The Blank Canvas

1 BlankRoom

Every room in the house was a blank slate. This is one of the four upstairs bedrooms.

Last summer, my husband Julius Rabinowitz accepted the position of spiritual leader at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Connecticut. Mazal tov! It’s been a busy and challenging few months.

Norwich, I wondered, when he first told me about the offer, is that located halfway between Norwalk and Greenwich? Not quite, I learned. It’s an hour north of New Haven. Really far. He needs to be there every Wednesday evening through Sunday afternoon. Wow, a big chunk of the week. Although I was very proud of Julius, it felt like the familiar ground I knew and counted on, the ground that our life together was based on, was shifting under me, maybe even shifting away from me. Scary.

And then there was the house, the parsonage. A two-story, four-bedroom house, that, sight-unseen, he, or we (I wanted to spend at least every other weekend there) would be living in those four nights a week. My first impression of the house, to be honest, was not positive: 12 large, almost-empty spaces, all except for a too-blue kitchen, painted off-white, with beige tweed carpeting, small casement windows, and cottage-cheese ceilings. What to do?

3 LivingRoomBefore

The living room: before. Inspired by shows like “Design on a Dime,” I set about transforming each space with a budget of $5000 for the entire 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom house.

Well, we started working it out. First, the timing, the transportation issues, scheduling my work and other commitments around going up there. During the High Holy Days, I began meeting the warm, welcoming members of the congregation, and they made the transition easier. And then I started working on the house: Making it not only a place we could be comfortable in, but a place the congregants could be welcome and comfortable in, too.

I sat in every room and let it speak to me. How to make the living room not only a place for us to hang out, but a place to host a study group. How to make the dining room the right kind of space to host dinners for members of the congregation; after all, I was the new rebbitzin. The Redecorating Rebbitzin. On a budget that most designers would allocate for one room, not a dozen.

4 LivingRoom

After: the living room has been repainted Benjamin Moore “Abalone.” Floor-to-ceiling curtain panels ($29 per pair from IKEA) visually elongate the casement windows throughout the first floor.

2 LivingRoom2

Over 20 years of marriage we’d collected furnishings, including a George Kovacs Macintosh lamp, a DWR Sapien bookshelf, and two butterfly chairs, that have found a new home in Norwich. First, I raided our storage room and closets. Then, I shopped. The sectional sofa ($699) and three round tables ($150 for the set) are from Jennifer Convertibles. Rug ($79) from Home Goods. Table lamps ($49 each) from Target. A pair of ”Coaster” slipper chairs ($110 each) ordered from Pillows from IKEA, Etsy, and homemade with fabrics from Jo-Ann. Brick-and-board bookshelf made from Home Depot components. “Visit Palestine” pre-1948 tourist poster reproduction ordered from, in a 24 x 36 Michael’s  poster frame.

9 KitchenBefore

The kitchen—before—being scrubbed and readied by congregants.

Inspired by shows like “Design on a Dime” and “Designed to Sell,” I began my various projects, still not 100 percent convinced that I could love this house. Then along came Superstorm Sandy. Our area of lower Westchester County was hit pretty hard, with lots of trees and power lines down. Two candlelight dinners in Irvington were romantic and fun. The days were warm, and it was nice to be in a peaceful house with no hum of electronics in the background. Then the temperatures turned frigid, and it wasn’t fun any more. On Wednesday, October 31, we packed the car and came up to Norwich—to a warm, well-lit place with wi-fi. I hadn’t been there in a couple of weeks, and stuff had gotten done, furniture had arrived. It started feeling like home. That Wednesday, I worked on my laptop, cooked on a working stove, and enjoyed sleeping in a heated bedroom.

10 Kitchen2

The kitchen is repainted Benjamin Moore Whyte Blue, which blends with the existing slate floor tiles. Jacobsen chairs, originally used in Manhattan design office conference room, were in our storage room at home. Ersatz Saarinen table is from IKEA. Although we had to buy everything from a potato peeler to a toaster, there were plenty of extra decorative dishes at home. I made the curtains from fabrics from Jo-Ann. Existing light fixture.

12 Breakfast2

”Peace and Happiness Begin Where Garlic Is Used in Cooking,” a quote from Elizabeth David, is the theme of this art piece I designed and had output on canvas. The Metro wire shelving was re-made from pieces in our storage room. I used lots of silk flowers, re-purposed from my son Alex and daughter-in-law Yan‘s wedding luncheon party and other events.

The next morning, I got up early, went downstairs, and made myself a cup of coffee. Standing at the bay window in the kitchen, I watched the sun rise, a gold and pink sunrise over the trees at the edge of the back yard, over the hills in the distance. It was beautiful. All of a sudden I said, almost out loud, “God is in this place and I did not know it.” I surprised myself. This, a verse from the story of Jacob in the Biblical book of Genesis, was not a phrase I was used to saying, or even thinking. And, somewhat like Jacob at that moment on the path of his life, just after his dream of angels ascending and descending the stairway to heaven, everything changed.

The house starting loving me and I started loving it back. The next weekend, I brought up my sewing machine and made curtains. I made art for the house and brought up plants and books and pictures. Including pictures we’d bought in Israel—wanting to support those hungry artists in Safed and Jaffa—but never had enough wall space for in Irvington. Here, the pictures can shine.

7 Dining1

The dining room was re-painted Benjamin Moore Hollingsworth Green. The table is a 36 x 80″ flush birch door from Home Depot, which I polyurethaned and placed on sawhorses from the old Conran Shop that were in our storage room. Four dining chairs and a small table now used as a desk upstairs were donated by Gorin’s, a Norwich furniture store owned by a congregant. The art deco bar cart was found at Amazing Furniture, a warehouse store owned by another congregant. Posters I designed for percussion events were output to fit existing frames.

8 DiningBuffet

IKEA buffet was lovingly put together by Rav Julius. Serving pieces were gifts over the years, plus new pieces from the Casafina Factory Warehouse sale. Wire chairs, originally purchased at the Conran Shop under the 59th St. Bridge, had been in my Manhattan office.  The buffet lamp was a splurge ($99) from Ballard Designs, and the “Viva la Vida” Frida Kahlo print was blown up to fit an existing frame. Existing light fixture seems to work now.

13 FireplaceRoomBefore

Before: We’d always wanted a fireplace.

  • 16 Fireplace2
17 PowderRoom

A quart of paint from Home Depot, a $15 rug from Marshall‘s, a print in a Michael’s frame, and a $29 cabinet from IKEA transformed this downstairs powder room.

I’d rather not show you a ‘before’ picture of the downstairs powder room, left. Actually, my first project was sponge-painting the off-white walls sky blue to blend with the tile floor and finding an inexpensive frame for a large poster I’d designed for a competition on the theme of global design. Successfully transforming the smallest room in the house gave me the confidence to forge ahead.

The house now has wi-fi, but it’s without a TV, a land-line phone, a stereo, exercise equipment, or even a food processor or blender. And that’s part of its low-tech charm. It’s a place for reading, studying, talking, knitting, sewing, listening to the one local oldies FM station on the boom box, working on laptops, meditating, doing yoga, practicing music, entertaining new friends, and cooking simple foods. And sleeping!

18 Bedroom

In the bedroom, an IKEA chair and ottoman make a comfortable reading nook. Since the house has no TV (and we don’t want one—Netflix on the laptop will do), I created this art piece called ”The Only Channel.” The existing diamond-pattern rose-beige carpeting was complemented by “Soft Sand” on the walls. Gorin’s donated the bed and dresser.

19 MasterBath2

FLOR modular carpet tiles in the master bath,  a 125-sq-ft room with ’70s-vintage tile, much of it broken.

24 Sewing-Office

Office/sewing room is decorated with Eames card blow-ups that had once been used as props for a design event. The folding table, lamp, and small file cabinet had been in our basement.

One of the spare bedrooms is now a comfy guest room. We turned another bedroom into an office/sewing room, below, where Reb Julius and I can work quietly together. Curtains: done. Pillows: done. What’s next?

No more bargain-hunting or furniture assembly, I hope. Just getting to know the congregation better, hosting groups of congregants for study groups and dinners, and relaxing and enjoying the house. And exploring the area—beyond Home Depot and Jo-Ann’s and TJ Maxx—a little better. I hear there are charming towns nearby, a famous rose garden, and beaches. Did I do it all for $5000? Not quite, but pretty close.

And then, when the snow melts, a little flower gardening. The front beds need work. Finally, someplace to put those astilbes that need so badly to be divided.

About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint,, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
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7 Responses to The Blank Canvas

  1. Deborah says:


    Inspiring as always! What a great space-maker you are, and what a way to start off Julius’ new position (offer him my congratulations!). I wish you a wonderful 2013—in Norwich, in Irvington, and wherever love and creativity take you.


  2. Pru Montgomery says:

    Dear Ellen,
    Congratulations to you and to Julius – and to your congregation at Beth Jacob!

    xoxo, Pru

  3. Victoria Londin says:

    What a lovely place and space you have created!

  4. ronna Blau says:

    The house looks so inviting. I am looking forward to visiting you and Julius.

  5. This is beautiful! I love the grays and blues. So inviting.

  6. A wonderful portrayal of before and after; I love the Jacobsen chairs, have always wanted those.

  7. Pingback: Along the Road |

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