WHAT DESIGNERS TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT DESIGN
For the last 14 years, a tsunami of a dozen or so designers selected to participate in "Rooms With a View" descends upon Southport Village. The annual event, benefiting the Southport Congregational Church, showcases an array of six-by-nine-foot spaces decorated by area talent. Before this year's event, we invited a throng of gifted designers who have participated in the past to a roundtable lunch. CTC&G Editor in Chief DJ Carey presided over the affair, serving up bruschetta and doling out the tough questions.
Q: Be honest. Isn't it difficult to represent your work in a six-by-nine-foot "room" that's not really a room at all?
Lynne Scalo, Lynne Scalo Design: I like the challenge of a small space. You can only evoke, suggest the kind of work you do. For me, that's a suggestion of a place where someone would find some repose. It's like communicating a feeling. It's a gesture, not a speech.
Betsy Rowley, Southport Design: I think of it as a clean canvas. No moldings, no walls, no windows. Nothing forcing your hand. And everyone starts with the same canvas. At a typical showhouse, one designer gets the living room and another gets the...powder room.
Q: This year's theme is Muse and Inspiration. What has inspired you—and who has been your muse—over the years?
Rhonda Eleish, Eleish Van Breems Antiques: We were inspired by the work of an important—but obscure to most people—Swedish botanist. Once we settled on the idea, we went crazy with it. That's what I love about "Rooms with a View"—you're on your own. A designer could never say to a client, "Oh we're going to do your dining room as an homage to a Swedish botanist. Trust us. It will be cool." It's like working with a dream client...
Another designer interjects: Who never says a word!
And yet another: And (one) who goes away after the weekend and you never have to deal with them again. Laughter all around.
Michael Whaley, Michael Whaley Interiors: I was able to explore my fascination with Madeleine Castaing. I discovered her when I was in college on a senior year abroad program in France, tooling around the shops. She celebrated imperfections, odd choices. You know, as decorators we all have access to the same beautiful fabrics and beautiful carpets. But for me, it's the hunt for that spectacular lantern or unexpected piece of sculpture—that's how we set ourselves apart.
Q: You seem to be suggesting that you don't have to compromise your vision when creating a room for Rooms with a View. So I'm going to ask the question: How do you deal with compromise when working with a client?
Albert Hadley (deadpans): I've never compromised in my life. Laughter all around.
Albert Hadley: I'm not serious, of course. An honest compromise is a good thing. It gives substance. If I make all the decisions, that's not necessarily a good thing for my client.
Connie Beale, Connie Beale, Inc.: For instance, if your clients have a piece they really love, I'm not sure it's our place to say "you shouldn't have that piece." So I'd rather try to work it in for them. And sometimes it takes the design in a different direction. Even a better direction.
Parker Rogers, Parker & Company (and design chairman of "Rooms With a View"): At the end of the day, we don't live in the house—they do.
Q: I know you all have to tread lightly when designing a home—it's an emotional place for your clients. What kind of emotions drive your design?
Tucker Robbins, Tucker Robbins Design: For me it's about connectedness. And relevance. We all seek our place on this planet. Who are we? Where did we come from? Much of the story-telling aspects of the designs that I do remind us of our ancestors and how we got here. The stories of a mother spider who wove a web: that's design. I have to say that in the Western world people tend to seek comfort—that meets an individual's need. But outside of this culture people seek something larger—a place in the world.
Patricia Healing, Healing Barsanti: Well, at the risk of sounding like Shallow Pat... Laughter all around.
Patricia Healing: I just want to make everything beautiful. I like simplicity. I love change. I always hesitate to do things that are very static. I don't like things that can only be presented one way. If I create this background, it can work this way or that way. That's the way I live.
Q: We've all seen homes that look like a stage set-as if a human hand never touched the place after the decorator left... Patricia Healing: Yes! People say to me, "don't look at this room—it's so messy!" But your personal belongings are what give a space life.
Claire Miner, Southport Design: For me it's about finding the soul. I search for the soul of the house. Who are these people? What's their history? What's important to them? When interiors reflect the soul of the family or of the individual, they're always right.
Designer who shall not be named here: With some clients you come up empty. You see his car and her clothes. Or, their style is all about the most current trends.
Q: Since you brought it up: How do you feel about design trends?
Collective eye-rolling. Hate them! (from one corner) Ignore them! (from another)
Parker Rogers: Designing by trend can be expensive.
Patricia Healing: I love trends! They inspire me. I take the best of what's going on. I'll see something in a magazine and I'll draw it and completely re-interpret it. When I go to look at the thing that inspired me, my interpretation may be nothing like it. But that spark made me think in a new way.
Lynne Scalo: Maybe...but sometimes I get insulted by some of these trends. Say there's a whim that says that the '70s are groovy again. I want to ask, "Did you ever live in the '70s? Well, that stuff wasn't good then and it's not good now and it never will be good."
Melissa Barbieri, muralist: You start to read about what's in and what's hot and it reaches this saturation. You think, "I used to love this—and now I never want to see this again."
Edie Van Breems, Eleish Van Breems Antiques: Trends can be dangerous. If you design by trend alone, you will get very stale very quickly. Designs need to grow and evolve.
Michael Whaley: I think the real appeal of trends is that everything is instantly available. It satisfies those people who want it "this instant." I call it the Miranda Priestly effect. There's a whole culture of people who can just scream into their Blackberries, "I want it now." And five minutes later it's there. Whatever it is they want? It's there. But good design doesn't work that way.
Victoria Vandamm, Vandamm Interiors: I call it the Internet speed of life. You don't go to Europe to find the treasures and bring them back. It's not that there's not enough money to do that. It's that there's no time.
Edie Van Breems: The show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition makes people believe that it's possible to renovate an entire house over the weekend. After all, they do it on TV!
Albert Hadley (deadpans): Extreme Makeover is killing this business ...
Q: How do you feel about the fashion industry encroaching on interior design? You know, fashion designers setting themselves up to be the next design icons?
Victoria Vandamm: You have fashion designers saying, "I can do the clothing, I can do the makeup, I can do the perfume and oh, guess what, I can do the furniture, too." They've got the backers. It's not their dime. Why not?
Tucker Robbins: It's marketed as lifestyle. But it's not life. And it's certainly not stylish. It's just...marketing.
Q: So true designers bring something more than just surface style to their clients?
Claire Miner: I hope we produce lasting, enduring value. It gets back to the question of soul. All of us evolve throughout our lives, but the core of who we are doesn't change, I don't think. Is that person drawn to blues? Are they calm? You can get a sense of what are the things they've been drawn to in the past. Hopefully there's a thread there.
Betsy Rowlings: The greatest compliment is watching a client take a friend on a tour through the finished interiors and they say, "Look what I've done!" It's so cute. You know they are inseparable from their interiors, so much so they believe they created them. To me, that says that you've really captured them. You've seen their soul and discovered the best way to present it.
Connie Beale: Sometimes I think we bring the client to the client. You have to help them identify how they want to live. You have to fill it in for them. Sometimes you also have to make history happen for them. It's a nice thing to do. But it's a hard thing to do.
Albert Hadley: I'd like to offer a quote from my old friend Diana Vreeland on this subject: "Give them what they never knew they wanted." That's what it's all about.