Happy, Holistic Home

For the past six years, home (and everything that entails) has become a huge part of my life.

It first began in November 2013 when I found myself as the final winning bidder on a little home at an estate auction in Milton, Ontario. And ever since I got the keys to my first place, exploring everything to do with “home” hasn’t stopped.

First it took the form of learning and doing. With help from my dad and the internet, I renovated the basement suite into an income property to help pay for a new roof and windows. I was 22 and didn’t have a ton of disposable income, so I got creative and found ways to bring my work into it. I had been blogging for years already, so I made a project of it, collaborating with brand partners to support the reno costs, and creating content which I shared here on my blog.

During this four-year renovation process, I played around a lot: I’d re-arrange my living room randomly, sell pieces I no longer liked and use the money to buy new stuff, and experimented with everything in my home. And with each update or change I made, each exploration into improving my home, I connected more and more with my space and myself. Knocking down physical walls as I knocked down the walls within myself, too.

I didn’t recognize this at the time of course, but while home was taking up my personal time, it found its way into my professional life as well. I began blogging for Design*Sponge as an Editor of their interior, travel and life and business columns, and my fascination with home and how we connect to that space grew. I began to become more interested in the nuances of individual homes and the unique stories and experiences of the homeowners. In 2012 I started my own column on Design*Sponge, Comfort Zone, which gave a more casual peek into people and their spaces, specifically the spots in which they feel most in their element.

In my experience interviewing regular, every day individuals, I discovered just how powerful “home” really was—no matter what form that took. How amazing is it that we have the power to carve out a little slice on the earth for ourselves and our families, and then we can cater it to exactly who and how we are? A space that can change how we feel by simply walking in the front door and arriving? That’s pretty cool.

At this point, my own life began to open up and change, and everything I was working on and sharing online got noticed—first by Colin and Justin who invited be to be a guest judge on Game of Homes, and then later, by HGTV.

Flash forward a few years and I found myself on television as the co-host and designer of Save My Reno. Home and reinventing that for people was now my full-time career. I quit Design*Sponge, slowed down my creative practice and dove head first into filming.

Hopping into the personal spaces of dozens and dozens of amazing families and renovating 28 homes across the greater Toronto area was an incredibly unique experience, and paralleling that with my own home renovations, I learned that pretty and new doesn’t matter as much as happy and connected.

In the process of improving or finding home, I believe you can improve and find your self. I learned that being more true to yourself and creating a space that helps you feel “in your element” can make you happier, healthier, better.

Flash-forward to now where I’ve been able to put these philosophies into practice in my own life: I’ve since left that humble first home and have moved across Canada with my partner and pup to chase a place that feels more true to form, more like a home base because we’ve carved out a life that caters more to who and how we are.

Tuning into yourself and designing around what makes YOU happy rather than the internet or the housing market should be the goal. And when we start designing this way, we realize that limitations don’t really matter. That you don’t need lots of money, or to even own a home to be happier where you live.

I’m now living in a rental and relinquishing control to change the things I want to, but I’m more holistically happy living here than I ever was in a home I owned! Which just goes to show that home is wherever you feel most in your element—which can take many different forms for many different people.

Once you begin to feel more at home with your own self, the physical manifestation of home begins to take shape around you. Your space can then start to reflect and support your goals, dreams and desires.

And just as you you ebb and flow through life, that space ebbs and flows with you, encouraging your growth, being your mirror. And from there, where can that take us? When we feel in our element, in a space that feels like chicken soup for the soul, what can’t we do?


So as I prepped for my speaking engagement at The Vancouver Fall Home show this past weekend, getting across this concept of curating a happy, holistic home was top of mind. Now, I get that’s a pretty intense thing to chat about over a quick hour at a busy convention centre, but to those of you who I connect with, and who come up, introduce themselves and share their stories, and we get to talking, you’re the reason I choose to share this part of my life… Thank you!

And for those of you who weren’t able to be there in person but who are curious about these concepts, I’ve shared some of my presentation below with tips you can implement today to work towards creating a healthier, happier home. 🙂

x, S


News flash: You are the best person to consult when it comes to designing your space because you live there! I’ve discovered that we’re happiest in our homes when they’re suited to how we are and who we are.

I didn’t study interior design. I’m not an authority by education, I’m a confident designer because of tactical experience and because I’ve taken the time to explore myself and pay attention to how I function.

Before you consult the internet or photos you like or hire a designer or buy any decor, consult with yourself and those living in your home. What’s important to you? Music, nature, movie night? Now think about how you can introduce those things into your home through design. If you love music and free dancing, can your furniture placement and the things you fill your home with support that?

To use myself as an example, I love minimal, clean design. But I’m a messy individual! Throughout the course of a day, I’m consulting different books, rushing around and leaving little piles of my day behind. So while I pine for minimal, I’m going to end up pissed daily when my pretty design is marred by my mess. That’s not me and that’s okay. Instead, I chose to design around myself and how I am: the good, bad and ugly.

One example of how I’ve honoured my reality in my home is this little window ledge… When we got this space, I envisioned an upholstered bench there. But over time, it became a surface that collected crap. And rather than fight to keep it clean, I decided to give in and use my books as decoration! Not only does it keep them at arms reach when the mood strikes or I need to consult my yoga texts, but they add colour and personality while protecting the ledge. And I saved money by not getting a custom cushion made!

So with this in mind, here are a few common design woes I hear, and my work-arounds for them…

We Google everything when we have a problem. And we get tend to get very prescriptive answers in return. These articles, videos or pictures can be super helpful—for the specific group of people who needed to hear that specific suggestion. But most of us are not all waiting for the same advice. If that worked for everyone all the time, we’d be changing our rooms around every time a new home design magazine drops, every time we tune into HGTV. The truth is that the advice we listen to, implement and like tends to be the advice that rings most true and natural for us (and that’s cool)!

If I recommended midnight blue in a bedroom, a small chunk of you would be all over it and the rest would not. And all that tells me is that the people who like blue will be into that blue room idea. And those who aren’t into it, won’t listen or like that advice. Realize that you hold the answers to your questions. Quit asking the internet and ask yourself. Articles and shows and social media can be great and helpful in prompting us, but don’t let them be the sole reason for your home choices.

If you’re looking to develop your own style, dig for inspiration everywhere! With your current space in mind, go hunting: source physical magazines, Instagram, Pinterest, homes IRL, movies, music, art, culture, fashion etc. Allow yourself to be influenced by everything that catches your eye! The more inspiration you hoard, the more diluted your influences and the more unique the resulting style will be.

While in art school as a student, and later when I returned to teach illustration, many of us struggled with defining our own style and I always liked to use the analogy of a meat grinder to explain how to define your look. If you only load your grinder with pork and onions, the resulting sausage will look and taste like pork and onions. The more herbs, spices, and ingredients you add to that grinder, the more well-seasoned and unique the sausage will be.

Lack of inspiration is no longer our problem—influence is everywhere in our digital visual age—so once you’re confident you have enough inspiration, defining why you like it will help you make concrete choices in your home. Say the word. 

An expensive sofa you saved for, an heirloom dresser from a loved one. These items are your building blocks, and they’re both big M items: pieces that have lots of meaning, or that cost lots of money. And they’re equally valid!

The beauty of these pieces is that if you love them, they’ll never go out of style. And once you’ve established them, they’ll continue working together as the large building blocks in any room, in any home, and the rest of the space can now take form around them.

Smaller pieces like art can still have meaning, but I prefer to select decor pieces that are cheap and cheerful so that the moment they feel tired or you no longer like it or you’re craving a change, you can satisfy that urge and renew your room. It keeps your space fresh and fun, and by continually tweaking your space, you’ll slowly build your confidence and hone your style as a designer.

The connection you have or don’t have with your home has little to do with the house itself and lots to do with your perspective. Maybe you never had that connection, or maybe you lost it, but I can guarantee that while we may not all have the luxury of living in the home of our dreams, what we do have control over is how we choose to connect with that space.

Remember that how we relate to our surroundings (which goes for our relationships and everything else in life), is entirely up to us. 

As an exercise, walk around your house and take a visual inventory of your things. What makes you smile? Can you celebrate that piece, that memory better? What brings a bad memory? Toss it! The stories we make up about why we feel certain ways are just that— made up by us! So change the story. Your story can be that you hate your home and that’s the identity you give it, or it can be that you’re working on your home! You’re currently feeling it out, figuring it out.

Then take some initiative and ownership of your home and situation… When people feel good because they organize their spice drawer, it isn’t because it looks better necessarily. It’s also because it increased the function and ease of your every day life, and because, well, you put in the work and gained a new connection and feeling of ownership over the space. That’s taking pride, that’s owning the story of your home!

And if you go in with good intentions, and make more choices in your home (and life) with a sense of control and ownership, the rest will fall into place. 

I’m 28, and life has changed a ton for me over the last five years. I’ve grown in so many ways and my home has grown with me. And embracing the beauty that is change is a heck of a lot better than being pissed off that it never ends.

We are almost always experiencing some kind of transition, whether it’s on a big scale or a small scale. And I think our homes can not only help us through these transitions, but reflect them. 

But change takes time to settle. It doesn’t happen overnight, or rather it happens overnight, forever. You are an ongoing process, and so too is home! So ditch the pressure and ease up a bit. Don’t wait to do the things that you love, but also give yourself as much time as you need. I guarantee you the longer it takes, the more meaningful it will be when you finally achieve it. 

And once we give our homes permission to breathe a bit, we give ourselves permission to breathe. And when we’re in our element, feeling at home in our comfort zone, what else in our lives can we improve?

Sabrina Smelko

Lifestyle blog and shop by Sabrina Smelko, sharing wellness, home design, entrepreneurship and resources