How a DIY Couple Transforms Their North Dakota Home For The Holidays
On the outside, you can hardly tell this North Dakota home from its suburban neighbors. Inside, though? That’s another story.
The clock ticks toward 11 p.m. The three Sullivan children have long been nestled all snug in their beds. As she climbs the stairs, their mom, Katie, pauses for a final look at the living room. “What I enjoy most is when I go up for the night and see the twinkle lights below,” she says. “It reminds me of being a kid and that magic of Christmas.”
Katie and husband Daren have been on a six- year ride to get to this place of bliss. They built their West Fargo, North Dakota, home in 2014, meticulously selecting many design details themselves. But as they settled into life and parenthood, they began to yearn for the character they’d given up with new construction. “We love old houses, but we never found one, so we slowly began transforming this one,” Katie says. And they discovered an upside to starting with the blank slate of a younger home: “It’s less about what you want to remove, and more about what you want to add.”
The avid DIYers—he’s a dentist, and she’s a former writer and marketer—started with Katie’s office, hacking a built-in look with Ikea bookcases and drawers, all trimmed in molding. That project done, they moved on to the next builder-basic room. A brick accent wall here. A shiplap ceiling there. And buckets of statement-making black, charcoal and navy paint. Katie has documented it all on her Instagram and blog, Pretty Domesticated.
The Sullivans pour the same energy into holiday decorating. Katie sums up her approach in a word—garland. And lots of it. Evergreen loops up banisters and winds over windows, doors and mantels. Sprigs tuck into picture frames. Wreaths hang on the range hood and mirrors. “When you start with real greens then mix in faux, everyone still assumes it’s all fresh,” she confides. She also dresses up plain swags with bells and berries, plucks apart bargain scores to reassemble them more to her liking, and collaborates with a local florist to create a few custom pieces each year.
Among the greenery, she layers in treasures, like ceramic houses aglow and a pair of family-heirloom snowshoes, because Daren is a holiday traditionalist. As the kids (Eva, 6; Kristian, 3; and Isla, 1) get older, they’re leaving their marks on the holiday decorating too. “Two Christmases ago, we bought a few bottlebrush trees, and Eva came up with the idea of making a sweet and homey village in her room,” Katie says. Now she does it every year, ending her day gazing at a special world of her own making—just like her parents.
In the sunroom, the tree is trimmed with popcorn garlands, family ornaments and dried hydrangeas cut from the front yard shrubs. A ceiling of shiplap and crossbeams adds dimension and character to the space.
Dreaming of a white kitchen? So were the Sullivans. The quartzite counters gleam, and Katie added shine to the backsplash with bright white grout and Clé’s Weathered White Zellige (a Moroccan technique) tiles. “They’re handmade, and the beauty is in the flaws and variation in color and texture,” she says. A milk-glass pendant and modern farmhouse sink give throwback charm to a newer home. The feathery fronds on the window’s asymmetrical wreath allow light to seep into the room.
Katie seasoned the crisp kitchen with “little of this, little of that” eclecticism: a hefty wood table, a cowhide rug, and a potpourri of pattern play in the woven bistro chairs and throw pillows.
For Christmas, the snowshoes come out every year—they belonged to Daren’s grandfather. Katie also uses both faux and real greens to decorate. The swag in the breakfast nook is fresh, but in the sunroom, the tree and chandelier sprigs are not. For some pieces, she sends ideas to Love Always Floral in Fargo to create.
Almost no surface goes undecorated in the living room. A swag—made of two fresh garlands wired together with white ribbon and iron bells—drapes to one side off the mantel. In the blue-painted shelves, tea lights glow inside ceramic houses, and glass cloches hold string lights.
That picture above the mantel? It's actually a Samsung Frame TV, set to one of its standard photos.
Above the credenza, Katie pulled apart an old Target wreath and remade it with some fresh elements: “Never be afraid to cut off what doesn’t work for you, then add details that do.”
One of the details she added to this room: The accent wall. Katie watched TV while holding each thin brick tile in place.
Serving as family cinema, guest quarters and playroom, the basement was definitely not a style afterthought. Since she couldn’t manufacture sunlight, Katie decided to lean into lower-level coziness—going for sort of a smoke-free smoker’s lounge vibe, she jokes, with dusky gray paint and a handsome tufted leather sectional. Rather than disrupt the vibe with a large TV, the Sullivans installed a projector and pull-down screen for movie nights.
Reclaimed wood beams and a color shift to white distinguish the basement’s bar from the moodier hangout space. Mirrored cabinets bounce light and create an illusion of windows. In the reflection: the Sullivans’ second Christmas tree. The herringbone floor is luxury vinyl tile. “It’s pretty common to get water in your basement around here,” Katie says. “Luxury vinyl is more practical than carpet or wood.”
Katie papered her daughter Eva’s room in a pattern by Schumacher. It’s colorful and fanciful enough to charm a little one—but also sophisticated enough to grow with her. The lavender ceiling is a nod to Eva’s favorite color. “I wasn’t ready to paint the entire room purple, so we just did the ceiling instead,” Katie says.
The basement guest room has a bunkhouse spirit, with shiplap walls and an extra-long twin bed lofted above a queen. “It’s a cheery and airy space,” Katie says. “I imagine in the future, the kids will play a lot of hide-and-seek in here.” Concealed doors add storage near the beds.
In the guest bath, all design choices flowed from the patterned concrete tile. “I wanted something more graphic in that small space, where the shower takes up most of the room,” Katie explains.
A favorite painting inspired Katie’s office. Luxe details like a candelabra chandelier, black desk, Georgian-style chairs and inky black walls breathe a classic feel into a space that’s visible from the foyer.
Make It Personal
Newer homes are clean-canvas opportunities—but where to start? Katie Sullivan explains her strategy.
BE TRUE TO YOURSELF When we first moved in, I replicated what I thought most people were doing, farmhouse style. Through trial and error, I learned my style is transitional—a mixture. I love classic architecture with an earthy, modern twist, paired with soft neutrals, contemporary furnishings and vintage accessories.
STUDY UP Flag photos you like online and tear out pages of magazines that inspire you. Then analyze them for common threads. Do the kitchens have similar backsplashes? Do you have more of a taste for classic than you realized?
BE ARCHITECTURAL Everyone knows paint does wonders, and easy peel-and-stick wallpapers are great, too—but interior moldings and trim are my favorite way to create character. We have added brick, shiplap, bookcases, bench seats and trim throughout our home. PS: Don’t forget the ceilings!