sneak peeks

A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD

by Sabrina Smelko

My favorite homes are those that are made up of a balanced mix of textures, materials, patterns and colors, where it’s difficult to pin it down to a single style. In just a few square feet of any room in Katie Vail‘s home, you’re sure to find leopard print, gold, Lucite, wood, metal and polka dots. Her Columbia, Maryland apartment is flirty and light while flaunting plenty of character and boldness, and it’s this complex mix that I’d use to describe Katie herself. As a former Army Captain, Katie is regimented and rises before the sun to run or hit the gym with her husband, Tom, an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) officer in the Army. And though she’s strong-willed and hard-working, she’s also charmingly down-to-earth, super-sweet and loves exploring her creative side through her blog Life with a Dash of Whimsy and with her online Etsy store, DashOfVintageWhimsy.

Katie and Tom are newlyweds and have lived in this space for just under seven months, and though they’re aware they may have to up and move at any time given their transient lifestyle (Katie’s hoping for Germany or Hawaii next!), Katie spared no expense when it came to decorating and making their apartment a home. After all, Katie and Tom know more than anyone how important home base is. –Sabrina

Photography by Sarah Bradshaw.

A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie has a love for artwork and gallery walls. This one features her favorite color combo, pink and blue.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie got her sofa for free from her parents' neighbor, Carol, a real estate agent who had just sold the house of an elderly woman who was moving into an assisted living home. She couldn't bring all of her furniture with her, so she asked Carol to get rid of it for her. Katie just happened to be home the weekend Carol was selling it at a yard sale and she knew immediately she had to have it for the shape and lines of it alone. After a quick re-upholstery in this fun ikat print, it's one of Katie's favorite pieces, and the one she's most proud of.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie stapled sheepskin from IKEA onto what she describes as a once-ugly footstool. "It kind of reminds me of the little stool that was really a dog from Beauty and the Beast!" she laughs.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
These two ghost chairs add seating without adding visual bulk. The Spanish posters in the kitchen were bought on a trip to Spain one spring break while Katie was at West Point.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Decorating and styling bookcases is one of Katie's favorite things to do.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie's gallery walls evolve over time, resulting in many holes. But the good news is you can always cover them up by adding more and more art to the cluster!
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie and Tom used an old bamboo screen as a pseudo-headboard. The vintage campaign nightstand on the right was a Salvation Army find.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
"I love this little reading nook," says Katie, "It's nice and cozy, plus it's the only place my second wingback chair would fit!"
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Most of the art in the Vail home has been collected while traveling, but this colorful abstract painting of a woman was bought at TJ Maxx. "It manages to tie in all the crazy colors of our home," explains Katie, "so even though it's not a sentimental piece, I really love it."
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
The dresser was rather nondescript before Katie switched up the knobs to make it more fun. The garland was made by a friend of Katie's for her bridal shower last year.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
"I'm a sucker for a pretty place to display my jewelry," says Katie. The black and white polka dot curtain serves as their closet door. Katie used the same fun material to make pillows in their living room.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
A variety of thrifted dishes hold Katie's earrings and a large apothecary jar holds her bracelets.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
The only place Katie's work desk would fit in the apartment was beside their bed, which Katie doesn't mind! She made the bulletin board using an old frame and some fabric.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie spray-painted the brackets of her IKEA shelf gold, along with her once-green-and-yellow pineapple jar. The nude sketch of a mother and child was bought at a thrift store.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Their bathroom is tiny, but works for the time being.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Style and function are both really important to Katie, so creating extra storage space that actually looks pretty was essential. "I had a different shelf up here earlier that I didn't hang properly and it crashed down one day and shattered the toilet lid and a few glass canisters holding bath salts shattered too," says Katie, "Needless to say, it was a huge mess!"
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie loves using pieces in places that you wouldn't expect them, such as this little tray table. "It's perfect for tucking next to the tub," she says.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
The dining area is a bit compact, but there was no way Katie wasn't going to use her beloved marble dining table in the space! It was a challenge for Katie to figure out how to make two sides of a bookcase look presentable, but it was a fun challenge.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie bought this handmade Afghan carpet while she was deployed to Afghanistan. "I had the whole rug-buying experience, where they bring out the different rugs and throw them out in front of you," she says, "It was pretty surreal and I'm glad that I was able to take home such a unique piece." The dining chairs were a thrift store find that Katie spray painted and re-upholstered. Can you tell she likes spots?
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie loves hosting dinner parties and cooking for people. While she prefers to keep things casual with crisp white dishes, she loves jazzing it up a bit with vintage gold flatware.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Their small but mighty kitchen.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
"Our kitchen is itty-bitty so I had to get creative and figure out a way to create more shelf space," she says, "Even though these metal shelves look super industrial they present such a great opportunity to decorate with our kitchen items!"
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie keeps her cookbooks handy so they're available and ready when the mood strikes! The pig bookends are from CB2 and add a playful touch. "We eat more bacon than we should so they are definitely fitting."
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie found their fruit "basket" at an antique mall in Georgia. It's actually an old wooden bowl used to raise bread dough. Katie's collection of wine stoppers has been gathered and kept from all of her travels and reminds her of countless fun trips. The Lucite and brass wine rack was a flea market find in Albuquerque.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
Katie's white IKEA bookcase is such a great versatile workhorse piece for any home. It's currently holding their dishes, books, knick-knacks and crafting supplies.
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
"This gallery wall has morphed many times in the few short months we've lived here," says Katie. "I fully believe that you should add a little dimension to your gallery walls, so the 'V' and the animal head make it look more interesting."
A Whimsical Apartment for Two in Columbia, MD
The bar cart was a Salvation Army find that Katie and Tom keep in front of the fireplace when they don't have a fire going. The turtle shell was spray painted gold and fits the space between the mantel and fireplace. Katie found the bust for $25 while home visiting her parents in Atlanta.

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  • I’m always impressed by how people can mix patterns and colours so beautifully. The fuchsia wing chair really stands out…a classic shape with a modern colour. Very cool.

  • So I’ve followed Katie’s blog and I think she’s fantastic and has led a fantastic life. But is there a conversation here about how her apartment looks just like it walked off a decor blog? She’s checked all the boxes – lucite, brass animals, animal print, ikat, mixed metals, chinoiserie jars, bar cart…I think I even spot a Michele Armas in there (not judging, I have one of her paintings too). Isn’t all of this getting a little rote? It’s adorable, sure, but I sort of expect more unique from DesignSponge. And I know I know I’m an internet troll but I think it’s worth a conversation, maybe?

    • Devon

      I think what’s worth a conversation here is the way we judge people for embracing the same trends we demand to see from publications online. It’s important to remember that the things we may “tire” of seeing online are only seen once, and privately, in someone’s home. No one’s home should have to be constantly changing and different enough to please people who don’t live there. If things feel too trendy for you, then it’s a good sign those things shouldn’t be in your home. But it’s not fair to ask someone else to not love the same things that our entire community seem to be loving.

      Re: Michele Armas- shouldn’t we want independent artists to be successful enough that we see their work in MANY homes? Not just our own? That comment doesn’t sit well with me for a lot of reasons. But mainly because I want to see artists like Michele do well and pop up in as many homes as possible.

      We’ll keep doing our best to showcase homes that reflect a wide range of styles, areas and trends. This one happens to include a lot of the design elements that are popular in the market right now. But we’ve also run a lot of homes over the past few weeks that don’t. If this one isn’t your cup of tea I understand, but suggesting that someone shouldn’t, for example, own a Michele Armas piece because you’ve seen a lot of them online is an unfair way to look at the way real people live.


  • It seems to me the homeowner here worked hard to make a vibrant, au courant living space. After fifty years of adulthood decorating my own and others’ homes, I’ve watched these same trends coming and going and find it amusing that young people today sometimes speak as though they invented them. But, truthfully, to have one’s own style takes years of trial and error, of looking, watching, studying all arts. It takes some longer than others to learn who she is and what she likes. Tending to your own house will reap originality on occasion.

  • I think it’s important to remember that most homes aren’t decorated to completion in a week, or even a month, with most of them evolving over years. Plenty of trends come and go in the meantime and homeowners pick out the “trends” that speak to them. And even then, those trends go through an “interpretation” by the owner. Truly, no two homes look alike, which is why I love seeing hundreds of them day after day.

    I remember Katie’s tour from The Everygirl. She is a very inspiring lady with good taste to boot.

  • I love this space. As for the “trends,” a lot of times there are things I would never think about until I see them on a design blog or in someone else’s home. I may adapt them a little differently for my own home, but just because something is a “trend” doesn’t mean that someone may not really love it for their own home. This home is well-loved and well lived in and those are both the factors for me in a lovely home. Brass animals, lucite, and all that jazz- I have a piece of two in my home and they are there because I love them and not because I really hope others like my home or because I want my home to look like every other home I see.

    This home is lovely. I have a super eclectic home, though, so I might be a little jaded in my love. :)

  • Absolutely loving how everything, from the furniture down to the books, is so special & quirky in their own way, yet blends together!

  • Katie’s home is an inspiration to me. Like Katie, I have limited space. Her use of vibrant colors and imaginative artwork brings the space to life. If I had the funds, I would invite Katie to decorate my home.

  • Funny, aren’t trends the stuff that we celebrate – or at least appreciate – when we are considering interior design throughout history? There is very little new under the sun. Sometimes I think we should just enjoy the process of sharing and evolving together, instead of being so concerned with originality that it sucks the joy out of playing with style.

    As for this space, I agree with others that Katie brings all the elements together into an beautifully curated space that reflects her joy in living.

  • Well, I don’t really see the balanced mix of textures, colours and materials. I I I agree it’s a lovely home but a bit too cluttered and I think we are overrating quantity ot stuff, vintage things with no functionality, full walls, sheepskins and so on like a pattern or trend. I don’t like either the huge Spanish posters about bullfight.

  • I love how many layers are in every vignette of this space! It is always so refreshing to see current trends paired with classic elements. Uniquely, even the trends that are represented here have roots in tradition; the pineapple boxes, bar cart, blue and white china, foo dogs, etc are all elements that I not only incorporate in my home today but my mother and grandmother have placed on their shelves and in their homes for years. I also appreciate how much story is included throughout the home. The gorgeous rug from Katie’s deployment and the Spanish posters from a collegiate adventure are both fabulous, for example! Her mix of these storied elements as well as mixing both modern and traditional elements are what make the space truly unique and hardly trendy. Beautiful job, Design Sponge and Katie!

  • Love this fresh, clean colourway! So many interesting touches everywhere…..LOVE the silver lion on the bookcase!!!

  • I think it’s a great home–I’d live there!–just not what I’m used to seeing from Design Sponge. This place would be right at home in HGTV mag or Better Homes (both of which I read and enjoy), but I read DS to see what’s next in design, rather than check out the trends of the moment. This is a little less forward than the typical home featured on DS, but I’m not mad at it.

  • I have to agree with Bee. I don’t see a lot of balance or truly skillful curation, just A LOT of stuff! Still fun to look at though.

  • Can someone tell me where I could get a floating shelf like this? & Glass canister? So pretty!

  • Thanks to those of you who left kind comments. I appreciate it! This is only a temporary home so it’s easier and more affordable for me to keep as much stuff as I can in my apartment rather than pay for an extra large storage unit. One day once I have a larger home things won’t be so “cluttered” because I’ll actually have space to spread out. And Sally, not sure if you’ll see this but the shelf is from The Container Store and the canister is World Market (I believe).

  • What a lovely home! I’m in love with the “I Love Us” print, will you share where you purchased it?


  • Devon, you must have amazing taste in art:-). Would love to see a photo of your Armas. Interestingly, I been following Katie for years. Her taste and adventurous spirit in design have been consistent for years. You have to wonder…if her jewel box of an apartment looks straight off a design blog maybe it’s because she’s setting trends rather than following them?

  • I’m not really a frequent comment-er, but I am a frequent visitor. The reason I keep coming back is because of the variety in what is put out. This home was different to me in a lot of ways and I pinned quite a few ideas that I liked for my home, whether I am following a “trend” or not. Katie, your home is beautiful!

    And Grace, keep on because you are doing amazing.

  • wow…she packs so much into a small space. love that bookcase divider! her home is such a great study in fearlessly combining patterns and color!

  • “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world & there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches” DVT Whenever you get a comment that gets you down, just remember that you have been to war, literally! If you can handle that, well you can handle anything. I think your home is lovely.

  • Katie decorated my home, and I can personally attest that she’s able to lend her fantastic, innate sense of style to fit another space and another taste…and to make it WORK. She’s not a one trick pony in any sense. I feel like the ability to design a space using items that aren’t yours and to make it look good and fit within the taste preferences of another person is the hallmark of a truly talented decorator. Many people can make a space look great, but only within what THEY like. Katie is versatile. Everyone who comes to our home is wowed by Katie’s work, and she came up with combinations I’d never dream of. Katie has a natural eye for design, and I’m glad I can say I “knew her when.” Bravo, sweet girl!

  • This space is brought together in a way that resonates with me as being both eclectic and authentic. I love that Katie has been collecting throughout her travels – the stories people weave with the art they collect are what draw me into a space. Although I must have missed the Michelle Armas (whose work I love!), I wholeheartedly second Grace in wishing she and many other artists would pop up more often. Speaking of which, that vibrant Emily Rickard above the sofa (on its side? genius!) has found the perfect home.

  • I love how this home demonstrates what you can do with a standard-issue contemporary apartment space (beige walls and carpet, etc.). Even though, taken all together, it’s not really my style, it’s a lovely, personal space and very inspiring. Thanks for sharing, Katie!

  • Devon,

    I never comment but had to, to support yours. I see people took it way too personally, even though there was nothing unkind about your comment. Sometimes you’ve got to call a thing, a thing. I felt the same way going over each slide (re: trend-filled, rote) and happen to love what she has done with the space in terms of color combos, texture & patterns! Only thing I disagree with is it not being unique enough to display on DS.

  • Its a charming work.! The use of vibrant colours and imaginative artwork, all brings a new life to the space. Perfect.