Before and after: Click your television remote and it's everywhere you look.
Weight-loss infomercials cast once-chubby housewives as bikini-clad vixens. Reality dramas convert gawky hopefuls into cover models and CEOs. With the help of a 21st century Mary Poppins, inveterate brats morph into rule-abiding angels.
But nowhere is this phenomenon more obvious than in home design programming. Once the sole province of PBS, fix-it shows are proliferating faster than outer-ring subdivisions. Entire networks bow to the domestic makeover -- if you doubt this, spend a few hours in front of Home & Garden TV. The surprise success of "Trading Spaces" has spawned variations featuring tightwads, teens and their bedrooms, and homeowners anxious to sell, to name a few.
Tool-belt TV, you might call it. And if the ratings are any indication, we're transfixed.
So, just what is it about these superficial rehabs that resonate in our own interior spaces?
Some will tell you that we were hard-wired for hope since well before the B.C. era -- "Before Cable," that is. As it turns out, fairy tales and freshly tiled floors share common ground.
"It goes back to the story of the ugly duckling," says Joanne Stewart, project manager for Ethan Allen. "You're taking something familiar, comfortable -- and maybe even bad -- and just by looking through fresh eyes, you're able to turn that ugly duckling into a beautiful swan."
If, as the saying goes, our homes are extensions of ourselves, then the conversion of an uninspired space to a dynamic showcase offers satisfaction more profound than the mere knowledge that we've beefed up our property's resale value.
The homeowners interviewed for First Sunday's "Transformation Tour" can certainly attest to that. And if their spruced-up walls -- and countertops, and floors, and ceilings -- could talk, we know just what they would say:
Before: Kitchen Impossible
After: Kitchen Impeccable
How long: Three years from planning to completion
Some people keep scrapbooks of their summer vacations or family milestones.
Buffalo residents Mitch Flynn and Ellen Goldstein have one of their kitchen renovation.
Compiled in a three-ring binder are architects' blueprints, contractor estimates, product catalogs, magazine photos and notes they'd accumulated during the three-year undertaking.
They even gave the hefty volume a title:
What inspired the label?
Flynn could write a list, and so he does. It includes but is not limited to: drab cabinetry, wallpaper peeling off faded yellow melamine, unreliable appliances, barred windows, sagging bookshelves, inaccessible utensils, a wire grid slung over the door for extra pans and a dingy linoleum floor.
"I could go on," he says, "but that should give you the 'before' picture." Now, after dozens of decisions, just as many headaches and, Flynn jokes, the near demise of their contractor, the once dysfunctional room is one of the couple's favorite spaces.
He spends weekend afternoons at the center island, catching up on work at his laptop, savoring a cup of coffee or enjoying the view of his back yard afforded by the large picture window.
She always cooked, but now she relishes the experience. That's because the kitchen's state-of-the-art appliances have freed her from fear that the stove will take a sabbatical while she's in the throes of dinner preparation. With all the extra cabinet space, she's no longer in danger of causing a chrome avalanche each time she reaches for a saucepan. "I needed a workable kitchen that wouldn't get messy," Goldstein says. "And we wanted the room to reflect us."
To accomplish that goal, they lined the wall above the picture window with Goldstein's collection of majolica butter pats. Allergies prevent her from owning dogs, so she settled for a rottweiler and a bulldog on a pair of wool area rugs, and a whimsical backsplash featuring a mutt owned by the ceramic artist who designed the piece.
As a result of their spruced-up kitchen, Flynn says they have hosted more parties in the past 18 months than they had in the previous 16 years they lived in the house. What's more, their guests gravitate to the kitchen like never before.
"When we had parties people usually congregated outside, or in the living and dining rooms," Goldstein recalls. "But now, they all want to be in here."
Before: Top-to-bottom problem
After: First-rate family room
How long: Nine months, as part of a larger redesign
When Jon Yellen decided it was time to return to his native Western New York after 18 years away, he and his wife, Marianna, began taking virtual tours of prospective homes.
Although it was convenient for them to survey potential leads without so much as darkening a doorstep, the newlyweds soon discovered that zooming in on rooms from their computer screen was a poor substitute for actually walking through the houses.
While visiting an Eggertsville ranch that photographed well in the virtual tour, they spotted serious flaws. There were cigarette burns and urine stains on the carpet. Outlets were marred with burn marks, evidence of faulty wiring. Faux-arched windows had stickers on them to make them look Palladian. The skylights leaked, the fans rattled, the roof was ready to collapse ...
And the newlyweds were sold.
"It was in pretty bad shape," acknowledges Jon. "The previous owner did a lot of jury-rigging and faux treatments -- columns, arches and the like."
What were the Yellens thinking?
For one, they were determined to live in a first-ring suburb, and Marianna was taken with the acre-and-a-half treed lot. What's more, the prospect of a 10-minute commute to downtown was compelling. Ultimately, though, the most critical factor in their decision to buy was the property's tremendous potential.
With the help of architect Kenneth MacKay and contractor Charles Galante -- and as part of a massive redesign that included popping the roof and adding a second story -- the Yellens gutted their family room, converting a virtual mess to a bright, inviting space.
Today, recessed lighting has taken the place of the skylights. The ersatz Palladian windows have been replaced with a row of 15 floor-to-ceiling windows. Out went the department store-style display shelves; in their place are handsome, custom-built bookshelves.
The stained and singed mint-green carpeting was pulled up, along with the crumbling pink and green marble surrounding the fireplace. Even the decorative Grecian columns, the source of many jokes between the Yellens, are ancient history.
"The whole point of the room -- for that matter, the entire house -- is that it's supposed to be comfortable," Jon says. "The entire house is intended to be lived-in. We're not going to make rooms off-limits to kids -- there's no sense in that."
To that end, the couple has one more step to completing the family room: baby-proofing.
Their new addition is expected to arrive early next month.
Before: Functional family room
After: Victorian victory
How long it took: Three months
There's nothing like the prospect of 80 visitors traipsing through your house to jump-start a room renovation.
Just ask Brian Lewandowski and Sherry Campbell. When the Lancaster couple volunteered to participate in the village's historic homes tour last summer, it was just the motivation they needed to give their family room a long-overdue facelift.
A decade before, when they purchased the Queen Anne-style home as a fixer-upper, they made several improvements to that space, including refinishing the hardwood floor and removing the radiator cover to expose a set of decorative pipes.
Still, it lacked the antique charm they had created in the adjacent foyer. It was functional but drab. As Campbell puts it: "We really couldn't decide what we wanted to do with this room, so we just painted the walls off-white."
For inspiration, she leafed through issues of Victorian Homes magazine. Shortly thereafter, the TV was moved out, an antique settee settled in and the family room's transformation to an old-fashioned parlor was underway.
"Most of the time we were on the same page with the decorating," her husband says. "But it took us a long time combing through wallpaper samples to find what Sherry was looking for -- a more authentic Victorian print."
They settled on two: one striped and the other purple floral. Their plan was to duplicate a look they'd seen in a decorating book. However, when they tried the experiment on their own walls, the effect was less turn-of-the-century than stomach-turning.
Ultimately, Lewandowski and Campbell used only the floral paper. They later installed a picture rail and adorned the moldings with Campbell's collection of miniature wooden buildings.
For the ceiling, they discovered an economical alternative to the tin ceilings of yesteryear: textured adhesive paper that Lewandowski spray- painted gold. Perhaps fool's gold is a more accurate description: When they debuted it at the home tour, many passers-through assumed it was authentic tin.
Although the couple appreciates the sumptuous grace of their sitting room, they admit that it serves primarily as interior eye candy. "We never use it," Campbell says with a shrug.
People living in Victorian times may have had lots of leisure time. But in this old house, the only residents who lounge about are the pets.
Before: Antiquated kitchen
After: Giverny in Kenmore
How long: Three months
As far as art historians know, Claude Monet never spent time in Kenmore.
Nonetheless his "Garden at Giverny" has materialized in Gloria Zimmerman's kitchen -- in the form of a ceramic tile backsplash, that is.
A fan of impressionist art, Zimmerman found the tile online last summer, as she was embarking on a massive renovation of a tiny kitchen that hadn't been updated since World War II.
"I still had pull chains on my lights, and the cabinets were the kind that someone built right inside the house," says Zimmerman, who has lived in the house for 18 years. "The doors were being held closed with rubber bands."
A source of greater aggravation: no dishwasher. The original layout of the 10-feet by 10-feet kitchen couldn't accommodate one.
To modernize the room, Zimmerman's contractor first had to take it down to the bare studs for rewiring. The warped, painted pine cabinets were replaced with oak ones to complement the woodwork in the rest of the house.
They also were installed with the goal of maximizing storage space: triangular cabinets occupy two walls by the entrance, while a slender closet between the refrigerator and the exposed chimney allows her to keep her broom in the kitchen -- a feat she couldn't accomplish before.
"I don't have a lot more cabinet space," she says, "but it's a lot more functional than it was."
While the Monet tile infuses the kitchen with brilliant colors and gives the room a vivid focal point, the unusual porcelain sink is the real conversation piece.
It's actually three sinks in one: a triangular main sink, a disposal sink and a small berry strainer. Zimmerman purchased it at an auction in 1992, and had stored it in her basement ever since. "My contractor had never seen anything like it, but he was able to figure out how to plumb it."
The final price tag for the renovation was $12,000 -- a hefty bill for such a tiny space. For her part, Zimmerman doesn't regret a penny of it.
"I love the beauty of the cupboards and the fact that they tie in with the rest of the house. I love the sink. And the thing that really puts a smile on my face is the Monet backsplash."
And what about never having to suffer dishpan hands again?
Before: Steep stairs
After: Quaint half-bath
How long: Six weeks
Jeanne Spampata will be the first to tell you: Bikes and breakfast don't mix.
Until a recent redesign of the Spampata house, her husband, Robert, an avid cyclist, was forced to sidle past the kitchen table to retrieve and store his bicycle in the basement. If she happened to be sitting there while one of these transitions took place, she risked being knocked in the head by a wheel or another protruding bicycle part.
"It was awful -- just terrible," she recalls.
The house, the smallest built by E.B. Green, doesn't have a garage. The kitchen measures 15 feet by 15 feet, so there's not much room to negotiate, even if you're not cradling a 10-speeder.
What to do?
Robert envisioned removing the basement stairs, putting a half-bathroom in their place, and relocating a new set of stairs to the hall. After several contractors said it couldn't be done, he finally found a contractor who agreed to take on the job.
"Basically, they tore the entire middle of the house out," Jeanne says. "For weeks I carried laundry up and down a ladder to the basement."
The renovation unearthed several surprises. When the kitchen wall was torn out, they discovered yet another staircase. Tacked to a nearby wall was a yellowed letter from the 1950s. "I don't know why we ever bought this house in the first place," the former owner grouses in the letter, all but declaring the house a money pit. "We didn't even like the price! We changed every room!"
"I had been hearing for years that there was a time capsule in the house," Jeanne says. "I was kind of hoping for a treasure, but this must be it."
Although they kept the letter, the old staircase was removed. In place of the opening there's now a wainscoted half-bath painted celery green. To keep the bathroom stylistically in sync with the rest of the 105-year-old house, Jeanne selected such accessories as an ornamental radiator grate and octagonal floor tiles.
"When our house was on the Parkside Tour of Homes, a lot of people on the tour were amazed that this wasn't an old bathroom," Jeanne says. "Coming into an old house, they just assumed it was an old bathroom."
Unlike the home's grumpy prior occupant, the Spampatas have no reason to complain about the significant renovation. Even though they had to sacrifice the front hall coat closet to move the basement stairs, gaining that half-bath -- after 17 years without one -- was worth it.
Best of all: These days, no one has to compete with a bicycle for a little elbow room.
Nicole Peradotto is a former Buffalo News reporter whose own house is more "before" than "after."