I found out at an early age that I’m allergic to white walls. Everywhere I live or work ends up plastered with T-shirts, posters, flags, toys, projects, tapestries— whatever it takes to make it feel more like home.
When I moved to a new city, I knew I’d be living completely by myself for the first time in my life. I’ve been lucky in the past, in that all my other cohabitants have enjoyed (or at least tolerated) the eclectic nonsense that went up on the walls. Starting fresh though, I wanted a decor that was unique, thematic and at least a little classy. I always wished I could have grown up at Hogwarts, so I settled on trying to make my apartment feel as close to the Ravenclaw Common Room as possible. In this post you’ll find the DIY details I managed to document while taking on one of the biggest customization projects of my life.
I knew setting out that this was going to be a lot more time consuming and expensive than just thumb tacking a few items to the drywall, so I started by taking a look at the space as it was, planning out the major components and budgeting the supplies.
I spent a lot of lunch breaks at work sketching or making lists.
I even went so far as to make a Gantt chart on smartsheet.com to try and have it finished as soon as possible (This was actually helpful because I tend to get side-tracked easily by other projects in progress).
As you can see, I had a lot of ideas, but it boiled down to a few important components:
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Like I mentioned before, covering the walls is normally my first priority. In this case there are a lot of things coming together at the same time, but probably the most ambitious part of the project is finding a non-permanent way to get rid of the white walls and lend a feeling of Victorian elegance to the place.
I start looking at whether non-permanent wallpaper exists, but the best I can find is to buy un-pasted paper and attach it with tacks or staples instead of paste. This quickly gets ruled out, as most damask (the fancy floral silhouette designs) wallpaper runs about $50 per roll, easily adding up to a few hundred dollars. Not only that, but without gluing the paper up, the humidity will inevitably make it sag with any other method of hanging.
The other non-permanent option would be hanging cloth on the walls. The price problem and sagging problem would both be even worse with cloth. Even plastics, while impervious to humidity, will eventually stretch under their own weight and sag.
Because my landlord is planing to renovate my unit when I leave, I consider just painting the walls and giving up on the security deposit. Before it comes to that, I find another option that ends up working great.
I use something called Smart Fab disposable fabric. It’s a non-woven composite that seems to be made of natural fibers as well as some plastic. It combines the best of both worlds, acting like a very thin plastic-feeling felt. It’s what disposable shoe covers and re-usable grocery bags are often made of.
This stuff is everything I need. First off, it’s cheap. A 40″ by 40′ roll costs less than $20. Second, it’s light enough that it can be hung, even on the roof, and won’t sag. This is helped by the fact that it’s non-woven. Third, it breathes, meaning the AC won’t catch air behind it and cause it to push away from the wall and come off or stretch.
They don’t sell Smart Fab with designs on it, but it does accept acrylic paint fairly well. I decide that the best way to get a damask design I want is to make it myself and stamp it on. I know how time consuming stamping can be, so I want to make a large one that is repeated fewer times. It takes a while to combine my own sketches with elements from other damask designs, but I eventually get a nice crisp jpeg.
I project the image onto the back of a foam tile floor mat, and trace the image with a Sharpie.
The whole thing gets glued onto a 2’X2’X 1/4″ medium density fiberboard with rubber cement. Now I begin the tedious process of using an Xacto knife and a wood burner to cut/burn away the background and leave a raised stamp.
Mostly I’m just cutting the background out and peeling it off the MDF backboard, but smaller elements that I didn’t want to fall apart are easier to melt. My wood burner was only 40W, so I use blowtorch to keep the tip of the wood burner hot enough.
With that (Finally!!!) finished, I lay down some plastic and start rolling out the Smart Fab for stamping.
I use a small paint roller to get a light coat of dark blue acrylic on the stamp, then simply step on it once or twice. The I hang the fabric up to dry completely before putting it on the walls.
The genius behind this approach is that the stamp is on the diagonal, so that the design is vertical when the fabric is at a 45 degree angle. This means I can use a staple gun to support the fabric between the designs where two pieces meet, then run a ribbon to cover the staples as well as the seams. By weaving the ribbon over/under I can also cover the staples used to hold up the ribbon.
In case any staples end up showing, coloring them with sharpies of a matching color can help hide them. This is a lot easier to do before loading.
I use the same material in different colors to cover the ceiling and make drapes going from the light fixture to the corners of the room.
I don’t have quite enough wallpaper to do the bathroom so I finish it up later after stamping a few more yards.
One of the most annoying things about apartments, in my opinion, is that the main room almost never has a central overhead light. When I think about what kind of lighting the common room would have, I imagine it being some kind of large crystal-looking fixture that hangs low into the middle of the room. I sketch it out a few ways and start thinking about how to construct it.
I start doing some of the math to see how big I want it, and realize I could make it big enough to hide a projector. I’ve always wanted a projector and it turns out to be more affordable to buy a decent one secondhand than it would be to buy a new (much smaller) TV.
Looking at how many sides I want and how big to make it, I initially I think a heptagon would be cool because of the significance of the number seven, but in the end, a six-sided shape works better to have the opening for the projector, and matches end tables I found.
The projector complicates things significantly though, because it can’t be in the way of the light bulb or it will cast shadows on the panes, and there can’t be any support structure between the projector and the screen. There’s also other lighting and a Google Chrome Cast to consider, so wiring turns out to be quite a challenge.
I want to maximize the screen size while keeping the whole fixture in the center of the room. This requires a lot of calculations, so to make sure I get the angles and measurements right I eventually resort to rendering the whole thing in Blender.
The only way to get power to the light and projector is to run an extension cord up the wall to the ceiling. I’ll have to also run cables to the sound system from the projector. I know it’s bad for projectors to power off suddenly, so the projector goes to the outlet directly while the light fixture goes through a remote switch mounted by the door.
Cheap foamcore is perfect for the panels because the foam is fairly translucent and the paper is not held onto the foam very well, so I can peel it off in large chunks. If some strips are left on, it sort of resembles marble. I found out later that peeling all the paper off and crumpling the foam a bit results in wrinkles that look even more like marble, but it was too late to re-do.
For the frame I use some of the same urethane trim that I put around the ceiling. The thinner, angled strips will be a good width and can be snapped to the length I need, saving me a lot of time. I attach the whole frame to the roof with aluminum drywall cornering. The two panels closest to the wall opposite of the couch get hinges so they can swing up and expose the projector. Fishing wire cables attached behind the pivot will hold them open, while others go to the roof to support the structure where the missing support makes way for the projector beam.
This is all nice, but it could be more magical. I put one of these color changing light bulbs in the fixture, letting me set pretty much any hue, which really looks great through the panels.
I also put some black Smart Fab on the ceiling, then twist 3 sets of these remote LED lights around the main fixture. I put the IR receivers sticking out on 3 of the corners of the fixture. The first layer of black is to keep the LED light from bouncing off the white ceiling and shining too brightly through a single layer of black.
This would have made it easy to see the outline of the wires. Another layer of black on top and they look like stars that I can set to flicker or glow at various speeds.
The drapes get tucked under the corners of the fixture. Eventually, I get around to making a smaller, matching fixture for the dining area light.
The lights now look exactly how I want them, and whenever I want to watch something, I simply open the front panels, pull down the screen, turn on the sound system in the end table and cast whatever I want to watch to the Chrome Cast on the projector.
Another major element of the project that I know will have a huge impact on how the space feels are the pillars. They really add a sense of being in a much older and more elegant building.
Essentially, the pillars are just cardboard tubes. The smaller pillars near the mirror and at the kitchen counter are made with 6″ diameter cardboard that my uncle had laying around (I think they were originally carpet spools), but the larger ones are just stacked 4’X 8″ concrete column forms that you can buy at any major home improvement or construction store.
I test out some cheap marble vinyl on a tube to make sure it will adhere well and look okay before buying all the supplies. I use floral foam wreath rings and some wood strips to make the base structures/capitals.
The wood is held together with tiny tacks (staples split the wood) and glue. Single ply cardboard provides a top surface. I cut out the inside of the rings and glue them on the top. Then everything gets a coat of paper mâché to hide the seams and round the edges a little.
I want these to look like they are made from cast bronze, so the texture is going to be the hard part. Paper mâché is almost good enought, but shows the lines between strips. I want a little bit rougher texture, almost like roughly smoothed over plaster. Of course plaster would be too heavy and probably chip off, so I use latex caulk. After spreading the caulk over the form I let it get tacky and pull it away into a rough spiky texture.
After it dries for a while I sand off most of the roughness with a Scotchbrite pad and use a wet sponge to smooth it out a little
This yields exactly the texture I’m looking for so now they just need paint. The base coat is a medium brown latex acrylic.
The next coat is gold spraypaint.
This leaves them a little too bright and flashy, especially to look like bronze, so they get a final coat of watered down brown acrylic.
One pillar tube is slid into the base. The capitol gets a cardboard backing to keep it from sliding down, then it get’s slipped onto the top of the second tube, and the two are stacked up and taped together.
To complete them I simply cover the tubes with peel-and-stick faux marble vinyl.
I know their placement makes no sense architecturally, but they help segment the room to provide anchor points for the drapes, as well as hide some of the wiring to the projector and speakers.
Mirror and Bust
Looking at my apartment when I move in, I know I’ll need to do something with the mirror and shelves in the corner. The little recessed area has a mirror screwed to the wall and glass shelves on metal brackets. The brackets can’t be removed to leave just the mirror, so the shelves will have to stay. A lot of thought went into what would make sense there. Eventually I settle on a potions collection. A little while later I realize a bust of Rowena Ravenclaw will also be pretty appropriate.
I try to find a bust that looked close enough, but it seems they’ve gone out of style, so I buy a styrofoam mannequin head and order this Ravenclaw diadem. For the price, it’s an amazingly well-made metal and glass replica.
I use foamcore and 1″ styrofoam to make the shoulders and base. The top is going to be a lot heavier so I hide an old horseshoe at the bottom. I use a mixture of paper mâché, mâché pulp and latex caulk to sculpt the features of the face and chest.
The hair proves the trickiest part by far. A lot of pictures point me toward a bun with curls falling down the back, so I sort of block that out with curled up foamcore, then mash in some pulp for filler. The pulp never gets very smooth, but this project is taking more time than I anticipated, so I move on, leaving it recognizable but unrefined for a while.
Looking at the mirror area, the metal shelving brackets need to be addressed. After the wallpaper and side pillars are fitted to the area, I make some forms out of foamcore and cover them with marble vinyl. I also cover the glass shelves so that you can’t see the metal brackets where the shelf meets the mirror. I use some of the trim to cover the front, and it starts to look really nice. A few trips to thrift stores (and liquor stores) later, and my stock of potions is filling in nicely. There are a few good labels that can be printed, but I designed a couple custom ones. After printing, I antiqued the paper with tea in a process I’ll cover in a separate tutorial post.
I want some lighting to accent the area so I run another string of led lights (like I used for the stars, but no remote settings) over from the central fixture to the curtains over the door, then behind the pillar capital and into the space between the two capitals. I want this lighting to be elegant and thematic, so it had to have some eagle filigree. I drew up a stencil and cut the pattern from posterboard.
I sprayed this gold and placed gold tissue paper behind it. The light comes through this in a nice soft glow that silhouettes the eagles. I also do the same thing in the bathroom to cover the vanity lights. This works great but you can see the back in the reflection of the mirror so I cover that with blue to diffuse it and make a nice contrast to the light facing outward.
I realize that I will inevitably go insane if I don’t finish the bust, so I sit down with some paper clay and start smoothing out the bumps. You can see how it fills in the cottage-cheese texture really well. Water keeps it workable and makes it so easy to smooth that sanding won’t be necessary.
To make sure it looks marble white and smooth I put on a few heavy coats of white, latex-based paint.
Once dry, she displays the diadem beautify and acts as a perfect centerpiece for the “potion” mixing station.
Thanks to Rowena, what I thought would be a useless part of the room turned out to be one of my favorite features.
A lot of Craigslist browsing goes into furnishing this Common Room. One thing I was really hoping to find is a fireplace. Just like with the pillars I want it to create the illusion of being in a castle instead of an apartment. Considering it’s the middle of summer with highs in the 90’s, I’m surprised to find the perfect little wood-stove heater for under $30, right around the corner. I still cant figure out if it’s capable of producing heat, but I’m glad that I’ve never noticed it doing so.
The fireplace is obviously electric (although I’m impressed with how good the flames/coals look) so it had to be near an outlet. I wanted something across from the couch anyway so the placement was perfect.
For the backboard and floorboard I cover foamcore board with the marble vinyl and cut a hole for the outlet. Some of the urethane trim goes around the edges.
A fireplace doesn’t make much sense without a chimney, so I rolled some black poster board up and made a pipe going into the wall.
Molding, Crests and other Details
Wallpaper and pillars are great, but to create more than just a first impression of fanciness, the devil is in the details.
To start with, I want the seam between ceiling and wall to look nice. There are a lot of stapples involved so hiding those would be easy with some kind of molding. I happened to find a few widths/styles of a faux cherry-wood urethane molding on sale at Home Depot. Priced at a few cents per 8′ section, I buy all of it I can fit in my car. It’s so light and easy to cut that I end up using it in a lot of places around the Common Room.
The only problem with the molding is that using it to frame mirrors or make fixtures leads to ugly looking joints, unless you have perfectly clean, angled cuts. As an easy, time-saving solution, I simply cover joints with decorative foam shapes.
Craft foam is sort of porous, so a layer of acrylic helps smooth it a little. Metallic spray paint then looks fairly good on it, and I make a lot of gold feathers and squares to use at the junction of all the fake-wood trim.
Even though they don’t look like real metal, they go a long way in hiding the sloppy cuts of the trim and making the features and fixtures feel more finished.
The pillar capitals also need some bling, so I work out a Ravenclaw crest to make for them.
It features a crossed wand and quill, along with the book and lamp of knowledge, similar to the damask on the wallpaper. The next step is to sculpt it in clay.
This let’s me make a plaster mold so that I can make a few crests from only a single sculpt. I try a few different materials but eventually use some extra latex caulk to get the full detail of the mold. This material isn’t ideal because it turns out to be pretty heavy and takes a long time to dry in the mold, but it does get detail and accept paint really well.
It get’s the obligatory coat of gold spray paint and a light wash of watery brown paint. I’m not trying to make it look bronze in this case, just to antique the gold a little and take some of the sheen off.
I use the same process to make eagle crests for the kitchen pillar capital
A scattering of battery candles compliment the star lights. I even use some old lamps, some different sizes of PVC pipe and a bunch of latex caulk to make some drippy-looking candle lamps. I have to use adapters to step down from the standard e27 bulb. I use bulbs about like an outdoor Christmas light. To make it more flame-like, I cover them in silicone mixed with some yellow food coloring. You can buy bulbs made like this already, I don’t feel like waiting for them to ship to me when it only takes a second to dye the silicone and spread it on them.
A few other finishing touches include the glass beads on the light fixture and the Hogwarts banner I ordered. I was pretty disappointed to find that I had to paint the Hufflepuff section yellow because it was originally blue!
The Common Room has evolved over the months. I’ve decorated for holidays and hosted a lot of great movie nights and parties, but alas, the rent is too damn high, and it will all have to come down soon. I’ve posted a lot of the pictures on Facebook so that others can enjoy part of what I’ve been coming home to every day for almost a year. Thanks for reading and geeking out with me. Keep up with Brain Venom Studio for more posts of my past (and surely some future) Harry Potter Projects.
Local News even picked up the story when they found out I was moving out. Who knew this city was so full of Ravenclaws?