before and afterInteriors

Before & After: A Tribute to Family

by Garrett Fleming

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

Blogger Olaniyi “Ola” Swarn sat watching This is Us in her home near Chicago, IL, the same area her grandmother had moved to in the 1950s in hopes of starting a new life far from the racism of the South. The episode was titled “A Father’s Advice,” and Ola was immediately reminded of some of the final moments she’d shared with the matriarch of her family some nine years prior:

“My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and during her later years we would spend nights at each other’s homes,” Ola says. “While staying in one of the guest rooms of her home I noticed a small dresser filled with letters in chronological order. When I saw that these were letters from my great grandfather there was no way I was putting them back in that drawer without reading them! I sat there in the wee hours of the morning, and I read them. Every. Last. One.”

What she uncovered in the collection painted a portrait of a woman much more complex than the “modest and practical” grandmother Ola had grown up with. In one particular set of notes she wrote about her move to Chicago and the challenges she faced as an African American woman pursuing a nursing career in the 50s. Her stories made it clear that the transition out of state as well as bouncing between her roles as mother and student were proving difficult. “My grandmother was tired and wanted to return home,” Ola explains. “Her father‘s response was a very firm ‘no’.” His note read:

“You will stay with that man and your chi’ren. Finish your scoolin’. I am your father, listen to me… I sold 2 kows. Take the money. Buy scool clos and shoos for the chi’ren. I am your father now, do what I say.

With all my heart, Daddy”

Just like the This is Us episode playing out on Ola’s TV screen, here was a dad imparting thoughtful, albeit pointed wisdom to his daughter.

Soon after the episode aired, Ola felt the itch to revamp her home. At first she was at a loss for a concept, but then she recalled the show’s storyline and how it paralleled her own family’s journey. Celebrating the great struggles as well as the great successes of the Swarns became the north star of her design.

With an idea locked in, Ola and her husband began what would become a five-week-long project aimed at giving their living room, dining room and entry a new look. Thirty-five days sounds like a lot of time, but it really isn’t when you’re pretty much starting from scratch. They sanded and stained the floors, installed wallpaper, recovered their dining chairs, refinished their table and worked in new accessories.

The first floor redo’s pièce de résistance, though, has to be the black-and-white family portraits scattered about. They first appear behind glass on the entry’s “Wall of Fam,” a gallery dedicated to their loved ones, and then pop up again on the living room coffee table peppered amongst a knot of stones. Ola says the latter are easily the greatest conversation starters she’s ever displayed, but I have a feeling every corner of this heartfelt tribute has visitors talking. Scroll down to see more, and enjoy! Garrett

Photography by Ola Swarn

Image above: To add interest to the living area, Ola put molding up around the window frame.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

Ola gravitates to “globally-inspired, bohemian/chic” interiors.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

While she was excited to complete a makeover inspired by her family, Ola says it did add another level of pressure. “I didn’t want to embarrass them,” she says.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

To accessorize the new spaces, Ola used her collection of global goodies – from Mexican pottery to wooden finds from Bali.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

The living room’s collection of decorative rocks holds precious family photos. These pictures have proven to be the best conversation starters.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

This is the second major project Ola and her husband have tackled together. The first found them building a pergola. Ola says that after each completed project they’ve felt a renewed connection to one another. “My husband is definitely my partner in design crime, so being able to work peacefully with him is priceless to me,” she explains.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

Ola saved money throughout the makeover by incorporating quite a few DIYs. For example, she gave her existing ottoman a whole new look using $25 worth of fabric and materials.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

Since the revamp was all about celebrating family, Ola installed a gallery of family photos designed to make her loved ones “look like a wall of regal movie stars.” She says creating the “Wall of Fam” was the most challenging part of the entire project. She had to go to each of her family members’ homes, rummage through their collection of old boxes and dressers, go scan the pictures into a computer and then return them. “It was worth it,” she says. “I found many old photos that I hadn’t seen in years.”

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

Ola sourced custom slipcovers and used Rub ‘n Buff in “Antique Gold” to breathe new life into her dining set. The Rub ‘n Buff gives the chairs and table legs a worn-in look that helps visually tie them to the living room.

Before & After: A Tribute to Family, Design*Sponge

After sanding the entire floor and staining part of it, the couple realized it wasn’t sanded well enough, and they had to start the entire process over again. “Just thinking about that gives me a headache,” Ola says.


Pro Tip: When staining your floors, rent a moving truck for a few days, park it in your driveway and fill it with everything from the rooms you’re re-flooring. This makes putting stuff back a breeze.


Living Room
Window coverings – Select Blinds
Art over piano – Great Big Canvas peel-and-stick print
Rug – The Home Depot
Natural fiber rug – World Market
White chairs, gold floor lamp – OfferUp
Leopard print lumbar pillows – Etsy
Necklace on stand – pistachio nut DIY

Photo frames – Blick
Boho print – Jade & Serif
Ottoman – Hobby Lobby

Dining Room
Artwork – Natalie O Designs
Wallpaper – Osborne & Little
Chair covers – ComfortWorks
Light fixture – Wayfair

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  • I am soooo in love with all the details in this design!! The family focus is so inspiring and this was so well written!! Bravo across the board!!!🙌🏽🥰💕

  • Thank you for sharing Ola with your readers! Her design style is fabulous and I love how she encourages and inspires her readers to create a home with style charm and organization… she is truly a wonderful decor enthusiast!

  • What a cozy, eclectic and beautiful home! I love her eye for decor and just LOVE the family photos on the cocktail table. I would LOVE to sit with Ola and ask her about the beautiful people in all of the photos. I can imagine the stories! What a great idea. :)

  • I can’t decide which I love more, her story or the beautiful transformation! I love her culturally inspired style!

  • Ola, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful home. The family wall is my favourite. Those old black and white photos – oh, if only they could talk. The stories your gorgeous family members would be able to tell. I have always enjoyed reading about our world’s history, however, hearing someone tell their own history is magical. And, I had a look at your blog – love it.

    • What a surprise to wake up this morning and see all these amazing comments! Thank you Sel for all of your kind words. And yes… there’s an amazing story behind every one of those photos. Thank you for visiting my blog as well.

  • I enjoyed the design, but the letter from Ola’s great-grandfather deeply moved me. Such sacrifice and such love.

  • This is touching. I think people aren’t as attached to their family’s as they used to be and it’s refreshing to see you have designed a tribute to yours. The pink tones used throughout really give the rooms life. I just love it all! Talk soon, Jamie.

  • This is so stunning. My style is definitely boho modern chic as well loving all of the greenery!

  • This was such a beautiful story and it reminded me of how my own Grandmother taught me to create a home that is warm and welcoming. Thank you Garrett and Ola for sharing.