Nine years ago, Ursula Carmona typed out her manifesto: “I’m a DIY junkie,” she confessed. And with “expensive taste but no decor budget,” she realized this was her best option.
Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that her simple mission — to create fresh, innovative interiors on the cheap and inspire others in the process — would render her a nationally recognized design influencer.
Carmona, described as a “DIY sensation” and a superstar in the home-decor blogging world, now has nearly 52,000 followers on Instagram and is regularly featured in national magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens, Elle Décor, Country Living and Good Housekeeping and on TV shows including Hallmark’s Home & Family. She’s rubbed elbows with HGTV stars such as Chip and Joanna Gaines and Matt Muenster and has won numerous style awards for her creative and unique home decor.
A resident of Ruffin, an unincorporated town in rural Rockingham County north of Greensboro, Carmona didn’t always know how to use power tools to tear out walls and gut rooms. A decade ago, she worked as a massage therapist. After briefly considering nursing school, she concluded that health care or alternative medicine wouldn’t spark her joy. Then living in Cleveland, she became a stay-at-home parent to daughters Fiora, Priya and Sayuri.
“My husband [Orlando] worked two jobs. We slept on an old mattress with a spring that used to poke me in the ribs at night.” They saved money and stuck to a budget.
But living in Ohio in a confining bubble of children, meals and chores, the California native morphed into a dauntless “DIY junkie,” she says.
Carmona was bitten by the home-renovation bug when she found an old skill saw at a yard sale. Before long, she was teaching herself how to use all kinds of power tools. Mastering tools emboldened her to tackle projects like moving walls, creating her own built-ins, and undertaking entire bath and kitchen redos.
She also learned the basics of home renovation by watching DIY videos and reading how-to books on electrical wiring, plumbing and carpentry. Calling it “solo remodeling,” she tracked her progress through her first blog, Home Made by Carmona. That digital effort also required figuring out how to code, optimize search engine results, light and style a photo, and post content.
The blog was for her own satisfaction initially, something to work on in her precious downtime. Just a little project and if nobody read it, she consoled herself, “it’s a way to reach out to a creative community.”
Life as a stay-at-home mom provided endless content. From her kitchen table, she started sharing meal planning and organizational tips, then eventually, projects that became more ambitious. Within two years, she had amassed thousands of subscribers and expanded into the Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram platforms.
“All of a sudden, you discover how to write [copy] that is search engine optimized (SEO) friendly. I didn’t know anything about code — or making it HTML friendly. Online articles have to be written in such a way that we use all the tricks to allow Google to make it higher on the search. You aren’t just a photographer. Or writer. Or script writer. Or website coder. You’re all those things,” she says. “I believe people think I’ll show my project on Instagram, and that’s it. It’s not.”
She considered blogging a viable profession when Good Housekeeping magazine wanted to feature her DIY skills six months into blogging.
“At that time, my photography skills weren’t that great, and I didn’t have a [significant] following. Good Housekeeping led to companies who were interested in taking a chance on me as a micro influencer.”
Carmona was invited to appear on HGTV’s popular home-improvement programs, which led to eager sponsors such as Home Depot, whose products aided her renovations. She was invited to travel with HGTV Expos, presenting alongside celebs like Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines. Only a few years after launching a blog, Carmona’s inspiring “chic on the cheap” projects landed in many other coveted print and digital publications. She became a DIY finalist featured on Hallmark channel’s Home & Family competition.
As Carmona’s media reach grew so did offers of sponsorships. “In the past five years, sponsored content is the bigger slice of the pie,” she explains. “If I didn’t have any sponsors, I could still make a living, making money off affiliate marketing and advertising.” She won’t disclose her personal finances, though her income is more than the annual earnings of $10,000 or less for typical DIY bloggers.
THE ULTIMATE FIXER-UPPER
Carmona and her family settled in North Carolina in 2016 after moving from Ohio. After searching for a private and verdant property near her husband’s engineering job in the Triad, a two-story, vacant house in tiny Ruffin popped up. Set on 16 acres of woodlands, it even had a creek.
“Space and opportunity!” Carmona says. She was lovestruck, but her husband was dismayed. “[Orlando] said, ‘Oh, this is terrible!’” she says. “But I knew I was home.”
Dated 1975 interiors were transformed once Carmona got her tools buzzing. “The joy comes from making the space your own.”
Carmona’s recent garage renovation was sponsored by Home Depot, “who gave me license to imagine the space as I thought it could be. They provided both payment for the work, as well as producing the tools and materials I required” for Carmona to take photos and videos for use on social media.
In January, Better Homes and Gardens featured the Carmonas and their Ruffin home with a team of stylists and photographers capturing the kitchen, living room and other interior spaces.
While Carmona marvels that all of this has happened, her childhood suggests the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Her father, Donald Towns, is a former art director and illustrator for Disney who helped create iconic images for Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and other films.
As a child, Carmona often accompanied her father at work and played on film sets. “I grew up a Disney kid. … The philosophy that you can create anything.”
Carmona interned at the studio while she was home-schooled, rotating through the various departments and absorbing the creative energy. “My folks sought to be expansive,” she adds. They always encouraged their children to “explore whatever we wanted to do.”
Carmona’s daughters have their own creative ambitions. Fiona, 16, who dreams of culinary school, works on a blog, Cooking With Carmona. Priya, 15, aspiring to be a textile designer, has printed her own designs onto fabric. The youngest, Sayuri, is still deciding on her future.
Last year, Carmona braved COVID-19 to fly to California for a partnership project with Home Depot. The initiative was especially close to her heart: She was to tweak her parents’ home in Tehachapi, Calif., as part of the One Room Challenge interior design event.
“I wanted a space to showcase [my dad’s] artwork. I will say, despite the job he’s had and the lifestyle he’s chosen, he’s the most down-to-earth person.”
Carmona pauses. “Maybe a little too humble. He rubs shoulders with these incredible people and doesn’t say a word.”
ORDINARY INTO EXTRAORDINARY
The physical work of rehabbing and the creative work of designing, writing, videotaping, photographing, editing and posting remain solo labors.
Repurpose things, she stresses.
“We have dragged ‘found’ things home and repurposed them. You can make beautiful things with effort and creativity.”
Her daughters helped retrieve cabinets from a roadside and lug them home. The upcycled cabinets, painted and sporting new hardware, appeared in a feature this year. “I don’t want people [to view us] as design bloggers who didn’t have to reach to get here. And I don’t want them to waste money.”
Carmona compares herself to “a lot of men out there in the DIY space and projects” in what she terms “the maker’s space.”
“But a lot of the bloggers I follow, doing the DIY work I’ve been doing — metal working, building — are predominantly a male group doing what I do. The spin I’ve taken is to show the ladies you don’t have to have a man in the household who can do those things. Go learn how to use power tools.” ■