Before and After: A Blah Basement Turns into a Whimsical Playroom with These 10 Designer Tips

updated Jan 25, 2022
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Elizabeth Rees, the founder of Chasing Paper and mother of two, along with her husband Brian Leadley, knew that a big basement renovation was in her future, but they didn’t know when. The couple had already renovated most of their 1870s Milwaukee townhouse, and had “kept the idea that we might want to finish it later in our back pocket,” says Rees. “When we added the addition onto our house, we ended up digging under the addition and connecting that to the rest of the unfinished basement because we realized we couldn’t go back and dig it out later,” she says. Likewise, they ran the plumbing and electrical high, to leave headspace on the lower floor. 

“Our kitchen and family room was just becoming overrun with toys,” confesses Rees. “We live in an old house, so our kids’ rooms are pretty tiny, and we didn’t really have another play area.” The basement was the obvious solution, but it was going to need a major overhaul: The space was nothing but cinderblocks, cement, and exposed mechanicals. 

Then, when the couple was home with their two young girls, Uma, 2-1/2, and Marlow, 1, during the pandemic, the basement renovation suddenly became a high priority. “We just felt like it would be so nice having that extra space,” says Rees. “The toys were getting bigger and we didn’t have a ton of space for them to run around and play.” Here’s how she created this fun, beautifully wallpapered playroom:

Deal with the practicalities first

“Before it was just cinder blocks and cement floors,” says Rees. “The layout was really strange: all these weird, little rooms.” Rees had her contractors open the space up as much as possible and once they did, it was immediately clear how they’d divide the space; for example, they placed the bathroom where the plumbing existed and planned the playroom around the largest window. 

Design around your windows

“We intentionally put the girls’ area in a place that receives sunlight,” says Rees, who prioritized natural light in the play area over the workout area (not pictured here). “I think it’s good that they have more of a sense of time — whether it’s day or night time.”

Consider carpet for your floors

Hardwood flooring is au courant, but to make the floors more cozy, Rees opted to go with wall-to-wall carpeting. “The carpet was one thing we really did splurge on: It is so soft and feels so cozy, it really makes the room,” says Rees, who is glad she didn’t opt for a less expensive carpet or cold-feeling wood flooring. To prep the floor, first they ground down the cement floors and then they poured a sealant  for an extra layer of protection against moisture.

Use nature-themed patterns to distract from a lacking view

“The biggest feedback we got from Chasing Paper customers during the pandemic was seeing how botanical and floral were selling far and beyond any category,” says Rees, who chose a woodland design by illustrator Jacqueline Schmidt  for the playroom walls. “Those outdoor-feeling patterns — trees and life around you — are a mental reprieve,” says Rees. (Chasing Paper’s Instagram followers were so wild for the wallpaper when Rees revealed a sneak peek that Rees decided to release the pattern in advance of Schmidt’s larger collection due out next spring.)

Don’t skimp on architectural details 

“We joked with our contractor that we never called it the basement,” says Rees. “We called it the ‘lower level’ because we didn’t want to feel like a basement.” To make the space feel like the upstairs, Rees borrowed design elements from the main floor. “Trim was something we had invested in upstairs: We wanted the old and new parts of the house to really look like they were meant to be there together,” says Rees, who then continued the trim downstairs as well. The molding also makes the room feel finished.

Pull color from the rest of the house

Another way to make a basement feel one with your main floors is through color. “I don’t think your house has to be super matchy-matchy, but it should feel like there is continuity,” says Rees. To that end, Rees pulled the blue paint color (Sherwin-Williams Waterloo) from her office upstairs to use on the trim downstairs.

Resist the temptation to fill the room

“We’ve tried to keep it somewhat sparse,” says Rees of the kids’ area. “We’re consciously trying not to overload that area with toys. We want it to be more for imaginative play, running around, and playing games,” she adds.

Design for active play — especially in cold weather

Rees included a Kaos climbing structure, custom cushions from The Workroom, a local shop, and lots of open floor in the space. Even though her kids are still young to use the play ladder now, she knew they’d be needing a place to get their energy out during long Wisconsin winters.

Make things kid-accessible

Rees says she wanted everything at the kids’ disposal — and at their level. So, she opted for a classic cube bookcase to store both books and toys; canvas bins from Pehr (one of Chasing Paper’s collaborators) hold some of the toys. A kid-sized art table and vintage chairs are also the right size for kids to use without any grown-up assistance.

Create a room you love to be in, too

As Rees has discovered, parents end up spending a lot of time in the playroom, so it’s worthwhile to make it a place that makes you happy. She says, “So many playrooms are disorganized or not intentionally designed. I think that if you can create spaces that you want to be in more, it allows for you to enjoy the time with your kids more.”