After a sudden split from her husband of 10 years, Stevie McFadden discovered firsthand that our surroundings play an influential role during times of crisis. The residential and commercial designer found herself in need of a home where she could overcome her heartache and create a new life.

“It’s a thread that we try to weave through all our projects,” said McFadden, who has a graduate degree in the study of human behavior within an organization and owns the interior design firm Flourish Spaces in Richmond, Va. “What are we putting in people’s surroundings that evokes emotions of belonging and feeling supported and cared for?”

Her work with nonprofits has helped her understand the principles of trauma-informed care in physical spaces, whether it’s designing sober-living apartments for a homeless shelter or a teen center at the Boys & Girls Club.

"What are the messages in that space that they are worthy and spark their imaginations and make them feel supported?" McFadden said.

After separating from her husband, McFadden bought a 120-year-old brick rowhouse just two blocks from her office. The 2,300-square-foot home provided McFadden with a blank canvas to design the backdrop to her new life.

“We all have a narrative identity about who we are, our place in the world, and our relationship to others,” she said. “And when your story changes, you have to figure that all out.”

For an affordable facelift in the kitchen, Stevie McFadden bought used appliances from Craigslist and an island from Facebook Marketplace.
Mick Anders
For an affordable facelift in the kitchen, Stevie McFadden bought used appliances from Craigslist and an island from Facebook Marketplace.

No longer living with her husband but left with the possessions from the life they created together, McFadden felt grief-stricken. “There was a lot of self-doubt and fear,” she said.

McFadden followed a four-step plan to design a home where she could overcome the grief of her separation — and through the process, she learned how a space can heal and unlock potential.

She started by conducting an inventory of her half of the couple’s belongings — what she needed to purchase and purge.

“The places we inhabit — that is the stage where our lives take place,” McFadden said. “The stuff in our homes, it’s the artifacts of our lives and our stories up to that point. So what do you do with that stuff?”

How you can do this: Evaluate how each space makes you feel, inventory items, and assess their function.

Left with a surplus of sideboards after her divorce, Stevie McFadden breathed new life into this one with a fresh coat of paint.
Mick Anders
Left with a surplus of sideboards after her divorce, Stevie McFadden breathed new life into this one with a fresh coat of paint.

McFadden wanted her new home to show her connection to positive relationships, especially with her parents and grandmother, that reinforced a joyful part of her identity.

“What does it look like to create memories in this house?” McFadden asked herself. “I went from thinking fearful to thinking hopeful. When I could physically imagine the people in that space, it made me excited to build it.”

Planning out her new home, McFadden also was on the lookout for aspirational pieces — furniture and decor that was a reflection of who she wanted her future self to be and the life she wanted to build.

How you can do this: Imagine your future self, how you feel when you come home, and how the space makes you feel.

McFadden pondered her emotional connection to each piece of art, decor and furniture.

"What stays and what goes? What goes away for a little bit?" she said. "That's how grief works. The pain doesn't go away, but you integrate it back into your life in a different way."

It was difficult for McFadden to look at certain photographs, gifts and mementos from trips. She didn't want them on display, but she didn't have the heart to throw them out, so she tucked them away until one day she can associate the objects with positive memories.

McFadden also created a new narrative for other items connected to her past. For instance, two pieces of art that were wedding gifts are grouped together.

“Now when I look at them, I think about the people who gave them to us, not the fact that it was a wedding gift,” she said. “Sometimes you have to reinterpret the meaning of things.”

How you can do this: Acknowledge the provenance and value of each item as you determine its future in your home.

Easy and affordable transformations included changing out light fixtures and layering in art that kept her connected to personal narratives of her life. "I wanted to evoke a sense of inspiration and aspiration," Stevie McFadden says.
Mick Anders
Easy and affordable transformations included changing out light fixtures and layering in art that kept her connected to personal narratives of her life. "I wanted to evoke a sense of inspiration and aspiration," Stevie McFadden says.

To bring her new space to life, McFadden had to get creative with the furnishings and decor she was left with after her divorce. “There is nothing worse than a space that feels downgraded,” she said

Hand-me-downs and pieces from her old house had to be reimagined. Her nana’s china hutch, for example, became a bookshelf. With a simple coat of paint, furnishings were transformed and given new meaning.

The kitchen and two bathrooms got a facelift, “but on a serious budget,” McFadden said. She replaced all the kitchen appliances with used ones off Craigslist. All other rooms got cosmetic updates with new paint and light fixtures.

“This is the house that Craig built,” McFadden said. “You can go looking for those things and find them on the cheap. Beauty is not expensive.”

How you can do this: Ask for a friend’s opinion to help you wipe the slate clean. Repurpose items and paint them as needed, but consider palette. Purchase to fill the holes.

With the coronavirus, our surroundings matter more than ever, she says, and creating a home where we can feel happy, supported and safe during times of uncertainty is necessary.

“People are fearful of how to put a space together,” McFadden said. “They need to trust themselves.”

"We all have a narrative identity about who we are, our place in the world and our relationship to others. And when your story changes, you have to figure that all out," designer Stevie McFadden says.
Mick Anders
"We all have a narrative identity about who we are, our place in the world and our relationship to others. And when your story changes, you have to figure that all out," designer Stevie McFadden says.