By Lauren Flynn Kelly

Inside the designer’s studio: Denise J. Hart turned a section of her Hyattsville basement into a DIY design studio for her YouTube channel.
Courtesy of Denise J. Hart

While staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Denise J. Hart has spent the last year bringing joy — it is her middle name, after all — to other people’s homes. In March 2020, the busy actress/playwright/professor was in Los Angeles working with Amazon Studios when her trip was cut short, and she returned home for what few people suspected would be months spent at home.

That’s when it hit her: “This spirit or this energy just came over me and, not to be morbid, but it said, if you were taken out by COVID, what would you regret that you had not done?” The answer was “more design.” As a tenured professor in Howard University’s theatre arts department — and an actress whose TV credits include “The Wire”— Hart is familiar with the importance of scenery. While helping a niece sell her house in Washington, D.C., she’d brightened up the space and got the attention of the real estate agent, who at the time suggested she do home staging. But that was 2019, and Hart wasn’t ready to take the leap into professional design.

Then the pandemic struck, and a homeowner needed to transform a cluttered basement into a college dorm for her remote-learning daughter. Another client needed to spiff up and reorganize her home office, while yet another wanted to turn a back porch into a cozy, curated getaway den.

These projects and more are documented on Hart’s YouTube channel, “Thrifty Fly DIY with Denise Joy.” In Season 1 of “DIY DUO Redesign,” you’ll see her knack for transforming small spaces, using bold colors and prints and incorporating thrifted items on a budget. Physical contact was minimized, as clients had to perform a few tasks on their own and film themselves reacting to the new space. I was shocked when Hart told me she’s a production team of one, and that she taught herself video editing while taking walks and listening to instructional YouTube videos on her phone. 

Her channel also has tons of DIY tips and tricks for indoor and outdoor spaces, including how to build a custom cedar table and garden bed. My favorite episode might be “Thrift Haul,” where you’ll get a vicarious thrill as Hart showcases her favorite thrift store finds, like a mid-century captain’s chair she brought back to life with some teak oil. (Thanks for the tip!)

With a fondness for repurposing, Hart said she loves to shop clients’ homes, scour local secondhand stores like Value Village and Community Forklift, and search for like-new pieces on Facebook Marketplace. She’s also thrilled that Will’s Decorating has relocated to Hyattsville, making it convenient for her to get some of her secondhand finds reupholstered. “If I don’t immediately fall in love with something, my philosophy is, if I go back and it’s still here, it’s mine. But if I immediately fall in love with it, I will get it on the spot,” she said of thrifting. Even if she isn’t looking for something specific, she’ll purchase a piece in anticipation that it will fit with a future project. 

On her channel, Hart describes her design style as “Afro-boho minimalism, a little retro chic and modern vintage.” Hart told me she believes in “a curated environment that is a layering of items and things that people truly love.” And it doesn’t have to fit a certain aesthetic, like the farmhouse style made popular by HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.”

Hart also wanted her new career to honor the history of her Somali ancestors, and when she stumbled upon the word “furaha” — which in Swahili translates to “joyful gladness” — she felt that perfectly described her goal of infusing joy in everything that she does. While her full-time career is at Howard, the goal-oriented Hart believes her foray into design is helping her put the building blocks in place for a fulfilling early retirement.