Monday, April 30, 2012

...about sixteen sweet tips: Design on a Dime 2012.

The planning went back to January, and it’s an unconventional way to design: build a room around the generosity of donors and friends, styled to delight and propped to sell: Design on a Dime is the amazing annual event to benefit Housing Works. I was pleased to be asked back for my sophomore outing, and this year, I knew what I was in for (last year, I was blessed with some ignorant bliss!) and had more time to do it (last year, I was an eleventh-hour addition.) The extra time was both blessing and curse: Blessing, since it’s a major undertaking to round up a room’s full of furnishings, art and lighting from across the country and still have it converge in New York on time, so every second counts. The curse came from having time to over think, and it took away some of last year’s urgency that lit a little friendly fire under wavering donors.

The process, however unconventional, still gave me opportunity to pull from my own bag of designer tricks. In no particular order, here are my sweet sixteen take-aways from Design on a Dime 2012. With a lot of lamps (#15!!), it will help shed a little light on why I picked what I did... and how you can pull a room together using these same ideas.

1. Insta-Architecture
Not every room has the benefit of pre-war detail or architectural interest (which in turn lends things like grace and substance), and when you’re in a rental or watching your pennies, adding it  can be tricky, especially when you can’t enlist construction as part of the transformation. In this event, with three “walls” and no ceiling, I like to add something that creates the illusion of more sturdy construction, so I start with paper (actually, here a SEXY vinyl from Koroseal). And without windows, I wanted something for height and that gave the impression of a space beyond what we can see, so the four-paneled American Walnut folding screen from LazySusanUSA was the perfect addition. Both, relatively easy additions that can make up for a room’s shortcomings.

2. Get Out of the Woods
When you think of tables, desks and cabinets, the first material apt to come to mind is wood. But many more options exist, and give a room a layered and put-together-over-time sophistication. Here, a shell-topped table with bronze legs from John Lyle Design, a grasscloth covered desk from Bungalow 5, and concrete console from Currey & Company all happily coexist, and even if they did indeed all spring from boxes and packing blankets in a matter of hours, the combination gives the room a feel of personal history.

And if you do go woody, it doesn’t need to be brown. Now, I love brown as much as the next guy (actually, waaaay more than the next guy...) but it’s not the only color for wood. In fact, at the recent Architectural Digest Home Show, and in trade-only showrooms like the Frazier Collection and the New Traditionalists, bleached, cerused and tinted woods made a big showing (a deeper continuation of last summer’s driftwood trend.)

But why is such a variation of tones and materials able to happily coexist? Similarity, and repetition. The bleached oak has a lot of tonal similarity to the concrete. The red-stained Hourglass drum stools share tone with the Bernhardt upholstered ottoman. If every introduction into a room has something to back it up, nothing looks out of place, even if every piece has its own unique shape, color or texture. Your eye isn’t exhausted by contrast when you give it just a touch of similarity on which to linger.

3. Watch Your Tone!
The other thing that makes the woods work here is that each is a step up or down on the tonal scale... from the dark, almost-black exposed wood on the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams chairs to the pale cerused oak on the Josephine Chairs (a pair donated by Serena & Lily). If you can pair something in a room with something else that’s a notch up or down the tonal scale, you’ll end up with a room that feels established, not freshly poured from just one can of paint or ripped from one bolt of fabric. The walnut screen courtesy LazySusan USA is also a big mediator here... its richly-patterned graining pulls all the rooms tones in, making sense of them all in the process.

4. Texture Rules
Rooms get their richness from variation in texture. Here, the floor is covered with an exotic Ikat from NIBA Rugs, and has an earthy luster (and perfect, unique palette from which to build a room). The walls have an edge-blurring sheen that subtly bounces light (and hides imperfections with its embossed pattern; The alligator pattern also adds a softening organic quality to an otherwise  modern, angular  room). And the matte/shiny, rough and polished play continues from floor up and walls out. Velvet and silk, stone and concrete, matte and polished... all texturally rich and varied. And don’t forget the textural differences art can bring, even down to the bounce of light of the glass itself.

5. Art is Not Just An Oil
To paraphrase Mr. Charlie Brown, “I got a rock!” But, oh, what a rock! The artful accessory stopping this show was the Chinese Scholar’s rock, of epic proportion, instant history and color perfection. It married the concrete, stones, browns and even upholstery’s burgundy. It threw a lovely curve at the angular console beneath it. And, most importantly, it was unexpected... lucky me, for the generosity of Pagoda Red, a Chicago retailer/dealer garnering quite a reputation for their collection of these “painted” rocks upon which scholars through the ages have focused their contemplative energies. No wonder.

In any room, I promote the concept of Invest, Splurge and Save, and this scholar's rock might be the best splurge of the room (even though here, so generously donated). But an investment like this, which SUCH presence, sets the stage to save elsewhere in the space. I am also a big fan of what might seem like overscaled accessories in a small space... it keeps things intentional, not junked up. It also had the type of presence that let me play with the symmetry of the console’s composition.

6. Every Introduction is an Addition (or, Mixology 101)
I started with the rug and wallcovering, and EVERY step after that included an element of something already there. To make cohesion out of diversity, the visual game I play is taking the elements of an existing piece (color or shape or texture or vintage or style) and adding its traits to something already in the room to make sure it works. The two main chairs were the result of the addition of the rug’s golden tan tones and the walls Bourbon brown. The Bungalow 5 stools took the Asian inspiration of the Scholar’s Rock and added the reddish-merlot upholstery of the ottoman. The Currey & Company Algonquin Lamp took its flame-like energy directly from the rug’s fiery pattern, with a mix of the brass of the neighboring picture lights.

7. Frame for Fame
If I could make a living of taking things to get framed, I would. I love the process, and the transformative power of a perfect frame. When framing multiple pieces for one room, don’t feel like every frame needs to be identical, even if the artwork is similar. Here, the two drawings by Dan Romer (one of the many gallery-caliber artists who donated to my booth this year) are each framed very differently, but perfect for each piece. The airier reclining nude breathes easier in a plexi box (my FAVORITE way to up the edge on any art) while the gutsy and muscular portrait “Big Carlos” needed some sturdier containment, here a rust-colored metal frame that also draws from the charcoal-y grit of this strong piece. Regardless of frame style, ALWAYS spring for the 8-ply mat. And mat wider than you think... add at least an inch or two to what you think looks good to start with. For the extra pennies, you get buckets of look. Even a humble piece.. a friend's Facebook profile pic... looks gallery ready when framed wide and presented on a desktop easel.

8. It (Gets Worse Before It) Gets Better
I am a HUGE advocate for homeowners NOT being present during major days of installation. It is NOT pretty. Boxes, mess, chaos... nothing to instill confidence in a homeowner who's hired you. And while this event is an extreme case, it certainly shows why.

I also like homeowners to steer clear of installation because even a well-planned floorplan needs some organic flexibility when real pieces hit the real space. Here, the plan to have the desk jut into the space just didn’t work, and a last minute pivot made things fall firmly into place... and give the rug even more presence. So cut yourself some slack when something planned doesn’t pan out. It happens.

9. The Art of the Pull-Up Chair
I get to work on a lot of open plan and adjoining living/dining spaces here in Manhattan, and one of my very favorite tricks is stocking the living room with overflow seating that can be pressed into service for dining when extra company comes... or moved around when wine tasting turns to Wii party. The trick is to pick occasional chairs that don’t look like they’ve wandered away from the dining table. That hide-covered Tyler armchair is one dining chair hiding in plain sight, and the split pair of the curvy Josephines are the others. Speaking of split pairs...

10. Pair, or Not to Pair
I love the formality and eye-catching nature of symmetry, so I tend to buy (or in this case, beg for!) pairs when the occasion arises. But pairs don’t always have to be, well, paired. The Josephine chairs are pulled apart (but still have a conversation as they diagonally bracket the room), but I’ve kept the Currey & Company “Signature” table lamps as a pair to anchor an otherwise asymmetrical arrangement.

I’ve used two pedestals (custom-finished by the Alpha Workshops) but also chosen not to accessorize them the same way. (Confession time: THAT was the result of a vase-cracking accident, not design... I originally intended to have two of the Roxanne Mei Ping Covered Jars, but the laws of gravity conspired against me during installation! In a Tim Gunn-inspired moment of “make it work,” the cherry branches in the Wisteria Colossal Hurricane went in the place of the shattered vase up against the brown walls, where I loved— and got the most mileage from— from the stems’ pink blossoms. So tip 11.5: Go with the flow, even when your vase cracks under pressure.

11. Bend the Gender
When left to my own devices, I’m intrigued by, and tend to design toward, a masculine vibe (maybe because I don’t have that many male clients). I like to see how masculine a room can get without falling prey to bachelor pad cliché, and the alligator walls certainly set the stage for men’s clubbiness. But this is a sale, and like staging for real estate resale, I wanted to make sure men and women felt comfortable in the space (and I admit, I also wanted to garner some girl-blogger attention!) Color and curve tempered the masculine dark browns, animal skins and concrete. Bright yellows and the pinks and clays and magentas of the art all served to bend the gender toward a happy median.

12. Reserve the Right to Bare Arms
Like our first lady knows, bare arms can garner lots of attention... so when I saw these two new chairs from Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams, I knew they were a must have. The un-upholstered arm strips away all the mass from these ample chairs, mass that would otherwise overwhelm a small space (display booth or studio apartment). And yet these chairs still have room for a companion Norfolk Terrier or purring Siamese.

These chairs also have no bad angle... so they can face pretty much any direction and still shine: a necessary quality when a floorplan calls for floating furnishings to designate a seating area or function zone... so look at a chair from all angles when purchasing. Even if your current plan calls for a wall position, a float-worthy chair will get you more mileage down the road.

13. Get Leggy...
Since I wanted this SEXY rug to stop traffic at the event, I looked for furniture that stayed up and off it. Leggy furniture is also a great space-expander in a smaller space, since your eye doesn’t stop at the base of a couch or the skirt of a chair. So the major upholstery pieces and the side chairs all show a lot of leg (and what’s sexier than that?).

14. ...Then Don’t
Eero Saarinen was famous for his quote on furniture legs, and the genesis and goal  of his Tulip pedestal bases was to “clear up the slum of legs” that at the time was a downside of the airy modernity of Mid-century Design. Here, while I wanted the pieces on the rug to let the rug shine, the pieces around the edges needed to not add more legs to the party... or at least a different, more substantial type. The desk had a blocky Parson style leg (which all but disappear into the dark wall covering) and the concrete console has my favorite waterfall style side/leg. Even the Room & Board Moro cabinet (set up as a bar) avoids the leg race, with a clean-lined plinth base.

15. Lamp Light It
It is RARE I work with a client who already has enough lamps, so the lamp story here is the practice of what I preach: The most flattering light is the light through lamp shades, and the best-lit rooms have multiple sources and types... incandescent, halogen, overhead, direct, indirect, low, up, bare bulb and shaded... of lighting. With the venue’s overhead lighting standing in for recessed or track, every type is represented here. Lighting is ESPECIALLY important in a dark-walled room, where it creates pools of light accenting the best the room has to offer. That trick also has remarkable capabilities of making a small room seem bigger.

I’ve also used what is found in almost every room I do: Picture lights, pharmacy lamps, and accent uplighting. What keeps the collection of lamps from feeling like a Bowery showroom is similarity... all the lighting shares a warm-metal finish (golds and brasses) and the fabric shades are all rectangular. Those common notes let the differences happen without getting noisy.

16. Home Stretch
During installation (a mere one-and-a-half days, from empty booth to party ready living room!), there was a stage where all art, lamps, and furnishings were in place, and the room looked finished. But what brought it to life was the introduction of smaller elements, and turned fictional booth into possible home. As a stylist, these are my very favorite details. Books, flowers, vases, candles (large hurricanes and small tealights), a SEXY brass Alessi ashtray courtesy SWITCH Modern, custom pillows, glasses, wine bottles and bar accessories, horn boxes and magnifying glass much courtesy SWITCH Modern, NEST Interiors, and Mortise & Tenon... all started to tell a story about this space’s fictional occupant (a world-traveled, art-savvy gentleman, in a very Mad Men meets Indiana Jones kinda of time travel) but do the same in any home: They bring a room’s scale down to a very personal level, tell a story about the homeowners, and give the room a detail and texture that keep it from feeling like a model apartment. And bonus... since each room is up for grabs at this charity sale, these smaller accessories FLY out of the booth when the shopper’s starting pistol first pops.
Which tip or trick are you already employing? What one will help make the most of your room? Let me know!!

A HUGE thank you to all my donors:

Koroseal: Wall covering: "Alligator" in Bourbon
Currey & Company: Concrete console, Signature Table Lamps, Algonquin Table Lamp
The Alpha Workshops: Custom graphite finish on pedestals
Pagoda Red: Chinese Scholar's Rock
Mortise & Tenon: Accessories
Scott Frances: Signed copy of "MonoVisioN"
NEST Interiors: Horn boxes
Jonathan Adler: Bristol Table Easel
Good Design: Kaiser Porcelain Reliefware Vases

Dan Romer

Thank you
Phil Fairley
Erik Retzer
Ron Dudding
Jody Kivort

And a HUGE shout-out the Housing Works crew, from the box-breaking volunteers, to the pricing team, to the sales force on party night, to my great friends, new and old, Joseph, David, Erin, Bill, Barbara, Rebecca, Denise and especially Mel.


  1. This room makes me want to sit with a warm drink and turn on some Frank Sinatra. So warm and classy! Well done.

  2. I am especially attracted to the folding screen by LazySusan. It's quite unique and beautiful.

  3. So incredibly well designed, planned and executed. I appreciate your concept even more now having read through your tips - especially seeing the "It (Gets Worse Before It) Gets Better" :) Ain't that the truth??! Can't wait to see what you create this year for Housing Works - Design On A Dime Benefit 2013!

    What an HONOR for you to be invited back for a third year!

    Cheers and blessings to you dear Patrick!

    xo Lynda
    (aka NYCLQ)

    1. Lynda, you are so kind!! Thank you so much for the ongoing support.

  4. The yellow Temple Jar is fab - where did it come from?
    xo xo