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This ‘80s-themed Airbnb went viral; owners share their design secrets

DALLAS — They set out to build an Airbnb — and ended up striking a chord.

Jeremy and Kelsey Turner’s Lower Greenville property, dubbed The McFly, is styled in what they advertise as a “Back to the ’80s” theme. With a few carefully selected pieces and a whole lot of pastel paint, they turned part of their 1934 Tudor duplex into a space where the characters of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” would feel right at home.

The Turners didn’t have to spend a ton of money to make a design statement. OK, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game was not cheap. But the wall-mounted pay phone enclosure was free.

And whatever assembling the pieces cost, they add up to viral success. Images from the McFly, which opened in early July, have been catnip for sites such as Travel + Leisure, msn.com, liketotally80s.com and — well, you’re reading this now, aren’t you?

Thing is, this isn’t the first time the Turners have had a crazy idea get national attention. Their work offers lessons not only in how to have fun with a home project but a peek into how design works in the social media age.

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HOW THEY BUILT IT

The Turners already were operating a successful, traditional Airbnb space. Jeremy says the idea for the McFly (the name is a nod to “Back to the Future”) came the day he visited a vintage toy store and watched “Ready Player One.” It got him thinking about creating a space that evoked his own childhood.

“I wanted it to be light and playful,” he says as he leads a reporter through the living room. “So that’s why I really wanted there to be video games and the sweet cereal buffet — I ate so much of that stuff when I was a kid, you know?”

He’s talking about the vintage cereal in the kitchen — fresh cereal, in vintage boxes. Now marked Do Not Throw Away, because someone, tragically, did that to their Cap’n Crunch. The kitchen also stocks Pop-Tarts.

If the Turners’ memories of the 1980s seem somewhat youthful, it’s because — so are they. He was born in 1986. She was born in 1984. Which explains why their space is not exactly a literal representation of life during that decade. You’ll find no mention of the era’s horrors, such as news clippings about Chernobyl or cassette tapes from Night Ranger.

You will find a working Nintendo — “Duck Hunt,” anyone? You’ll also see Michael Jackson. On a poster, at least.

It took about three months to assemble it all, Jeremy says. He wouldn’t give the exact budget but indicates it wasn’t extravagant. (The space currently rents for $79 to $150 a night.)

“We would find things in thrift stores. We would find things on eBay. Craigslist.” Lula B’s of Dallas was a good source, as was First Monday Trade Days of Canton.

“I just kind of trusted my gut,” Jeremy says. “I’m definitely not like an interior designer. But I knew what I was going for.”

One particular item he singled out: that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. “That was definitely in my original vision for the place,” he says. “And I really focused and fixated on that.”

Tracking one down was a challenge. The game is “considered a unicorn because they’re so rare and a lot of arcade people want them,” he says. But after putting “wanted” ads on Craigslist nationwide, he found one in San Antonio.

The wall-mounted pay phone box was serendipity: While helping a friend move, they spotted it in the trash at a gas station.

“Kids today have never used a phone booth,” he says, admiring the installation. “There’s really supposed to be an iPhone charger in it, but somebody took that.”

The space’s signature visual comes from the wall in the dining room, behind the old McDonald’s booth that Jeremy found on Facebook Marketplace. The mural there was painted by Kelsey, who does freelance design work.

Jeremy says the room was inspired by the Max — the diner in “Saved by the Bell” — and by the work of the Memphis Design Group, the Italians who conceived that look. Kelsey says the color palette came from a vintage Trapper Keeper — a device familiar to anyone of the era who ever had loose-leaf paper to bind. (It now holds the Airbnb’s guest information.)

Kelsey, who spoke by phone, says the hunt for items was fun, but it took discretion. “There’s a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t dare put in an Airbnb,” she says. “People would try to offer us really ugly things. And we were like, ‘No! Not that! Thank you!’”

Kelsey also had to serve as a check on certain plans, such as Jeremy’s unrealized (so far) dream of putting an Officer Big Mac jail from a McDonald’s playground on the property. Somehow.

“I feel like he just sees the final product — the vision in his head,” she says. “He doesn’t think of all the steps of getting it there. I think I’m a little more practical.”

PARTNERSHIP

The Turners have been married eight years (and are parents of two children, ages 5 and 3). During that time, Jeremy has executed a couple of attention-grabbing ideas.

The Vintagemobile was a bus they converted to sell vintage clothes. It’s no longer operating, but they’ll be back in November with the Ugly Christmas Sweater Shop.

That’s the store that won them national attention from, among other places, on “Good Morning America.”

What’s the secret to coming up with ideas that get so much traction?

Start with creativity. Kelsey says her husband is an idea machine.

“He throws a ton of ideas at me,” she says. “A lot. I have to sift through for the good ones.”

Another clue? When he talks about his design choices, Jeremy speaks in personal terms.

The Lamborghini Countach poster in one bedroom came about because Jeremy remembers that his older brother had one. (“I had the Ferrari Testarossa.”) The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game? “It was my favorite arcade as a kid.” Those other games? “One of my favorite Christmases was when we got our little Nintendo.”

The frozen Totino’s pizzas they leave in the freezer to surprise guests? “I ate so many of those as a kid. Oh my gosh!”

Jeremy’s boyish demeanor suggests the heart he put into the concept, and he says he’s more interested in being artistic than in just driving commerce. But the art does help the commerce, he acknowledges.

“There’s a lot of nice Airbnbs out there,” he says. “It’s very saturated now. So whenever I make something I really want there to be some magic in it. I want it to conjure up some feeling.”

He believes in immersive experiences. Inside the McFly, that philosophy means guests can play the games, or leave graffiti on the phone box as they leave, or taste that cereal buffet. At the sweater shop, that’s why he serves cookies and hot chocolate — and why he drives there in an early-’80s AMC Concord, with simulated wood siding. He says it evokes the Griswold family of “National Lampoon’s Christmas.”

If the internet response is an indicator, it all works. (Airbnb indicates that as of mid-September, plenty of nights remained open at the McFly, but the page had been viewed more than 500 times in the past week.) Kelsey says their viral success might be in part because they designed with social media in mind.

“You want it to spread,” she says. “You want people to Instagram your space. So you have to create a space that’s Instagrammable.”

Image is vital on Airbnb, she says, where the cover photo is your main selling point. The Turners wanted a scene that would “allude to the energy and the fun aspect of the space. So, yeah we definitely had that in mind whenever we were creating, especially the living room and dining room. We knew that would be the shot.”

Beyond the photos, Jeremy thinks people are picking up on the very vibe he wanted to create.

“It’s obvious that we didn’t want it to just be pretty in pictures,” he says. “We wanted people to really feel like they were kids.”

And if you want to replicate such vibes at home? Try his philosophy.

“You have to totally listen to yourself,” he says. “If it’s really interesting to you — put it in there.”

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