Philadelphia doctor Kwandaa Roberts had it all: a thriving practice, a big house in the suburbs, two children.
But since she was a kid, Kwandaa had harbored a secret dream to be an interior designer. It was a passion she turned to in her free time – redecorating her own house, unwinding from long days with home renovation shows – as she juggled being a busy OB-GYN and a single parent.
Everything changed when she stumbled upon a new outlet for her love of design: dollhouses.
Inspired by a project she worked on as a gift for her daughter, Kwandaa decided to renovate a dollhouse, just for fun – and it went viral on social media, garnering attention from Buzzfeed, “Good Morning America,” HGTV and Kwandaa’s home design hero, Joanna Gaines. Suddenly, her lifelong dream was within reach.
Dr. Kwandaa Roberts posing with her dollhouse that went viral.
A screenshot captured by Kwandaa showing an Instagram Story shoutout from Joanna Gaines.
But then the pandemic happened, and Kwandaa was forced to make some difficult life decisions.
In this episode of Home. Made., a career change in the middle of a pandemic. The doctor who dreamed of becoming a designer.
Listen in as Kwandaa tells us about her lifelong passions for both medicine and interior design, and the equally arduous paths she took to realize them, from delivering babies to redecorating dollhouses to designing homes.
We’ll also hear from Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist, who tells us how things like the colors of your walls and furniture can influence your psychological relationship with interior spaces.
The living room in Kwandaa’s viral dollhouse.
The bathroom in Kwandaa’s viral dollhouse.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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Stephanie Foo: This is the maternity ward of a hospital in Philadelphia. Over the last twenty years, Dr. Kwandaa Roberts has birthed thousands of babies here.
Kwandaa Roberts: I mean, it's probably one of the most intimate doctor-patient relationships that you'll have. And of course, nothing beats seeing the birth of a baby.
Stephanie Foo: It’s a passion she discovered as a medical student. And a career that has given her a comfortable life. Nice home, two kids.
But that life was upended when the pandemic hit.
Kwandaa Roberts: When I say, then I was terrified to go to work after that. I really had PTSD. I was afraid to be in the hospital. I was just a mess, really.
Stephanie Foo: And possibly the worst part of it was just the fear of the unknown.
Kwandaa Roberts: I was like, "I can't be sick with something we don't know how to treat, like at all."
Stephanie Foo: The pandemic forced many of us to question our purpose, and the direction of our lives. But for Kwandaa, the answer to her fear, and questions about who she was and what she wanted to do, was sitting inside a tiny dollhouse.
Kwandaa Roberts: And I was like, "OK, well, this feels almost as good as delivering a baby."
Stephanie Foo: This is Home. Made. An original podcast by Rocket Mortgage about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo.
In this episode, a career change in the middle of a pandemic. The doctor who dreamed of becoming a designer.
Stephanie Foo: Kwandaa grew up in Philadelphia. And from an early age, she always wanted to know – what was going on in people’s houses? How did they decorate them? What color were their walls? How would it feel to live there?
When she was 16, she was excited to get a car so she could go to open houses and wander around. Or sometimes, she wouldn’t even wait for an open house.
Kwandaa Roberts: I just would ride around and look at the architecture and nobody ever had curtains up so you could see right into the house. And I'd look inside and, "That looks like that place has like warm cookies in it."
Stephanie Foo: Everywhere she went, Kwandaa’s eyes focused on the color of the walls, the furniture layout, the hardware on the cupboard doors. And she focused on how those choices made her feel. Welcoming? Whimsical? Formal? Kwandaa still remembers the room that elicited the strongest feelings of desire for her as a kid – her friend Sherry’s kitchen.
Kwandaa Roberts: I had never seen a white kitchen. Every kitchen I'd ever seen had stained wood cabinets and tile floors, and … the cabinets were white, the countertops was probably some sort of Formica, whatever was in the ’80s. But whatever it was, was like the best thing that I had ever seen, this white kitchen.
Stephanie Foo: Color choice, for Kwandaa, brought up such strong emotions.
Kwandaa Roberts: I think color is everything. I mean, it completely can change your mood or how you feel. So, bright, happy, airy, dark, moody, homey, earthy.
Stephanie Foo: And there’s plenty of science that supports this.
Sally Augustine: It turns out that looking at all different shades of green encourages us to think more creatively.
Stephanie Foo: Sally Augustin is an environmental psychologist. She studies how things like the height of your ceilings or the color of your powder room can influence the way you feel.
Sally Augustin: Also, we can think about the furniture, it may introduce some colors or wood grain. When we see wood grain, we become less stressed, we feel less tense.
Stephanie Foo: Some shades of blue have been shown to cultivate trustworthiness, so banks for example will use a lot of blue in their offices. White on the other hand, serves a different purpose.
Sally Augustin: Because that helps you to keep visual clutter in check. You also might want to use white in a space that you want people to link to cleanliness. So, in a space where people are waiting for surgery, white walls might be a good option. But in any space you have to make sure it’s not entirely white.
Stephanie Foo: Kwandaa wanted to somehow re-create all of these color schemes and interior designs herself.
Kwandaa Roberts: I used to go to Ikea and just sort of live in there. I waited all year for the catalogs to come out, and they had these whole apartments in these tiny spaces and I'd try to re-create them in my bedroom and sort of make it like my own apartment when I was in high school.
Stephanie Foo: But the carefree days of driving around looking at houses were coming to an end. But when it was time for Kwandaa to go to college, she didn’t make what would have seemed like the obvious choice.
Kwandaa Roberts: I didn't choose design ... because I had no idea that it was an option. I thought you liked doing it and so you just did it on your own home.
Stephanie Foo: The thing is, Kwandaa had two passions. She loved design and also she’d always wanted to be a doctor.
Stephanie Foo: What did you love about medicine?
Kwandaa Roberts: It's going to sound really corny, but the idea that you're helping people, and then you get paid for that ... it just seemed like not a job to me, but like a dream.
Stephanie Foo: So she went to med school, and in her third year, Kwandaa got to step out of the classroom and start doing rounds. It was what she’d always dreamed of: the chance to treat her patients.
Kwandaa Roberts: I went on rotation and you're supposed to be finding the thing that you have your passion for, and I didn't like any of it. So you sort of spend a little bit of time with the patient, but then you spend the rest of the day looking at their labs and their blood work and their vitals and trying to fix those things. And you sort of, as the patient may feel like, "The doctor didn't spend any time with me.”
Stephanie Foo: So you're helping them, but it doesn't feel like you're helping them because you're not interacting with them that much.
Kwandaa Roberts: Exactly, exactly ... you just sort of treated the chart all day ... and you didn't actually interact with anyone or see if you improved anyone's life. It just was not what I was hoping for.
Stephanie Foo: But that changed when she discovered obstetrics and gynecology. First off, she was good at it.
Kwandaa Roberts: I remember thinking I'm going to do this exam the way I would want it when it's me. And the woman that I did the exam almost like, "I didn't even feel that. That was the best exam ever."
Stephanie Foo: And next, it felt so much more personal than other forms of medicine – it required real empathy and care. Her specialty.
Kwandaa Roberts: I mean, you're going to walk into my office and in 5 minutes, I got to look at your vajayjay. (laughs) _________________________________________________________________________
Stephanie Foo: After graduating med school in 2001, Kwandaa quickly established herself as a well-regarded gynecologist and obstetrician in Philadelphia and she was able to buy a nice home in a nice neighborhood.
But her life as a doctor wasn’t easy: 24-hour shifts, many other hours on call waiting for babies to arrive. Kwandaa would return home exhausted looking for a stress-buster. So she turned on the TV. And she discovered all of these home renovation shows.
Stephanie Foo: So what did it feel like when you're watching these shows and they unveil a beautiful room?
Kwandaa Roberts: There's nothing like having a beautiful home to come to. And so to see that on TV and you see these reveals and the people cry and they're so moved because they didn't know that their home could look that way ... It's a wonderful thing to watch. It's like a little bit of joy.
Stephanie Foo: The shows reconnected Kwandaa to that old love of hers: interior design.
And there were a lot of them: “Extreme Makeover, Home Edition.” “Love It or List It.” “This Old House.” “Trading Spaces.” Of course the premise of most of these shows is the same: dumpy shack gets transformed into a modern-looking reno. Kwandaa was addicted.
You could call all of this, the democratization of home decor. For Kwandaa, like for many viewers, these shows gave people design ideas and building tips. They empowered people to renovate their homes by themselves.
Kwandaa Roberts: “This Old House” taught me how to do all of my lights and install flooring. So for people who say TV is bad for you, they don't know what they're talking about, because I made money hanging the light fixtures for nurses when I was in residency, because I learned it on “This Old House.”
Stephanie Foo: And now that Kwandaa owned her own house, in her free time, she could tinker with the furniture layout, freshen up those window treatments, paint the cabinets white – whatever she wanted. She did it all on a budget, mostly buying all her fixtures and decorations from Target and often selling her used decorations on Craigslist for about the same price she bought them for.
Years passed like this. Kwandaa became the parent of two children. And then in 2017, around Christmas, Kwandaa bought a dollhouse for her daughter. But she didn’t like the pink and purple exterior. It looked too garish and stereotypically girly. So she repainted it with normal house colors. And then she couldn’t help herself. She started redecorating it.
Kwandaa Roberts: And I literally had the time of my life doing it.
Stephanie Foo: She would sneak into the basement every night to work on it while her daughter slept.
Kwandaa Roberts: Like I'd moved the furniture around, just sort of sit and look at it. And I just got this thought, almost like, I didn't want to give it to her like, "She's going to ruin it." I've laid out the bathroom and when I give it to her, the kitchen will be in the bedroom. She'll play with it, it's not going to be the way I want it.
Stephanie Foo: But of course, she reminded herself, the dollhouse wasn’t for her. It was for her daughter. But then Kwandaa had an idea. Why couldn’t she make herself a dollhouse, too?
Kwandaa Roberts: And I just had a thought that I could buy the dollhouses for myself and I could entertain myself that way ... these dollhouses would be a way for me to do it, that would be cheaper. And then I could save my house from myself.
Stephanie Foo: So Kwandaa went to Target and picked up a Magnolia dollhouse, one designed by Chip and Joanna Gaines, from the show “Fixer Upper.” “Fixer Upper” was one of her absolute favorite shows. She loved Chip and Joanna, a husband-and-wife couple who specialize in a clean, modern farmhouse style – a lot of white walls, exposed wood beams called shiplap and neutral color palettes. The homes look clean, bright and elevated, while still being livable and cozy. And she decided that when she totally revamped this dollhouse, it would be true to Chip and Joanna’s farmhouse sensibility.
Kwandaa Roberts: So I took the steps out, but then I had to patch holes in the ceilings and buy plywood. There was a lot of sanding and spray painting ... I took an old-school spindle bed but I painted it black to give it that modern look, and then there's shiplap on the walls behind the bed just to give an accent wall ... there's a copper soaking tub.
Stephanie Foo: She made cute accessories that, if they were life-size, you would definitely want them – a ladder towel rack for the bathroom, a bunk bed that looked like a barn, a chandelier made of antlers. And that copper tub and modern shower made the bathroom look so classy, like every day could be a luxurious spa day.
Kwandaa Roberts: I want the copper tub so bad. If I could, like, get my big toe in it and just soak the one toe, I would because I'm in love with the bathroom that's in that house.
Stephanie Foo: Kwandaa took some pictures of her little creation. As she showed them around to her friends, they were in awe. A colleague told her to post the pics on social media.
Kwandaa Roberts: He showed and told people it was an Airbnb, they all wanted to book it and they thought that I had remodeled my own home, that I was showing them live pictures.
Stephanie Foo: And her posts immediately blew up. Kwandaa was getting tons of comments and requests for dollhouses from all over the world.
Comments: “I want to live here!!!!” “How did you make the marble kitchen island?!” “The bathroom alone is better than my entire real apartment” “Dude, this is a dollhouse” “Dollhouse insanity!!” "SO Fixer Upper House!"
Kwandaa Roberts: And my phone actually froze with the notifications ... my phone could not handle, it literally was like zip, zip, zip, zip like, all day and I'm like, what is happening?
Stephanie Foo: In early 2018, the dollhouse ended up in People Magazine, and Buzzfeed. She was featured on “Good Morning America” and the “Today Show” – for a tiny house everyone wished they could live in. HGTV shared her post. And then, her neighbor’s kid texted her with bigger news.
Kwandaa Roberts: May 2019 she's like, "Did you look at Instagram today?" And I'm like, "No." And she's like, "I would go look at my page if I were you." And she goes, "Joanna Gaines likes your dollhouse."
Stephanie Foo: Joanna Gaines. The Joanna Gaines. Her hero.
Kwandaa Roberts: It was brilliant. Having the dollhouse go viral because of my design … I felt immediate validation.
Stephanie Foo: The validation lit something within Kwandaa that had been there since she was a child.
Kwandaa Roberts: People were like, "If you can do that in a dollhouse, you can do that in my real house."
Stephanie Foo: All of those home makeover shows Kwandaa used to watch? The big reveal at the end of the show, where the homeowners are blown away by what happened to their house? Most people watch that, and dream of getting their own amazing home makeover. But that was never Kwandaa’s thing.
Kwandaa Roberts: I'm sort of there, but as the designer, not the homeowner, do you know what I mean? From my point of view, watching the shows, I'm always the designer.
Stephanie Foo: But wait. Kwandaa was a doctor. Being a doctor is prestigious, difficult, and the only thing she’d ever allowed herself to want as a career. And especially being a single mother of two kids, being a doctor meant financial security. But here she was, considering a risky mid-career change.
Kwandaa Roberts: My neighbor, who I really love, that lives right next door, he thinks I'm insane. He’s just like, "How are you going to live?” He's like, "What are you going to do? And why are you doing that thing?"
Stephanie Foo: But if all of these people on the internet thought she could do it, maybe she could. So on top of her full-time job, Kwandaa went to design school, got an interior design certification and started a business. People started booking her as an interior designer immediately. ________________________________________________________________________
Stephanie Foo: Kwandaa was living out her dream, but it quickly became overwhelming.
Kwandaa Roberts: So many clients and I could work 80 to 100 hours a week, and I'm not exaggerating … and then I was still doing the dollhouse stuff.
Stephanie Foo: And you were still being a doctor?
Kwandaa Roberts: Yeah.
Stephanie Foo: Wow.
Kwandaa Roberts: Yeah. And then meeting clients on the weekends and dragging my kids with and it just very quickly became too much.
Kwandaa Roberts: I just, I was like, "I cannot do this."
Stephanie Foo: Essentially you're, you've got your dream job now, but you just don't have the time to do it.
Kwandaa Roberts: I guess I was thinking, “I'll start the interior design business slowly, and if I can make enough money at it, I'll cut back on my hours as a physician and have these two different careers.” You know what I mean? Like I’ll do both at the same time.
Stephanie Foo: But designers don’t get paid until the job is done. And the job doesn’t always get done on time. For many projects, Kwandaa had to wait months for payment. Those were tough terms for a single parent. Plus, she still felt that her patients were counting on her. So she was killing herself every week.
Kwandaa Roberts: It was disappointing for me because who would think that the dollhouse would go viral? It happened. Yet, I still can't do it. I still can't. I still can't do it.
Stephanie Foo: By the fall of 2019, Kwandaa had had enough. In order to stay sane, she went back to full-time practice. And design went back to being a hobby. But soon after that, life for doctors changed radically.
Stephanie Foo: All of a sudden, Kwandaa found herself a frontline worker facing a global pandemic. She had to put herself in grave danger every single day when she went into the hospital, where they didn’t even have enough personal protective equipment. Plus, her family got thrown into disarray.
Kwandaa Roberts: I lost my childcare, which is almost impossible for a single OB-GYN. Nobody wanted to watch the kids of a healthcare worker. And you don't want to expose them, either. It's bad enough you have to come home and expose your family, now you need to expose some other person to this virus?
Stephanie Foo: It must have been a really complex feeling, because on the one hand everyone's clapping for first responders and making you out to be heroes, and on the other it's, "I didn't sign up to be this hero.”
Kwandaa Roberts: The whole thing was just terrible. It just was terrible from every angle, really.
Stephanie Foo: Doctors and essential workers were asked to shoulder the same burden. If they were even able to hold on to their jobs. A few months in, Kwandaa was furloughed, because most routine gynecological appointments and elective surgeries were cancelled. And then the pandemic became even more personal for Kwandaa. Her father contracted COVID-19.
Kwandaa Roberts: We were not allowed to go to the hospital at all. He was alone the entire time.
Stephanie Foo: That's heartbreaking.
Stephanie Foo: From the beginning, the thing that you disliked about medicine in the first place was feeling helpless.
Kwandaa Roberts: Exactly. Now, here you are. Utterly helpless, when you need to be … when you need to be helpful or have some answers or solutions, you're like, "I have no idea what we're dealing with. Don't know how to treat it, and you can't visit or see, or do anything, really, with your emotions."
Stephanie Foo: After 5 weeks in the ICU, Kwandaa’s father passed away.
Kwandaa Roberts: I really had PTSD. I was afraid to be in the hospital. I was just a mess, really.
Stephanie Foo: After losing her father, Kwandaa was too afraid to go back to work. She didn’t want to contract COVID or expose anyone else to it, especially not her children. Her grief had transformed into a debilitating fear.
Kwandaa Roberts: You can't go out, and then at some point I realized I had embraced that. There's nothing to do. There's nowhere to go. You don't put your clothes on. It took me a little bit to be like, “Maybe I'm not doing as well as I think I am. We ate today. That's it.”
Stephanie Foo: Were you working on your dollhouses at this time?
Kwandaa Roberts: I was not. Or design. I thought, "These are frivolous." Felt extra frivolous. Do you know what I mean? It was just like, "I don't think I'm going to play with my toys.”
Stephanie Foo: Kwandaa started to wonder how she could be helpful in the world if she wasn’t going to be a doctor. The answer came in the form of another person’s home.
Kwandaa Roberts: This wasn't even a job job. I have a friend of mine, single guy, who lives in your quintessential bachelor pad, and I was just like, "Just give me like 500 bucks and I will redo your entire apartment.” And I did the entire apartment from the kitchen, living room, bathroom, baskets for his shaving supplies. Every single room.
Stephanie Foo: Kwandaa saved her best for the guy’s bedroom.
Kwandaa Roberts: I kind of made him a headboard out of some Ikea shelving and put the lights up and it was just super moody and I loved it. And there was a little bit of animal print. I took some risks in there, so I wasn't sure how he was going to feel about it. And so I opened the door to his bedroom and he's sort of behind me and so I can't see his face and he's silent. And so my heart sinks because I'm like, "Oh my God, he hates it." And I turned around to look at him and he's crying. And he was like, "I can't believe it." And I was like, "OK, well, this feels almost as good as delivering a baby." I mean, it just ... that, it did it for me.
Stephanie Foo: It was that same feeling Kwandaa got that first day as a student in the maternity ward. That feeling of being able to help people, of being able to transform their lives. But she didn’t have to go into the hospital to do it if she didn’t want to. Design wasn’t just about making people’s houses look good for Instagram. It was about conjuring feelings of comfort and joy.
Which became especially true once people started spending so much more time at home. Suddenly we needed office spaces where we could be productive and we needed other areas to rest and relax. Kwandaa could help create that for people.
Her passion for designing re-emerged. And then, in the spring of 2020, Kwandaa got a completely unexpected message. Producers of the home makeover show “Sell This House” had seen the dollhouses and wanted Kwandaa to appear on the show as a designer.
Stephanie Foo: Did you kick ass? If it was me, I'd be like, "Oh my gosh. How am I going to do? Am I going to live up to this thing that I've always dreamed of?"
Kwandaa Roberts: Oh my God. “Sell This House” was so much fun. I just decided to go for it and have fun, and try to think less about how I did, because I'm a perfectionist, and I was totally outside of anything I've ever done.
Stephanie Foo: An offer of two episodes turned into five. And Kwandaa first appeared on A&E on September 14, 2020.
The experience was so satisfying that it helped her realign her priorities for what she really wanted to do in life: Bring people joy.
Kwandaa Roberts: I just decided to go really part-time at work, and just to go for it.
Stephanie Foo: Go for design you mean?
Kwandaa Roberts: This life is short. Nothing is guaranteed for any of us. I just really decided to take a leap of faith, and start exploring some of these opportunities that were coming my way.
Stephanie Foo: Kwandaa is taking another shot at her design business. She only works one shift a week at the hospital to pay the bills, that’s it. So she has more time to focus on her children and the things she loves, like her dollhouses.
Kwandaa Roberts: So I'm going to take you guys on a house tour … I tripled the amount of storage when I redid this kitchen from what it was without adding a square inch, totally changed the layout. Oh, I forgot about my chandeliers. In the dining room …
Stephanie Foo: Plus, she always makes time to keep tinkering in her own home.
Stephanie Foo: How often are you redecorating?
Kwandaa Roberts: I redecorate a lot, I really do. It's embarrassing to say, I'm serious, but the house will not look exactly the same, I'm going to say like 6 months or so.
Stephanie Foo: Wow.
Kwandaa Roberts: I mean, I'm still on the journey here, so nothing feels done or final, even a design … the rooms are never done … I'm always thinking about … I was thinking about that earlier today. I mean, literally it's constantly. What can I do? How can I drive myself even more crazy in this house? So that work is never done. I'm sure my personal growth and transformation will hopefully never be done.
Stephanie Foo: It isn’t always as easy to rearrange your life as it is to rearrange your living room. But sometimes, it’s just as necessary, to be able to sit, look around at what you’ve created, and feel something real, something joyful.
You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. To find links to Kwandaa’s dollhouses, check the show notes. Thanks for listening.
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Home. Made. Podcast By Rocket Mortgage®
September 19, 2022
Home. Made. is a new, original podcast from Rocket Mortgage® hosted by Stephanie Foo. It starts with a simple concept: Inside every home, there’s a story.