I’ll get right to it. This lovely lady inspired me the moment I met her. We were first introduced at North Lime Coffee & Donuts during a CAKE&WHISKEY event where we were the only two toting massive DSLRs — always an ice breaker. She was photographing for skirt! Magazine and I was getting some behind the scenes stuff for C&W. Her style immediately caught my eye because it was a perfect blend of vintage and rockabilly, which I love! When we got to chatting, I learned that in addition to being a stylish photographer, she’s a talented artist, a fellow makeup addict, and a gifted thrifter. I ended up visiting her darling apartment soon after our first meeting, and I fell in love. Every room was so full of character and nostalgia, and there was a story tucked into every beautifully curated nook. In this post, I’ll be interviewing Michelle and inviting her to share her decor inspiration and thoughts on transforming a dull rental space into a creative retreat. Michelle, take it away!
Hi! My name is Michelle Aiello. I was born and raised in the magnificent city of Chicago. I got my BA in English & Secondary Education from DePaul University, and I had a wide variety of jobs, from a high school English teacher to a spa attendant at The Peninsula Chicago to a copywriter for a European apothecary.
In 2007, I met Scott, who is now my fiancé. We decided to move to Kentucky for three reasons: We knew we wanted a better life together, and the cost of living in Chicago prevented us from saving enough to get there. I had lived my entire life in one place, and thought it would be a good experience to live somewhere completely different. And finally, his mother offered to let us live rent-free in a property she owned in exchange for keeping it up. It was a huge 1820’s home with a sprawling garden in the tiny, historic town of Millersburg.
After getting to know Bourbon County and Lexington, we found that Kentucky had lots of potential for us, and we decided to stay. I think Lexington is a perfectly sized city to achieve your goals while still living a lifestyle full of fun, culture and social activities. It’s close to lots of larger cities and beautiful countryside, too. I’ve done a variety of freelance writing & editing work here, including a position with the Louisville-based marketing company, Bourbon & Beans. I’m currently the editor of skirt! Lexington; a women’s magazine with a focus on local culture, arts and business.
What was on your apartment-hunting checklist when you were looking for your current place?
The funny thing is, we weren’t looking for an apartment at all – but our place found us! We were commuting to Lexington pretty regularly for work and friends. I was pretty adamant about not renting again, but one Saturday in November 2012, Scott and I were walking downtown and spotted a FOR RENT sign on a two-story building on West Second Street. We knocked on the door, and a sweet older gentleman answered. We told him we were interested in the apartment, and he invited us to have a look. The next thing he mentioned was the rent, and I had to stop dead in my tracks at the figure. It was a quarter of what we’d paid in Chicago. So absurdly low that I was hesitant to even look at the place. But we walked upstairs, and took about ten seconds to make a decision I never thought I’d make.
What was it like walking into your current space for the first time?
It was pretty difficult to contain my excitement. The apartment is the entire second floor of a two-story home, most likely the servant’s quarters. It’s over 200 years old, with all the original mantles, many original fixtures, etc. Every room is surrounded with windows, so it gets 360 degrees of sunlight. It has two large rooms with wall-to-wall off-white carpet (which I’m normally not crazy about, but it’s actually super plush and cozy). It also has a side room with brick walls and a hardwood floor (probably once an outdoor space or porch), with an interior window. The kitchen is huge; with an antique cast iron & enamel sink, washer and dryer, and a back storage room with another interior window. The bathroom is not actually in the apartment; but in the hallway, off the stairwell. As we walked through, the landlord explained that it came with three parking spaces in a small alley behind the house. And perhaps best of all, we learned that downstairs is not his home, but his office. And since he’s semi-retired, we’d have the place to ourselves most of the time. Scott is a musician, and he knows that finding a place in the city with no neighbors is nearly impossible. We kept shooting each other these looks that were half-crazed, excited, disbelieving and pleading at the same time.
By the time the walkthrough was over, I was already mentally arranging our furniture and décor. We were both obsessed with the place; we had to have it. The landlord told us there was already some interest, but to leave our information so that his secretary could call us on Monday. Well, we couldn’t wait that long. We drove back to Lexington the next day (a 60-mile round trip) and asked him if we could see the place again. He must have thought we were a little crazy, but he let us check it out again. At this point, we were determined not to leave until he let us rent it. I’d never done this before, but I offered him a bribe to hold the apartment for us. He just laughed and said it wasn’t really about the money. I told him we’d take great care of the place and treat it like it was our own. He opened a drawer and pulled out a much-photocopied application.
Describe your decorating creative process, from vision to execution.
This was one of the most challenging spaces I’ve worked with. First of all, because it’s a very old house, outlets and light switches are in crazy places, or non-existent. So we had to buy lots of extension cords and different types of adaptors for the old-fashioned outlets. There are no kitchen cabinets, only a pegboard (which ended up being one of my favorite elements of the place – both from a design and storage perspective!) But at first, I thought, where the hell am I going to put my dishes? Eventually we decided to use a stainless steel storage rack, and keep the dishes in plain sight. The kitchen window looks out into the storage room, so we hung up a Union Jack flag and it ended up looking fabulous when lit from behind. There is no medicine cabinet or any kind of storage in the bathroom, and I’m still working on an ideal solution. For now, I’ve got towels and other supplies on an old bookshelf and I installed some shelving over the toilet for items I use daily. There’s only one tiny closet, not nearly enough for a clotheshorse like me. So Scott uses the closet, and I purchased two standing clothing racks from IKEA. While I often feel pressured to keep the rack looking neat, it’s nice to have all my clothes out in the open. I do miss being able to close the door on a messy closet, and it eliminates that impulse. Finally, we had to figure out what to do with the surplus of furniture that we purchased to fill the rooms in the Millersburg house. We had a yard sale, but I couldn’t part with many of the pieces, so some are at friends’ houses, and there’s couch in our bedroom that is basically a decoration. Oh well!
Let’s talk style. What inspires you when you’re creating a living space?
I’m a homebody, but I also love entertaining — so for me, a home should be a comfortable and beautiful retreat from the world. Somewhere you absolutely love to be. My inspiration comes from a combination of Victorian, Mid-Century and late 60’s / early 70’s aesthetics. I love art deco and art nouveau patterns, jewel tones, metallics, lush textures, natural materials, and subtly psychedelic lighting. I believe that when it comes to interior design, lighting is everything. I can’t stand over-lit spaces and I much prefer indirect light or natural sunlight. I am always looking for colored glass lamps, unique lightbulbs and anything to diffuse the light and create a magical glow.
In the kitchen and bathroom, I’m inspired by the Scandinavian idea of form and function. I don’t keep anything unless I use it often. I try to be a minimalist, but I can’t help sneaking in a few decorative pieces. I think it’s worth it to invest in nice storage containers and systems for keeping things in order so I can find what I need quickly.
What hangups do you think people typically have when it comes to decorating their own space? What advice would you give them?
I think many people have this notion that it takes a lot of money to create an inviting and stylish space. The truth is, it just takes a little more time and creativity. Most of the pieces in my apartment were purchased at thrift stores, yard sales or on Craigslist. That can definitely become overwhelming, but the key is to know what you want before you start your search. Look at books and magazines to identify the style you like, then thrift or D.I.Y. your way to a fabulous place. The other hangup I encounter in some people is a lack of confidence to pull off their ideas. There is no right way or wrong way. I have a floral brocade couch and a plaid couch in the same room. One is chartreuse and one is orange. I don’t care if it “works” – I love it. So the advice I’d offer is to know your style, and then own it.
How much do you love her??
Check out Michelle’s website (“Indigo Zine”) and blog here!
Tell me about your home decor style and inspiration in the comments below! Is your space a cozy and creative haven? How did you do it?