Small Wonder

An ambitious first-time homeowner rolls up her sleeves to take her 800-square-foot Homewood cottage from dull to delightful with stylish finds and clever DIYs at every turn.

Rather than rip off the old metal awnings, which would have necessitated new siding, Zoë painted them with a cheerful two-tone stripe in Sassy Green and Creamy from Sherwin-Williams. Photos by Laurey Glenn

I found your house.” That’s what Zoë Gowen’s friend and soon-to-be neighbor said when she called to tell her about a little cottage she’d spotted on a sought-after street in Homewood. Upon seeing the home, Zoë promptly agreed. “It had the intangibles—great neighborhood, wonderful natural light, and lovely proportions,” she says. What the 800-square-foot house didn’t have, however, was character of any sort. From the shabby brown exterior to the drab rooms (all six of them!) and the falling-down back deck and shed, it was depraved of charm. But Zoë, a veteran homes and gardens magazine editor, saw potential where others saw problems. “I had been writing about renovations and small homes for years, so I was ready to see if I could make it work in my own home,” she says. “The house had been on the market for 250 days. I was the one ready to finally tackle it!”

And tackle it she did. The gung ho first-time homeowner left no surface untouched as she took the cottage from eyesore to eye-pleasing. The first order of business was twirling up the exterior. “I knew that the house was small enough that I could basically do every cutesy cottage thing,” Zoë says. She started by adding a Dutch door and window boxes, as well as giving the exterior a cheerful new green-and-white color scheme.

Inside, painting was the top priority. The formerly beige walls were coated in White Dove by Benjamin Moore. Zoë also put the floors in neutral, so to speak, opting to paint them Shaded White from Farrow & Ball instead of refinishing them with a stain. The economical choice was also a matter of small-space style. “It just made everything feel so open and cohesive,” she says.

With her penchant for exuberant colors and patterns, not to mention a soft spot for estate sales, Zoë then layered in bright textiles, bold artwork, and a hodgepodge of vintage finds to create sophisticated rooms that belie the home’s small footprint.

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Once the house was in tip-top shape, Zoë turned her attention to the deck and shed that were both begging for some TLC. She worked with friend and architect Ebee Tullos to replace the rotting decking with a dreamy new screened porch that enhances the home’s available living space and also cleverly conceals a much-needed laundry nook. As for the shed? It became the novice renovator’s masterpiece project. Zoë reimagined the ramshackle outbuilding into a serene studio with the help of a new HVAC, paneled walls, slate flooring, and (surprise!) buckets and buckets of white paint.

From the front door to the back porch, the house now brims with verve and hospitality—just like the spunky magazine editor who calls it home.

BEFORE: Wainscoting made the dining room feel choppy instead of charming. With adjoining rooms on three sides, the space was also starved for natural light. AFTER: Peach strié walls (Summer Melon from Benjamin Moore with a gold glaze) give the center of the house visual presence. A skirted dining table adds a sense of formality to the space. Beyond, new French doors replace the original window to draw the eye outward to the new screened porch. Zoë saved money by sanding the hardwoods herself and then painting them Shaded White from Farrow & Ball. She also upcycled a ho-hum basket into a light fixture with the help of white spray paint and a hanging bulb kit.
Zoë’s collection of furniture and accessories consists of fine antiques, estate-sale finds, and closeout bargains, as well as magazine prop-sale items. A rug from Paige Albright helps unite the fresh pink, orange, blue, and green color palette. Zoë held on to a swatch of peony pink fabric for more than five years before finally splurging on her Lee Industries sofa in that color. “I wanted a deep sofa I could basically live on,” she says. “I saved up until I could afford the fabric and a sofa with the plush down filling I wanted.”
A china cabinet holds an array of table matters, including silver, McCartys pottery, and export china from Tom Fortner Antiques in Memphis, Zoë’s hometown.
“I knew my first house wouldn’t be my forever home. With that in mind, I decided to invest in items I could take with me and get scrappy with elements that would have to stay.” — ZOË GOWEN
Zoë spiffed up the porch with upholstered furniture, draperies, and lamps. The latter were revamped with spray paint like the turquoise one shown above. Another thrifty DIY: upcycling a vintage curtain panel into pretty floral throw pillows.

Space Savers

1. Paint It White. A neutral-palette backdrop of white walls and floors is a foolproof way to create a larger, more open feel.

2. Opt for Full-Size Furniture. Small spaces do not call for equally tiny furnishings. A few generously proportioned items will keep a room from feeling bitsy in scale.

3. Skirt the Situation. Fabric-covered pieces, such as Zoë’s dining table and washer and dryer, introduce feminine flair and conceal extra storage.

4. Make Way for Mirrors. Large mirrors amplify natural light. They are an easy way to give even the tiniest room a new, airy lease on life.

5. Embrace Outdoor Spaces. Zoë nearly doubled the cottage’s available living space with a new screened porch and shed renovation.

BEFORE & AFTER: A dilapidated shed found new life as Zoë’s design studio. As a sometime decorator (in addition to her full-time magazine career), Zoë uses the space to scheme new designs for her clients. It also doubles as a very charming second dining room. A unique light fixture from Serena & Lily hangs above a custom table and chairs. The Roman shade was made from two tablecloths ( Bench fabric is from Hobby Lobby.


As the former senior home and garden editor for Southern Living magazine, and now executive editor for Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Zoë knows the ins and outs of combining high design and bargain finds.

Personal Style ”I’d describe it as old-lady chic with a big twist of straightforward practicality,” says Zoë.

Design Inspiration ”I’ve been subconsciously re-creating my favorite spot in my childhood home since I left it at age 18,” Zoë says. “It’s a shrimp-colored living room with a big chintz sofa where I read all of my books.”

Best Zero-Dollar Find “The sunny yellow lamp on my screened porch,” says Zoë. “I found sitting it on a curb while on a walk.”

Interiors: Zoë Gowen Porch addition architecture: Ebee Tullos, 404.931.6889 Styling, plants, floral arrangements, containers: Mark Thompson of Shoppe Birmingham,, 205.224.4450 Front exterior: Dutch door Jeld-Wen, Hardware: Brandino Brass, Living room Painting: Hanna Antiques, Framed photos: iPhone travel photos blown up via Chest: antique from auction, refinished by Charles Wade, 205. 251.9233 Mirror and pressed-botanical print: Shoppe Birmingham Dining Room table skirt: Citrus Garden in Primary, Schumacher, Pillows: World Market, Art: Birmingham Vintage Company through Hanna Antiques Chairs: vintage, Chelsea Antiques, Screened porch: Sofa and table: Chairs: Ikea, Outdoor cushion fabric: Mirror over bar: World Market

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