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The Color of Candles: Decorating Case Studies

by Jean Hubbell Asher

Decorating case studies don't have to be horror stories. The examples that I'm about to use have the best and worst of decorating assignments. Although I hesitate to use myself as an example I am the decorator that I know best.

THE ENDLESS MOVE

Usually when I do a consultation for 'staging' a house it's brief and to the point. There can be several people involved in the process: the client, myself, an assistant and the real estate broker. We gather initially in the living room and my assistant and I walk through the house. During the tour I'm usually thinking about what piece of furniture upstairs might better be used downstairs and so on.

Time is of the essence during these staging sorties because they tend to be one-shot makeovers. Usually I have been hired by the real estate broker with the enthusiastic support of their client -- a reluctant client would not agree to having a decorator help market their house. The time framework is usually two hours and clients tend to be very compliant. Their attitude usually is characterized by a wish to "just do it so it looks great but keep it looking like my house." I don't disagree with that premise.

For other clients, however, each change can be agonizing and each proposed alteratioin must be initiated slowly and diplomatically. The cast of characters stands back waiting to hear your ideas so it is always important to calculate your next step before making even the first suggestion.

The case that I am terming the 'endless move' demanded a cautious, measured approach. My first suggestion was to center a sofa on the wall so that we could add a narrow end table on the other side to hold a lamp. After quite a bit of discussion about that initial mild suggestion we moved on to another part of the room.

It quickly became clear to me that this house was more than a two hour project. There were wonderful antiques in various states of demise and just plain junk that had to go. The sadder furniture had been part of the scenery for so long that even contemplating removal was distressing -- like the totally broken down sofa in the very small dining room. Bit by bit items were pared down and when the layout started to look better from a decorating point of view, it was possible to make a limited number of bold suggestions like removing the broken down sofa from the dining room.

Throughout the project every decision was a wrenching one for the clients. We got rid of the clutter, had some minor carpentry, painting and repairs done and devised a floor plan for their condo in upstate Connecticut. Blessedly, their house sold immediately.

THE HOUSE DOWN THE STREET

I always have a bit of stage fright before starting a new job: what if I can't think of anything? Having gotten through the chaos of 'the endless move' house rather well I was asked to stage a house down the street which had been on the market for several weeks and hadn't yet sold. I walked into a clean, uncluttered, very fresh looking house. I wandered through the rather large house and we all met back in the living room. Well, it happened. I couldn't think of a thing to do.

The house had some obvious drawbacks such as an inadequate kitchen but that was hardly a job for staging. Then I realized what the problem was: the house was too perfect. It was sterile, all white and pieces of furniture tended to be in too many pairings.

It's difficult to tell someone that their house looks sterile but slowly I broached the subject and they could not have been more receptive. We broke up some of the pairs, planned for some furniture additions and added plants and color accents such as a chair seat and pillows. The clients were very responsive and they couldn't wait to get to work on messing up the place.

Two days later the house sold for almost full price. Is there a correlation between fix up and sale? Hard to know for certain but in this case there was. The family who bought the house were clients of mine and second generation clients at that. They had seen the house and found it a bit off-putting, but they were interested. When they came back a couple of days later they knew they wanted the house. They didn't know I had been involved. I didn't know they were looking for a house.

I am now working on the house again, this time with more color, great antiques and art work. The family who bought the house have, in addition, redone the kitchen.

A SUBURBAN CAPE, A CONDO AND A HOUSE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

This decorating case study was an interesting multi-layered project. I had done the decorating for this client over a 25 year period -- first when they moved into the cape-style house and then over the years. During the span of years, they added a room for their growing family and incorporated inherited furniture from both their families with an occasional sprucing up along the way.

Now they were planning a move but not for a couple of years. The move would be to a two-bedroom condominium locally and a house to be built in New Hampshire. The existing furniture needed to be recovered but things that were now in the same room would be separated by hundreds of miles.

The challenge was to make everything coordinate well enough in situ, to make the house both enjoyable and marketable when the time came to sell, but also to have it translate to its new unknown locations. The pattern in the dining room rug, which would eventually be used in the condo living room, became the color scheme for the current living room. The family room furniture would be used in the unbuilt (and not yet fully conceived) living room in New Hampshire.

It all came together beautifully. Each of their residences resembles their taste, rather than newly developed and decorated spaces, and that was because the furnishing elements came from their former life.

The whole process was helped immeasurably by clients who had a strong sense of themselves and how they wanted to live. It was also aided by my penchant for mostly solid colors on the major upholstered pieces with strong color and pattern reserved for pillows and occasional chairs. From my point of view this works especially well when clients have good antiques, art work and accessories. Without those caveats I do rely more on strong color and pattern but am not as comfortable in that vernacular.

CONFRONTING YOUR PREJUDICES

There are many things that don't bother me which bother other people: overly worn Oriental rugs, antique furniture with dings in it, sometimes faded upholstery. There are quite a few things that bother me a lot: dramatically overscaled furniture, bad lampshades, red candles that clash with the upholstery and a strong orange palette.

A job I did many years ago leaps to mind, an uninteresting house filled with great (inherited) antiques, a good floor plan, tired but basically good seating and a bright orange shag carpet which the clients loved, covering a large living room floor. Off the living room was the dining room with a large Chinese blue and white rug which, in a strange way, almost showcased the orange shag carpet.

I never learned to like shag carpets nor a large expanse of orange, but I do think the effect was muted by my introduction of salmon and peach colors, prints of soft blues and furniture arrangements that pulled your eye away from the floor. They seemed very pleased and I didn't have to live with it.

A WONDERFUL HOUSE

The house was built about 1910, had generous sized rooms, high ceilings, wonderful moldings, great windows and beautiful water views. I had worked with this client before in a smaller house with little character which they kept on remodeling before ultimately deciding to move on.

The new house and location were a dream. Despite the generous proportion of the rooms, there were only three rooms on the first floor -- a living room, dining room and kitchen. The dining room went together easily with a strong pattern of blue and white at the windows, iron sconces, an interesting set of unmatched chairs and a painted black lacquer piece. It was stunning.

The living room, however was a challenge. The furniture arrangement worked well but the sofa was a low burgundy, tufted Chesterfield sofa more appropriate for a library/family room than a gracious formal living room. This piece was non-negotiable; it had to stay. Behind it used as a sofa table was a large, heavy oak piece. So far as the owners were concerned, this piece was also non-negotiable.

Initially the client wanted to use the sofa as a frame of reference for the rest of the living room. The colors and patterns were all chosen to work around that piece, the central focal point of the room. Gradually,though, we moved to a more neutral palette to emphasize her growing art and antique collection - mostly Regency and William !V furniture and some painted furniture. In time, the patterned English country furniture was relegated to the kitchen/family room, a practical foil for her young family.

The living room, as well as the rest of the house, finally looked great except for that sofa and sofa table. Then the day came that the sofa and that table no longer had to be in the living room. Fabric for a new sofa in the neutral color of the loveseat by the fireplace had already been ordered, if and when that day ever came. And it did. The fabric now covered a custom sofa and it looked great for a nanosecond. Just as the house came together, the clients decided to move.

This house had become more of a collaboration with the client than a usual client/decorator scenario. I took her with me to the showrooms where she absorbed not only the fabrics and furnishings but the business of decorating. We went to many of the top resources in New York for antiques: John Rosselli, Treillage and Sotheby's. Her mind was always racing with possibilities. She was bitten by the bug and ready to take off on her own.

Their next house, charmingly assembled by the client, was an interlude en route to a house they were building on the water. The new house is now complete, meticulously and lavishly appointed (in ways beyond my expertise) while maintaining all the decorating accoutrements we did together two houses ago. That's when you know it was a success, when elements translate well from house to house.

TRYING SOMETHING NEW

This particular house had a long, narrow living room, walls painted off white, a few exceptional antiques (including a large, wonderul wing chair), a sensational Oriental rug in reds and blues, very good art work, collections of Basalt and Canton. Seating groups covered in a neutral fabric was not an option. The colors had to be the colors in the rug in order to accentuate the things around it.

What to do about the scale of the very large wing chair; cover it boldly and balance it with an underscaled slipper chair if there had been room for another chair of substance. It was hard keeping the colors in my head of the Oriental rug but it finally worked by mixing shades and patterns of the rug colors on the seating group.

DOING SMALL JOBS

I have always had a soft spot for the small project, the fix-up situation, perhaps because it has some closure. Or perhaps because my business is a solo operation. Or maybe because I have a more hands on approach in my own life and feel that translates well to the small job. It could be because it plays to my strengths. I am more able to envision existing walls than walls to be although I have worked often from blueprints.

I love exercising the building blocks of these jobs - good furniture arrangements, appropriate scale and use of color, well-designed lighting. I love finding quality at affordable prices. Antiques shows and shops are great but so also are tag sales and consignment shops.

For clients I am a stickler for quality materials and workmanship but if the budget is tight I'm more than happy to see the client fill in with tag sale pieces which, at some point, can be used in another part of the house when the budget allows for upgrades.

If a client has time and interest I love to see them experiment (on lesser pieces) with painting or refinishing furniture. I love to see them explore all marketplaces for fabrics and merchandise. It is, after all, how one learns to sharpen their 'eye.' It also helps them recognize good workmanship when they see it. It takes time, some confidence and not taking yourself too seriously as you learn to try out new things.

For the client who has the interest but no time to spend on decorating , I love to see them have access to interesting sources and people who can affordably help them to stretch their budget.

I've had many clients who want to do some things on their own. I've had the benefit of doing many things that way myself, some rather adequately, some quite badly. I might add that it helps as a decorator if you know how to do many things. It enables you, among other things, to assess the prices charged and quality of workmanship.

The business of decorating does allow one to work in a multitude of ways. A decorator's niche may change over the years but the essentials remain the same. Many of the examples I've cited are familiar to most decorators. It's enormously satisfying when things go well and very tedious when they don't.

Being a decorator often seems glamorous and easy from the outside but it's a very detail oriented job with lots of money spent at the command of a decorator's wand. It's a responsibility to take on decorating someone else's home but one where you can live in the realm of beautiful possibilities.

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