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House to Home: Artist and baker Christine McConnell finds inspiration at home
A recipe for buying and renovating on a tight budget
What makes a home truly unique is the homeowners who occupy them. In this series, House to Home, presented by Chase Home Lending, people showcase how their love is expressed throughout their household. Whether it is centered around family, hobbies or careers, this series proves that homes are made, not built.
"Buying a home was something I had always wanted," says 35-year-old artist Christine McConnell. "But it seemed unattainable." An advance for her book, "Deceptive Desserts: A Lady's Guide to Baking Bad!" finally put her dream within reach. McConnell, a self-taught baker with an offbeat aesthetic, had a vision. She wanted to photograph her cakes baked in the shape of Frankenstein's head and cookies decorated to resemble tarantulas, in a home of her own design. With a short window of time before her book deadline, McConnell got to work with a real estate agent.
The ideal property
McConnell admits that the homebuying process was one of the most terrifying things she's ever done. Getting preapproved for a loan eased her apprehension. "Once I realized how achievable it was, I got more excited," says McConnell. An intense month-long search led to a small, multi-level, Colonial-style house in the secluded Lake Arrowhead, California area within her price point. It met her must-haves: built before the 1940s, had original, untreated wooden windows, and the rooms were set apart so that McConnell could style some spaces as eerie, some bright and cheerful.
Doing it herself
McConnell's parents are both licensed general contractors, and McConnell had grown up in a 150-year-old house that the family rebuilt. So she wasn't daunted by the idea of stripping everything down to craft her own mid-century modern look. "If there's a gap in knowledge in something I'm interested in, I can usually figure out what fills that in," she says. When the vintage linoleum she wanted was beyond her limited budget, McConnell designed and painted her own linoleum-type pattern by painting directly on the existing base hardwood. "I always look for the least-expensive option and am proud when I do things myself," she explains. To create her kitchen, McConnell tore down a wall to make space for a vintage oven. A 1950s fridge discovered at an estate sale for $100 was taken apart to replace padding and insulation. Her brother, who owns a porcelain refinishing company, lent her a hand in repainting it.
With the kitchen cabinetry, McConnell tried her hand at woodworking for the first time. She unhinged the standard kitchen cabinets, sanded them down, and added wood detailing to give them a bead board effect. She created a scalloped wood valance with materials salvaged from a local lumberyard. "I almost cut off a few fingers," she laughs.
Staying the course
While there were times when McConnell felt overwhelmed— when she tore up the floor, or found a huge hole in a wall— she always found a solution. "Every time I felt as if I had a catastrophe on my hands, I knew it was fixable," says McConnell.
The extra renovation work paid off in spades when McConnell was able to a create dramatic backdrops for her work. "It's the foundation for why things look so good in my imagery," she says.
Ready, set, action
The finished house, in the mountains of Twin Peaks, California, is infused with the photographer's unique aesthetic. Stepping foot inside her home is like stepping into a 1950s film. "I love the idea of turning a house into a set you get to live in," McConnell says. Homemade, old-fashioned curtains frame the windows. Classic appliances, from a vintage oven to a french fry cutter, fill the kitchen. But upon closer inspection, you see touches of the macabre. Clusters of tarantulas mix with the porcelain Siamese cats underneath the stairs. A rusted knife hangs on the kitchen wall, encrusted with what looks like dried blood. A maniacal, dagger-wielding gingerbread man perches above the kitchen sink. Amid the success of her book and her thriving photography and baking businesses, McConnell considers buying and renovating a house one of her biggest accomplishments. "I grew up thinking incredible things just kind of happen to you. Then I realized, if you really want something, you're going to have to make it for yourself," she says.
Jackie Lam is a Chase News contributor.