included a hammock, a pulley system for storing bikes, and a seat made of netting that dangles from the banister on the landing of the studio staircase, creating an unexpected spot to read.
What they learned: Almost seven years after the renovation, the plywood and the cabinets have held up well. And while the couple’s tastes are different from those of the previous owners, they have come to appreciate the elements they retained, including the two bathrooms with traditional wainscoting and glass mosaic tile.
Despite the frustrations of the past two years, and the mistakes they made, the overall design has served them well during a trying time, Ms. O’Mara said: “The truth is, it’s a great house. It’s a great home. I love that it’s a live-work space.”
On ‘S.N.L.,’ Biden Urges Covid-Weary Nation to Stop Seeing ‘Spider-Man’
Spider-Man just finished saving the very fabric of reality, but to hear President Biden tell it — at least on “Saturday Night Live” — the wall-crawler is the one to blame for the continuing pandemic.
To kick off the first new “S.N.L.” of 2022, James Austin Johnson returned in his recurring role as Biden for a news conference in which he told the nation that “there’s one simple thing you can do to make this whole virus go away: Stop seeing ‘Spider-Man.’”
Addressing the White House press corps in the show’s opening sketch, Johnson said: “This virus has disrupted our lives. It’s canceled holidays, weddings, quinceañeras, gender-reveal parties, wildfires that started as gender-reveal parties.”
He went on to say: “Now, think about it. When did ‘Spider-Man’ come out? Dec. 17. When did every single person get Omicron? The week after Dec. 17.”
The last time “S.N.L.” attempted a live episode, on Dec. 18, it was significantly disrupted by the pandemic. Hours before airtime, NBC announced that because of Covid concerns, the show would not use a live audience; the broadcast was missing most of the cast members, had no musical guest and consisted mostly of pretaped segments and sketches from past episodes.
“S.N.L.” was not spared the intrusion of the coronavirus this week. On Wednesday, the rapper Roddy Ricch, who was originally announced as the musical guest, said on his Instagram account that he would be unable to perform because of “recent COVID exposure on my team and to keep everyone safe.” Instead, the pop band Bleachers took his place.
In the Biden sketch, Johnson explained that he was not asking people to avoid the movies altogether. “I said, stop seeing ‘Spider-Man,’” he declared in reference to “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which has shattered Covid-era box-office records.
“See anything else,” he continued. “I saw the first half-hour of ‘House of Gucci.’ That’s more than enough movie for anyone.”
Questioned about the lack of available Covid testing, Johnson’s Biden answered, “You want to know if you have Covid? Look at your hand. Is it holding a ticket that says you recently went to see ‘Spider-Man’? If so, you have Covid.”
As Johnson started to expound on the existence of the multiverse, he was visited by a shirtless, white-haired Pete Davidson, who explained that he was Joe Biden “from the real universe,” and that this incarnation of reality had been created “as a joke, starting in 2016 when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.”
When Johnson asked him if he was the president in this real world, Davidson answered: “Of course not. Did you really think you would lose four times and then finally win when you were 78?”
Musical tribute to musicals of the week
When you’ve got an “S.N.L.” episode hosted by Ariana DeBose, a star of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake and a newly-minted Golden Globe winner, you know you’re going to have a couple of sketches that pay affectionate tribute to musical theater.
The first of the night was DeBose’s opening monologue, during which she was joined by Kate McKinnon, who professed that “West Side Story” was her favorite musical.
“Did you like the movie?” DeBose asked her. “I didn’t see it,” McKinnon replied. “I don’t leave the house because of Covid and also because I don’t leave the house.” They gamely sang a medley of several “West Side Story” numbers together, including “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty,” though McKinnon sat out the mambo dance break: “They know I dance,” she said.
Later in the night, the two re-teamed for a “Sound of Music” parody in which McKinnon delivered a deft Julie Andrews impression. DeBose played another wayward woman from Maria’s convent who tries to teach a group of children to sing, with an updated version of “Do-Re-Mi” that’s unexpectedly heavy on references to Queen Latifah. Eat your heart out, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Biting the hand that feeds you of the week
Earlier this week, when NBC’s Peacock streaming service dropped the trailer for “Bel-Air,” a gritty, dramatic retelling of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” some viewers wondered if it was an “S.N.L.” sketch.
It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop “S.N.L.” from going forward with this satirical preview for an unnecessarily harsh reboot of another 90s-era sitcom, “Family Matters.” In this incarnation, Carl Winslow (Kenan Thompson) is a sadistic Chicago cop and the lovably nerdy Steve Urkel (Chris Redd) now has an abusive, drunken mom and a violent temper. You’ll never hear the catchphrase “Did I do that?” in quite the same way again.
Weekend Update jokes of the week
Over at the Weekend Update desk, the anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che continued to riff on President Biden’s stalled agenda.
Just like everybody else, President Biden’s New Year’s resolutions fell apart in the third week of January. The Supreme Court struck down his vaccine mandate. The voting rights bill got blocked. And his approval rating is so low, it’s gone into power-save mode. But I will point out, there was another president who had a disastrous start to his first term, yet he became an inspiration to generations of Republicans, even to this day. [The screen shows a picture of Ronald Reagan.] I’m talking of course about Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. [The picture changes to one of Davis.]
“And there are still statues of him in 10 different states,” Jost continued:
Which, come to think of it, probably explains why the voting rights stuff isn’t working out. The bottom line is, I think Biden just needs more time. He might be more of an acquired taste. Unfortunately, most Americans recently lost their sense of taste.
Che picked up on the Biden thread:
President Biden gave a speech in Atlanta where he called on the Senate to pass two voting rights bills, saying, “I am tired of being quiet.” And to prove it, he took a 20-minute standing nap.
What Will Marianne Williamson Do Next?
To her, Washington is still essentially business as usual. “D.C. has a lot of good political car mechanics,” she said. “That’s not the problem. The problem is that the car is on the wrong road. The car is heading towards a cliff.”
The week before, the Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel had tweeted a photo of Ms. Williamson and Andrew Yang, onstage at an event for Mr. Yang’s new book. Mr. Weigel quoted Ms. Williamson saying, “We don’t want to be Jill Steins, but in any other country, any other advanced democracy, they have multiple political parties.” The tweet predictably triggered speculation about what, exactly, Ms. Williamson intends to do next.
She may not want to be Jill Stein — the Green Party candidate whose presidential run is often cited as a reason Mr. Trump won — but she also doesn’t want to dismiss Jill Stein. After all, Ms. Williamson said, “we need a viable other. I support any third-party effort that makes a thoughtful, articulate critique of the fundamental flaws in contemporary capitalism and its effects on people and the planet” When she ran for Congress in California, in 2014, it was as an independent.
Ms. Williamson sees the two-party system of today as blighted and controlled by corporate interests. “Republican policies represent a nosedive for our democracy,” she said. “And Democratic policies represent a managed decline.” And yet she also believes that this is the year it will change. “The status quo is unsustainable,” she said. “There is too much human despair out there.”
She is not willing to say whether she’ll run again, and dodged the question over the course of our many conversations. About two weeks ago, when Politico published an article suggesting that President Biden would face a primary challenge from a progressive candidate, “such as former Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner, 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson or millionaire and $18-an-hour minimum wage advocate Joe Sanberg,” Ms. Williamson declined to comment.
James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, is skeptical. “She ran before and she didn’t get a lot of votes,” he said. “She’s kind of an interesting person to say the least, but I don’t think politics is her calling. She always struck me as a new age Bernie Bro.”
Is Interning for an Influencer Worth It?
Jon Rettinger, 41, who runs several technology-focused YouTube channels, said he hoped to provide his interns with useful guidance. It’s “a real job that’s not all Lamborghinis and boxing matches,” he said, noting that many creators are subjected to online bullying. “I would have wanted someone to tell me, because I was really unprepared,” he said.
Former interns said that they valued such mentorship. Sara Naqui, who started out taking photos on a volunteer basis for Ms. Chandler at Effie’s Paper, now has a contract with the company and her own YouTube channel. “She supported me in a way that I’d never had an adult support my creative endeavors,” Ms. Naqui, 24, said of Ms. Chandler.
Vela Scarves, a fashion-forward hijab brand, and its co-founder and creative director, Marwa Atik, have made a point of inviting followers to volunteer at photo shoots and apply for internships. “You’re reaching out to a funneled pool of people who support you, believe in you, see themselves in the product,” Ms. Atik, 31, said. “It’s a much stronger connection when we bring on our girls.”
Khadija Sillah, 23, a former Vela Scarves intern, said that “Marwa extended herself as a mentor to me and helped me connect with brands and brainstorm content ideas, even when I lacked motivation.” She was recently hired as a full-time social media associate with the brand.
Ms. Chandler said her interns built the social presence for Effie’s Paper — on Pinterest, Instagram and eventually TikTok — from the ground up. “A decade ago, I was a lawyer transitioning to entrepreneurship,” she said. “I didn’t have time to think about social media.”
Later, Ms. Chandler solicited the help of a former intern, Chloe Helander, who’d started her own social media consultancy. Ms. Helander suggested that Ms. Chandler should be the star of the Effie’s Paper social accounts; after all, many companies today treat their executives as the faces of their brands.
Ms. Chandler was skeptical at first. “I think I’m too brown and too old,” she said.
Now, Ms. Chandler said, “she is the reason my face is all over everything.”