I know I’m not the only one who loves artists’ homes, and in that spirit, I found (invented??) a way to watercolorize my walls. I did it in a couple hours and for under $20—and you can, too! That small DIY is perhaps one way I’m trying to participate in the great experiment that is Los Angeles—a place that probably should not exist (no water! fire!) but does, that is making it up as it goes along. This city would put Jane Jacobs on her head, and I’ve been thinking about who among us is clever enough to show us the way from the inside. I have some ideas. —Mercedes
Wash this way
When we decided on our first Los Angeles house, I was disappointed. Not because it’s a duplex or because the exterior trim is painted a not-for-me Tiffany blue, but because—in a city of great homes—it’s not much of a charmer. Not a Spanish-style with enchanting arches, nor a darling bungalow with built-ins, nor a midcentury treasure with exposed beams. It’s just a very plain home, a box of white boxes built in 1954.
But we had run out of time to house-hunt, and the place was in dreamy Atwater Village, so we took it. I set out to make it work by painting some walls.
In retrospect, I can see that I’d been building references: Primarily, this $1,100 ceramic milking stool that I’d seen at Coming Soon before we left New York. I loved it immediately, in part because the color is precisely that of a cerulean Crayola crayon. Then there was this wonderfully bonzers situation, the home of artist Misha Kahn and Interview editor Nick Haramis with wall paint that recklessly stops short of the ceiling.
I wanted to do a painterly wash—something obviously handmade and watercolor-like—to make my living room look like that milking stool, but the internet came up short on instructions. Everything I found was geared toward textured walls and took a hell of a lot more paint than I wanted to use. So I decided to figure it out on my own.
First, I scooped up almost everything in one Home Depot visit for under $20:
- Sponge, $3.48 for two, but I only used one
- Eight ounces of paint, $4.98 (I had around half left over after one layer of wash on about 14 feet of wall, 8 feet tall)
- Painters tape, $6.58
- Plastic tray, $1.68, plus a second plastic tray (just in case), $1.87
- A 16-ounce yogurt container (read: something wide and shallow), free-ish
- Water, free-ish
To match the milking stool, I went with Behr Marquee in Celebration Blue. I got it with an eggshell finish—just barely shinier than matte—because Curbed’s editor-in-chief and materfamilias Kelsey Keith taught me that matte walls absorb every mark and are difficult to clean. (I later painted Judd’s nursery with the same technique, and for that I used Behr Marquee in Lavender Wash.)
I knew I wanted a wash, so I put some paint in one of the plastic trays and added water (kept nearby in the yogurt container). I dipped in the sponge and got to it—yes, just on the walls as they were; no, I didn’t even clean them. What I found is that more water in the sponge meant more of a watercolor effect, but more drips; less, and the strokes were bolder, but less drippy. I pretty much made it up as I went along, mixing paint and water as they felt right, trying to embrace serendipity.
I knew I probably couldn’t make smooth strokes like on the milking stool, so I just followed my hand: What came out was this noodly look, which I like a lot, in fact. But I bet you could do lines or zigzags or something else, too.
Note: My walls were a matte finish when we moved in (cute, but a pain; see above), so if you are starting with something glossier, be mindful that you might need to use less water on your slick surface in order to achieve your ideal level of drip. Please also learn from me, and be extra rigorous with your taping. Water is, well, very wet.
What is a milking stool, anyway?
That ceramic stool of my dreams is merely an interpretation of a milking stool. While it has three (chubby) legs like a traditional milking stool, at 18 inches high, it’s simply too tall. Milking stools are traditionally around 7 to 12 inches in height so that shorty, you can get low—and milk those teats. Why three legs? When dealing with a large, moving creature like a cow or goat, three legs allow for a nimbleness that four, though more steady, do not.
Milking stools are quite cute and can be a clutch furniture item—used for slightly elevating plants off the floor, hosting a pile of books next to a low-slung couch, or as a step stool or—ha, yes—a seat. I’ve rounded up a few options for you below, but first I have to mention this 5-inch unfinished bb: For only $13, it’s ideal for a DIYer. (Etsy, to no one’s surprise, has a lot of affordable options.) Someone will email me if I don’t mention the beloved Senufo stools (cf these on Chairish), but I’m not including them here because they were not intended for milking—and anyway, they’re curved and thus less than ideal for storage.
Dispatch from Los Angeles
“In New York, we take urbanity for granted, whereas in Los Angeles, we are still learning its vernacular.” Yes! That such a gigantic city could be so elusive is one of the things that compels me most about LA. My favorite attempt yet to learn and articulate that vernacular is the source of that quote, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles by David Ulin, which I’ve just finished. It’s also short, unlike, say, City of Quartz.
Ulin covers a huge swath of the city in transition—from the downtown revival to the expansions of LACMA and Metro to the artificial “street life” of the Grove, an indoor-outdoor mall that, he posits (though I’m not sure I agree), might teach Angelenos how to embrace, and maybe even co-create, more civic space. Cool, yes! But I know I’m not alone in wondering how that jives with the other thing I love most about Los Angeles: that it’s a city of domestic architecture, of houses.
Ulin quotes writer Carolyn See in Topanga Canyon in 1991: “In Southern California, you don’t go down to the cafe and drink a lot of coffee and talk about intellectual concepts the way you might in Prague. You get in the car, drive for an hour, have a long, leisurely lunch in a beautiful yard, and get the same material covered. There’s a kind of daytime quality to a lot of literary life here—not a suburban quality, but a domestic one.”
This beautiful way of Angeleno life remains—to some degree, anyway—because the people who have lived here have not wanted to share it. Have said no to density, even around transit. And today we find ourselves in a severe housing shortage and acute homelessness crisis. “Densify or die!” read a poster by the LA Forum that I tried to buy at a fundraising auction earlier this year.
To get any sense of what life here is like—and what it should be like—let the astute and passionate Alissa Walker be your guide. She’s the one who recommended I read Sidewalking, and she’s the one whose poster I tried to buy. And yes, she’s the Curbed urbanism editor and may very well be our present-day, Angeleno-style Jane Jacobs. This my shameless, and in fact very proud, plug!