Interiorssneak peeks

A College Apartment Exudes A Refined & Tropical Vibe In Ithaca, NY

by Kelli Kehler

When the Design*Sponge team first met Kevin O’Gara in 2015, he was a high school student and design blogger who had impressively made-over his Dad’s home. It wasn’t long before Kevin began writing for us, and his contributions to DS continued to showcase his boundless talent, both as a writer and interior designer. Since he last graced our web pages, Kevin has, not surprisingly, amassed an even greater resume of work and successful projects under his capable belt.

“I am an Atlanta-based interior design and lifestyle blogger, with design blog Thou Swell and product line Kevin Francis Design with my first collection of maze-inspired rugs, The Labyrinth Collection. I founded my blog as a sophomore in high school to share home and garden, decorating, entertaining and inspiration from emerging Southern design. I transferred from Cornell University’s Design & Environmental Analysis Program to their Hotel School sophomore year to focus on business and entrepreneurship with a hospitality lens, and I’m excited to take a leave of absence this upcoming year to stay in Atlanta and focus on my design work and new business ideas.”

This past year Kevin has happily resided in an 800-square-foot apartment off campus (in the walkable neighborhood of Collegetown) at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY with his roommates, Nina and Olivia. The brand new apartment building finished construction in Fall 2018, just before the trio moved in, and offered them three bedrooms and three bathrooms, with one common living/kitchen/dining room. Upon moving in, Kevin instantly knew he wanted to use the apartment’s design to brighten up their moods and surroundings during Ithaca’s trademark dark days.

“Ithaca gets very dark and cold throughout its long winter, so walking into a colorful, layered, tropical-inspired space was such a great contrast from the outside,” Kevin shares. “I made sure there were layers of ambient lighting, so at night it felt really warm and welcoming with table and floor lamps illuminating the corners of our living rooms. My bedroom was small but cozy, and the depth of the jaguar mural gave the room the feeling of a real retreat, with the crispness of a serene white bed that I could always count on for a good night’s sleep.”

As for the main room that incorporated the kitchen, living and dining area, Kevin’s vibrant design and melange of textures and colors provided a lively backdrop for get-togethers with friends — “We love entertaining and throughout the year we hosted parties for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and an end-of-the-year party; all with themed decor, snacks and drinks,” Kevin says.

Though he’s moving on from this home to head back to Atlanta and buckle down on his design work, conceptualizing this apartment’s aesthetic and collaborating with his roommates proved to be an invaluable lesson and added experience for Kevin. “This apartment was definitely a bit of a departure from my style, which is typically a little more restrained, but being able to respond to my environment and have fun with the space felt really great,” he shares. “I learned the importance of sharing lots of visuals with my roommates so they could see what was going on in my head during the design process and incorporating personal details to make the place really feel like home for us during the school year.” For whatever projects come Kevin’s way in the future, we’re excited to see how his career and style evolve. —Kelli

Photography by Kevin O’Gara / @kfogara

Image above: Kevin shares, “My two roommates are close friends at Cornell, with Nina in the Hotel School with me and Olivia [is a] Communication major. I’m from Atlanta, Olivia is from Arkport, NY and Nina is from Ocean City, NJ. Olivia and I became friends the first week of freshman year, and met Nina through a mutual friend sophomore year and signed our lease together. We’ve been a great trio and have had so much fun in our apartment together. I am so grateful they gave me the reins with our tropical apartment design!”


Kevin in his college apartment in Ithaca, NY. He shares, “I snuck as much extra seating into the living space as possible, from the bench that doubles as a coffee table/ottoman to the pouf in the corner by my bedroom door that can seat up to two people! The dining chairs and counter stools can also turn around and join the seating arrangement if needed.”


“The living area features a colorful, tropical-inspired color palette that coordinates with the fun Swiss Family Robinson wallpaper from WallsNeedLove that anchors the sofa wall. The blue velvet sofa folds open into a full-size bed for hosting friends or family, and holds a mix of pillows from Annie Selke and Austin-based textile brand bunglo. The zebra print is a piece from Minted that was originally in my freshman-year dorm design, and the pink bench is a super versatile piece from Society6’s new furniture collection.


Gold counter stools from the Home Depot echo the deep navy tones in the wallpaper, adding cohesion and uniting all spaces within Kevin’s design. The chic seating was the perfect place for dining or completing homework at the large kitchen island.

The big kitchen island was a real gathering place for my roommates and I as we cooked meals, talked after class, and touched base in the mornings.


“I purposefully used a pair of mirrored tables in the corner by the window to capture and reflect as much light into the room as possible, and they held a key table lamp which illuminated the room past sundown (which is around 4pm in the winter),” Kevin notes. “You can also spot a candle in the corner – we had a wide variety of candles we burned throughout the year to ensure coming home [would be] a complete sensory experience!


Kevin’s bright, tropical design in all its glory — surely a stark contrast to the area’s gloomy winters. “I knew that the apartment should feel lush, lively, and fun – and the location was one of the biggest factors for this direction. Ithaca is notoriously dreary and the winters are cold and long, so having a space that gave a respite from the weather was the first priority.”


“I always got asked if the limes and lemons in my ice bucket were real, and the question always surprised me because they were, but it’s true — they matched the decor perfectly! I always grabbed one from the bucket to add to a drink or squeeze on my dinner so it was super convenient to have them near the kitchen,” Kevin says.


Across from the wallpapered wall in the living room sits the dining area. Kevin explains, “I layered two rugs in the living area, with a durable jute and wool rug from Annie Selke to define the seating area and one of my own rugs from my Labyrinth Collection by Kevin Francis Design on top for a more plush layer and a great graphic element in the room. The apartment-sized Auburn chair from West Elm provides an additional seat to face the blue sofa.”


A closer look at the rug Kevin (a college student!) designed. “The Anatolia rug from my Labyrinth Collection of maze-inspired area rugs comes in five colorways and this Boxwood green provided the perfect lush counterpoint to the soft blush on the bench.”


“Against the far wall is our handy bar cart, which is perfect for organizing our drinks and easily hosting friends with extra cups and napkins,” Kevin shares. “With pops of color from all the artwork on the wall to the warm gold accents throughout the room, the cool grey of walls and floors in our apartment were really warmed up.”


The dining table sits under Kevin’s favorite piece of artwork in the whole apartment, and this particular furniture piece has quite the story to tell for finding its way to this home. Kevin shares, “The dining table was the last big piece of furniture I added to the apartment, and it was actually from a store in Syracuse, which is about an hour away. Olivia and I went to the store to pick up the table, but could only fit the glass top in the car, so I had to order an Uber XL to pick up the table base and bring it down to Ithaca! It was a bit complicated but so worth the hassle because it really completed the living space.”


“At the beginning of fall I picked up these gorgeous hydrangeas (my favorite flowers) from the Ithaca Farmers Market, and the farmer instructed me to leave them out of water so they would dry out and last all year long! I did exactly that, and we were able to enjoy them on this table for the entire school year with their pretty, antiqued color.”


“To fit the fabulous gold dining table from At Home into the room, I pushed it up against the wall, so it could easily be pulled out to accommodate a larger group. White chiavari chairs from Home Depot are great for an apartment because they have a small profile and can stack,” Kevin shares.

I wanted to reflect our personalities and our stage in life, and bringing a young, spirited personality to the decor made the space feel appropriate and made it our own.


In Kevin’s bedroom, a more muted color palette was used, but with just as much drama. “In my own bedroom, I knew I wanted to continue the tropical theme but I needed a more neutral, calming space for my own retreat. I’m a sucker for white bedding, so the crisp sheets and layers of pillows helped me fall right to sleep.”


A closer look at the wall covering. Kevin explains, “The jaguar mural from Anewall brought so much depth to the room, and I love the dramatic touch the gold table lamp brings with its black shade.”


“Nina’s bedroom featured a really fabulous floral wallpaper from WallsNeedLove, and the fresh greens and greys made the room so soothing,” Kevin says. “I helped her move her bed against the back wall to maximize the space in her room.”


Kevin admits that some spaces — especially ones with brilliant wallpaper as the backdrop! — require a simpler decor strategy. “Sometimes all you need is a long lumbar pillow on the bed, and this sky blue linen pillow is one of my favorites with its fringe border. I used it in my dorm room design sophomore year, and I love the simplicity of the blue on Nina’s white bedding by the window.”


“The artwork from Society6 above Nina’s bed is a map of Paris, which is perfect for her after she spent a gap year living in Europe. She’s such an avid traveler I wanted to incorporate it into the bedroom decor.”


Kevin and Olivia’s bathroom. Kevin shares, “I decorated this space with Walmart and found so many affordable pieces to personalize the space. The small gold mirrors were such a great way to fill the wall and warm up the color palette, and the three-drawer organizer helped me and Olivia corral our skincare obsession!” The pink beach print is by Society6.


Living Room

Green maze area rug – Kevin Francis Design
Removable wallpaper – “Swiss Family Robinson,” WallsNeedLove
Blue velvet sofa – Home Depot
Blush bench – Society6
Malachite throw pillow – Annie Selke
Blue fringe throw pillow – Annie Selke
Pink lumbar pillow – bunglo
Blue lumbar pillow – bunglo
Zebra framed print – Minted
Auburn armchair – West Elm
Brass reading lamp – LampsPlus
Jute and wool area rug – Dash & Albert
Tripod floor lamp – Versanora
Braided natural pouf – Annie Selke
Dining table – At Home
Dining chairs – Home Depot
Blue architectural print – Minted


Counter stools – Home Depot


Mirror set – Walmart
Three-drawer organizer – Walmart
Bath mat – Walmart
Grey basket – Walmart
Pink beach print – Society6

Kevin’s Bedroom

Removable wallpaper – Jaguar mural by Anewall
Bedding – Annie Selke
Nightstand – West Elm
Gold table lamp – LampsPlus
Area rug – Mohawk

Nina’s Bedroom

Removable wallpaper – “Fleurs Vert,” WallsNeedLove
Map of Paris print – Society6
Blue fringe lumbar pillow – Annie Selke
Area rug – Mohawk

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  • What a really wonderful is that! And I love the labyrinth rug! Great design job! I’d totally dig one of those! And let’s talk about the wallpaper. That Jaguar. So fab! Very inspiring!

  • Reflect their age? my goodness times have changed. How did he camouflage the cinder blocks?

    Fantastic place. I would be very happy to book a room at his one-day signature hotel.

  • WOW! the use of color is so sophisticated. I love the warm gray walls with blues and green. That swirly green pillow! That artwork over the dining room table! Kevin is destined to well deserved success, so talented!

  • I really like your ideas about brightening up a small place for the dreary winter months. I live in Rochester so I fully understand how grey and long the winter can be. Your ideas showed some really efficient ways to maximize the light and stay fun at the same time.