By: Julie Yarusinsky
United States Army Captain Katie del Castillo attributes her growing passion and appreciation for interior design to several years spent with mess halls, barracks, and military uniforms. “My brain was starved for some creativity and color!” Katie is one well-travelled woman, and she’s got the home décor to prove it. She’s lived in Hawaii and been deployed in Afghanistan; the 27-year-old has managed to collect a ton of unique gems during her travels. These goods have found a home in one very eclectic Arlington, Virginia loft that’s brimming with patterns and textures. By finding a way to breathe new light into old furniture, she managed to take a free couch (you read that correctly) and flip it into a piece of art that you’ll never find in any store.
While serving in the military, she’s experienced heart-wrenching loss when her husband, Dimitri, was killed in combat while they were both deployed in Afghanistan. “I never expected to lose the love of my life at the age of 24.” Through it, she learned that she’s much stronger than she ever realized. We know she’s made him very proud with her countless accomplishments and ability to live life to the fullest every day. Did we mention the four marathons she’s completed? Not only is she a policy officer at the Pentagon working to open positions and occupations to women in the Army, but she also runs the lifestyle and interior design blog, Life with a Dash of Whimsy.
Today, Katie tells us a bit about what it’s like being a U.S. Army Captain and working at the Pentagon before showing us around her colorful loft.
Name: Katie del Castillo
Location: Arlington, Virginia / Washington D.C.
Current title/company: Human Resources Officer, Captain, U.S. Army // blogger behind Life with a Dash of Whimsy
Educational background: Human Geography, United States Military Academy at West Point
You’re a Captain in the U.S. Army, but your true passion is interior design. How has that influenced the way you’ve decorated your space?
The Army and interior design don’t typically go hand in hand…but I like to think of my time at West Point as a sort of catalyst for my creativity. For 4 years I lived in an Army barracks room, I had to make my bed a certain way (with an Army green blankent – my hot pink duvet was hidden in a drawer), arrange my clothes (uniforms) a certain way, I could not decorate my room (my sequined picture frame was my attempt to push the limits), I ate every meal at the mess hall (we didn’t have kitchens), and I wore (and still wear) an unflattering uniform that matched the men…needless to say my brain was starved for some creativity and color! In my free time I’d read Domino Magazine, House Beautiful, Southern Living and Bon Appétit while sitting in my barracks room. I’d cut out pictures of the things I wanted to buy, recipes I wanted to cook, and fun decorating ideas I wanted to try, and I’d tape them all in a pretty notebook (these were the days before Pinterest). Once I graduated, I started buying items to decorate my future home. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I knew what I liked, and I knew what would work together. Moving into my first apartment was such an exciting day because I could FINALLY try out the ideas I’d been dreaming about! My time in the Army has definitely influenced my style, and because I’ve moved so many times over the years I’ve been able to refine my skills with each new home.
Do you plan on pursuing interior design as a career in the future?
I’m considering it because interior design is a true passion of mine! I recently submitted my paperwork to get out of the Army, so I’ll be transitioning into the “real world” in August of this year. I had a 5 year commitment to the Army as payment after my free 4 year education at West Point, so that’ll be up this summer. It’s a scary but exciting transition! My only civilian job was as a lifeguard when I was 17, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. I’m looking forward to pursuing something creative, whether it’s interior design or opening a home décor boutique, or something completely different. If anyone has any tips or leads please let me know!
You currently work at the Pentagon. What does a “typical day” look like for you? What do your daily tasks entail?
I like to start my day with a run or at the gym. After I get ready I ride the metro (subway) to work. I get to work at about 8:15 and catch up on emails. Almost every day is different, because the topic I’m working has such high visibility right now. I’m currently a policy officer working on opening opportunities to women. My office writes all the policy pertaining to the opening of positions and occupations to women in the Army. This is a really hot topic in the Department of Defense right now, and we are often answering questions from the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and even Congress. Lots of very quick turnarounds, but it keeps things interesting! I head home around 6:00 and try to catch a Body Pump class or yoga. Then I cook dinner, drink a little wine, watch some TV and catch up on my favorite blogs.
What advice can you share with women who may be considering joining the military, or who are already working in the military?
In order for the military to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, you absolutely need to have a higher calling and a sense of service. I had no plans on attending West Point or joining the Army, but when my dad (also a West Point grad) made me visit during my senior year of high school, I felt it in my heart that I belonged there. I joined the Army after 9/11 during a time of war, so I knew that a deployment was in my future. You’ve got to be up for anything and be willing to go where you’re told. There are long days, time away from family, deployments, and uniforms, but it has been an extremely rewarding experience and I’d do it over again in a heartbeat.
We were saddened to hear that nearly 3 years ago, the unthinkable happened, when your husband Dimitri was killed in combat while both of you were deployed in Afghanistan. How did you even begin to cope with the loss of your husband? What advice can you give to readers who have also suffered the loss of a spouse, close friend, or family member?
I never expected to lose the love of my life at the age of 24. I knew it was a possibility, due to the nature of the military, but I was so optimistic that it wouldn’t happen to me. My husband was my West Point classmate, and he was living his dream of leading Soldiers in combat as an infantry platoon leader. After he was killed I allowed myself to grieve, but I never let myself stay in bed all day and wallow in my sadness. I made a point of getting up every single day, and I tried to find the happiness and beauty in life. I relied on my faith, my family and friends, and my love of running. I signed up for my first marathon a few weeks after I lost Dimitri, and I threw myself completely into training. I would imagine what he endured giving his life in defense of our country, and that would make me push even harder. It gave me something to strive for and focused me on the future. Since then, I’ve completed 4 full marathons with a personal record of 3:40, and I’m looking to sign up for my 5th! I’ve continued to set goals for myself so that I have something to focus my energy on. (For example, my goal for the past two years has been to max the men’s 2 mile run time (13 minutes or faster) for the physical fitness test, and I finally did a few months ago!) My next goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon by running a 3:35 marathon. I am a war widow, but I do not let this define me. I still have my low days and sad moments, but I try to see positives that have come out of this terrible situation, and it helps to put things in perspective. I know Dimitri would want me to keep living my life, so I’m going to continue to live life to the fullest and try to make him proud of what I accomplish.
What have been the greatest challenges working in the military? The greatest rewards?
The greatest challenge has been losing my husband and multiple dear friends in combat. Nothing will prepare you for that. The greatest reward has been the opportunity to serve my country. Traveling the world and living in Hawaii was a pretty nice perk too!
You currently live in a one bedroom apartment in Washington D.C. Tell us the process you went through while looking for your place. Do you rent or own? How long have you been there?
I currently rent my apartment, and I’ve lived here since June 2013. This is actually the only apartment that I looked at! I knew the area that I wanted to live (Clarendon in Arlington), so when I saw this loft style apartment with exposed ductwork, wood floors and an amazing bathroom I knew this was the place for me! I’d love a bigger home, but everything is pretty expensive in D.C., so I’m completely happy here (for now). I live right by some amazing restaurants, my gym, the metro stop and Whole Foods, so I really can’t complain! Eventually I’d love to buy an old home, either in Arlington or in Honolulu (I dream about moving back there), and completely renovate it and breathe new life into it. That would be so much fun for me.
Your home is so unexpectedly eclectic. Was it difficult finding a balance between modern pieces and vintage finds?
Not at all! I love trying to figure out how to make quirky things work. My favorite piece in my whole apartment is my blue ikat sofa. I got it for free from my parents’ neighbor who is a real estate agent. She had just cleaned out an elderly woman’s home because she was moving and did not want to take her furniture with her. I saw it in the driveway during a garage sale and asked how much she was selling it for. She ended up giving it to me for free because it looked so ugly (the fabric was pea green and from the 1960’s). It had great bones though, and I knew immediately that I’d get it reupholstered in a fun ikat print and it would turn out fabulously. Old pieces tell a story, and you’re able to show some creativity if you have to fix them up a bit. I love modern furniture and accessories too, and when they’re incorporated with vintage finds the blending of old and new makes it all look fresh and special! I believe that if you only buy pieces that you truly love you’ll have a place that looks great and is uniquely you.
Thanks to your travels with the Army, you’ve been able to collect some amazing and truly unique pieces for your home (like your collection of vintage prints and a gorgeous handmade carpet), tell us how those pieces have impacted your design process.
I actually come from a long line of Army officers (and Army wives), which means lots and lots of traveling and living in different places. I grew up watching how my grandmothers and mom collected items from every place they lived or visited, and they taught me to do the same at an early age. I love things with a story. Most of my artwork was purchased on trips across Europe with my family or in my travels since I’ve gotten older. Watercolors by street artists and retro posters are two of my favorite things to buy because they don’t weigh down your suitcase and can make a big impact once framed and hung on the wall in a grouping. I get such a thrill out of hunting for pieces. I bought my handmade silk carpet in Afghanistan from an Afghan vendor. He showed me a ton of carpets and I bartered to get the price down. Traveling and moving around has shown me the importance of making a house a home, even if you’re living in new place.
Walk us through the decorating process? Did you have a specific vision in mind when you began? How long did it take to complete your home from start to finish?
I always have an idea in my head, and it typically works out (after a bit of tweaking and adjustment). I am known for rearranging my rooms over and over again before I’m completely happy. I had my living room arranged one way for 2 months and I really thought it was great. Then one day after work I had a vision and decided to switch everything up, and ended finding the perfect arrangement. My advice is to not be afraid to try something. It won’t hurt anything if you have to rearrange things or re-hang pictures, and it’s ok if rooms aren’t completely symmetrical. My desk, sofa and TV are all off-center of where they “should” be, but it completely works. Also, don’t be afraid to mix different patterns and colors. Decorating is an ever-evolving process, and the work is never done (that’s what makes it fun!).
What items for the home would you say are most important to invest in? What items do you recommend saving on?
I think it’s important to invest in good furniture. Some of my cheaper furniture has not fared very well while traveling across the Pacific Ocean and the country, so having sturdy pieces is really important. My suggestion is to buy solid furniture (new will do, but I love finding beat-up used pieces at a bargain) and then invest in getting it reupholstered in a timeless, quality fabric that will last you for years. For example, my two pink wingback chairs cost me $50 for the pair. They were nasty and very ugly, but they had great form and I knew that some new fabric and padding would make them look lovely and fun.
What do you love most about living in Washington D.C.? What are your favorite things to do in the city?
I really love living in D.C., and I am so thankful to be able to live in another cool place after being lucky enough to spend 3 years in Hawaii (thanks Army!). I’m still discovering new things all the time, but one of my favorite things to do here is run. There are trails everywhere and I love running and watching the sun rise over all the monuments. It’s pretty magical. I’m a Georgia girl so the weather here is a bit cold for me, but it’s an exciting stepping stone until my next adventure!
In addition to having a full-time military job, you also created the lifestyle and interior design blog, Life with a Dash of Whimsy. Where did you find inspiration to start a blog?
I felt like I needed another way to harness my creativity because my day job does not really work my brain in the same way, as I’m sure you can imagine. My blog is still fairly new, but it’s been a great way to express myself and gather all my thoughts on design and the things I enjoy. I love to add a little dash of whimsy or quirkiness to a room or an outfit, and I encourage my readers to do the same. It’s fun to see people do a double take when they see something unexpected in my home. The little things in life can sometimes make the biggest impact, and I love to explore small ways to shake things up a bit.
We love this creative, low-cost alternative to uplighting on top of your kitchen cabinets that you featured on Life with a Dash of Whimsy. So clever! What other content can readers expect to find on your site?
Thanks! My blog is full of decorating tips and ideas for the average girl who’s trying to make her house more of a home. I’m inspired by pretty spaces, and love to share my ideas I’ve gathered while traveling and moving from place to place. For example, I have an upcoming series on different items to collect while traveling. These are things you’ll actually use, and they are budget friendly and will survive the rigors of travel! It’s fun to jazz things up in unexpected ways and use things that evoke happy memories!
What advice would you give to your 23 year-old-self?
I would tell myself that I’m so much stronger and more capable than I think I am. I’d tell myself that I should be less afraid to try new things, and to adapt if things don’t turn out as planned. I’d also tell myself that when things get dark there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I am strong enough to get through anything.
Katie del Castillo is The Everygirl…
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Can I choose two? I’d have lunch with my mom and Kate Middleton. My mom is my best friend and I wish I got see her more often, and I think Kate just has the best style and she seems so genuine and kind. I was in Afghanistan when Kate and Prince William got married, and I took over a TV in a tactical operations center because I HAD to watch the wedding. I definitely annoyed lots of men that day, but it was totally worth it. We would probably all have really good salads for lunch, a glass (or two) of prosecco, and then for dessert we’d have coffee and share a chocolatey dessert.
Aidan or Big?
Big, for sure! He’s larger than life and a bit of a bad boy. Although I wish he had Aiden’s skill with furniture! That would be handy.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
A latte with skim milk. I like to keep it classic and simple. Sometimes I add a little cinnamon on top.
First thing you do when you wake up?
Press snooze at least twice, and then make coffee with my Keurig! I can’t think straight or get moving without my coffee.
Desk: West Elm (metal no longer available, but there are lots of other finishes)
Coffee table: Ross
Lucite tray: CB2
Lucite console table: CB2
Garden stool: Homegoods
Animal Heads: Z Gallerie
Floor lamp: Pier 1 Imports
Sofa: vintage find
Wingback Chairs: vintage finds
Gold dot pillows: Caitlin Wilson Textiles
Striped Rug: Crate and Barrel
Cow Hide Rug: Ikea
Table: Crate and Barrel
Lucite Bar Chairs: CB2
Bookshelf: Nadeau Furniture in Columbia, SC
Candleholders: CB2 and Crate and Barrel
CB2 Bronn Candleholder
CB2 1-ring Candleholder
CB2 2-ring Candleholder
CB2 10-ring Candleholder
Chairs: TJ Maxx