New York is about the opposite of sleepy, friendly Waco, Texas, but Chip and Joanna Gaines feel right at home in the city. After Joanna graduated college in 2000, she came to NYC to intern for CBS' "48 Hours" with Dan Rather. While she didn't stick with broadcast journalism, that six months left a lasting legacy: She credits the boutiques she would peruse around Manhattan with inspiring her desire to start a store — which has now become Magnolia Market.
"Then we came back on our honeymoon," says Joanna. "Chip fell in love with the city too — so much so that we returned for our first anniversary, and it became a tradition for us."
They even named their first child, son Drake, after the Drake Hotel, where they stayed on that first trip. "We still have the caricature that they did for us in Central Park on our honeymoon," adds Chip. "It's pretty hilarious."
"It's bad," Joanna says. "We weren't smiling — we look terrified that we were married."
In their new book, The Magnolia Story ($26.99, amazon.com), the Gaineses describe how they renovated their first house while they lived in it. By the time they moved to their farm, Chip and Joanna had lived in — and flipped — 10 houses. "The thing we learned along the way was it's not the house itself, it's really the attitude you have about it," Joanna says. "The farm is what we always dreamed of. But we joke that our second, 800 square-foot house was our favorite because that's when we learned to be content with what we're given and that no matter what, you can love your home."
After more than a decade of renovating and designing homes, Joanna admits her style has changed — for good. "In our first house, I was really getting my feet wet," says Joanna. Each room was decorated with a different theme.
"It was like walking through a fun house," Chip adds. "French country in the kitchen, there was this real rustic room with all my stuff in it in the back. She had this nautical room with sailboats."
Having four children has also shaped how they approach renovation and interior design. "It's not just about creating pretty spaces — it's how you can make pretty and practical work so that it feels like home," Joanna says. "Even when we had four kids, I designed a house that I loved but my kids didn't have a place to play. I was like, 'Don't play in the living room. Don't play in the formal dining, either.' But what fun is that? The heart of design shifted for me as I watched my children grow up in these homes."
After three seasons of their hugely successful HGTV show, the couple wrote The Magnolia Story to their experiences. "We thought it would be fun to put it all out there," Joanna says. "And it was important to that, behind the scenes, there are ups and downs that we felt as small business owners."
So while the "Fixer Upper" stars were in the Big Apple for the release of their book, they did something they've never done before: update a New York City apartment. (Specifically, my Harlem home.) "Every time we come here," Joanna says, "it's one of our dreams to renovate one of these brownstones."
"Thinking about it," says Chip, "if we sold everything we own in Waco, Texas we —"
"We could renovate a bathroom in New York," she interjects. Still, that didn't stop the couple from giving their best home improvement advice.
Updates Don't Have to be Pricey
Although they've only worked in houses on the show, the couple loves the challenge of upgrading apartments too. If you rent, Joanna suggests, decide how much money you're willing to spend without a return on your investment: "Change the paint colors or the hardware. Use creative ways to work around some of the permanent elements, like cover bad flooring with a rug or hide an ugly backsplash with cute canisters."
One of the biggest challenges for apartment-dwellers, Chip says, is obviously space. "The smaller the footprint, the harder it is," he says. "From a renovation standpoint, I'd rather work in a 4,000 square-foot open-plan house in Texas than a 400 square-foot brownstone apartment. In the city, you have to be creative. Every foot has to be practical. You gotta bring your A-game."
A great way to deal with size restrictions, they pointed out, was to go vertical with storage. (I happen to be nailing this one with book cases on every available wall.)
Open up the Space
For the kitchen, Joanna suggested knocking down this turquoise wall entirely and expanding the counter and cabinets along the far wall. To compensate for losing the dining area, she suggested a large island with seating around it. My take: I'm all for opening up our cramped kitchen space, but I think I'll keep my standalone table, chairs and china cabinet, thank you.
Chip also suggested taking the wall that blocks off our staircase and turning that into a railing. That would go a long way to making an otherwise narrow space feel more open and polished too.
Restore the Original Detail
Joanna is known for her love of shiplap — wide wooden siding common in Waco homes because of its breathability in high temperatures. Uncovering (or recreating) original architectural details like shiplap are a trademark of her design and something she says can be done in almost any type of home.
In our bedroom, they had great advice to add back in the original detail. Some of Harlem's brownstones were renovated in the 1990s after years of neglect, and many architectural elements were often too far gone to save. Our apartment probably originally had wide crown moldings, ornate fireplaces and gleaming hardwood floors when it was built at the turn of the twentieth century. But by the time we moved in, all that was gone. They recommended adding a new crown molding and restoring the fireplace mantels throughout.
"In the early 1900s, homes didn't have air conditioning so shiplap allowed Texas houses to breathe, to draft hot air out," Chip explains. "In New York, however, brick walls are often underneath the plaster to insulate against the cold. A brick wall from the 1880s is really special — why not highlight that? There are cool original elements that you can expose and discover."