Monday, May 4, 2015

...about small, dark and handsome: the adventurer’s lair, Design on a Dime 2015

Living, working and designing in Manhattan, I’m no stranger to small spaces. And while, sure, I’d love to work with more square footage and elbow room than New York living typically affords, there’s one small space I’ll gladly tackle: a vignette at Design on a Dime, the annual fundraiser for HousingWorks.  

Even though each of the 55+ designers is given a diminutive 10 x 12’ space (some with three walls, some with only two), and the booths exist for mere moments, the event thrills for the design opportunity it affords, like a fleeting flash mob of art , accessory, lighting, rugs, furnishings, paint and paper. The goal is to wow, entertain, and entice shoppers, big time, in a super small space. 

For the past two years (2013 and 2014), I had a GREAT time flexing my color muscles, so my first instinct was to once again use color to catch the eye of blogger, bigwig and (most of all) bargain hunter (all the solicited merchandise is sold off at up to 70% off to benefit Housing Works). The event’s April date also lends itself to a colorful burst, like spring blooms returning to Central Park after a black-overcoated, overcast and drawn-out winter.

But I wanted to remain, well, neutral, (to keep it interesting for me, and to keep people guessing about my design range), and for a few other reasons: One of my all-time most popular blog posts was all about that beige. Even D&D showrooms known for color report their biggest sales coming from creams, grays, taupes, tans, and yes, even beiges. And at the time planning for Design on a Dime, I was in the midst of a gentleman's all-charcoal master bedroom.

Neutrals get a bad rap for being default, safety net, or cop-out, but I wanted to see if an intentional use of a palette devoid (mostly) of jewel tones, primaries or pastels could still (even in a competitive environment like Design on a Dime) wow. But how? And, as practice for my own practice, could the intentional use of neutrals make a small space live larger? Here’s how I tried to bring sexy back, this year, to new neutrals.  
Texture, and a Game of Opposites
Never is textural play more important than in a monochromatic room, be it emerald green or navy blue, but perhaps even moreso in a room of gunmetal gray. Starting with walls of the oh-so-swank Ralph Lauren Home’s Pearl Ray Shagreen wallcovering in Gun Metal (Ralph Lauren was this year’s official wall sponsor, donating all of the paint and most of the wallpapers), texture was pressed heavily into service. Even solid upholstery colors (like on Bernhardt’s Marcourt banquette and the sexy, SEXY Major Leather Chairs from Mitchell Gold +Bob Williams) were selected because they had an interesting surface texture.  
But texture stories really come to life when they are used as foils against their opposites: shiny against matte, earthy against machined, and that and more happened over and over as items were secured for the room. My textural favorites were the Painted Feathers pillows by pillow-masters Dransfield & Ross, an urban jungle mix, one part Rio, one part rain forest.
The earthy and urbane push-pull of the space was also expressed through metals and metallics polished (the Jelly vase, used as an ice bucket, from Kartell through SwitchModern) or rough (AERIN's gold Bleecker lamps, on the “hallway” side of the space). And that “Hemingway meets Halston” juxtaposition became a great filter through which to run all subsequent decisions.
Dark and Light
Making a dark room sing is also about light: bringing it in, bouncing it around, and even knowing when to stop it. While many still think dark is the wrong way to go in a small space, I’ve yet to have that experience. Dark colors make a room’s edges fall away into the shadows. But nowhere is lighting more important than in a dark room, and even this space with its little-bitty 10 x 12 footprint had ten light sources, not counting the overhead spots.
Lighting plans work best when there are more lamps than you think you need, and different kinds of them. Among those ten light sources were four with white shades (on AERIN’s Bleecker and Frankfort lamps, and Barry Dixon’s Snail Shell lamp for Arteriors Home) diffusing the light, two with metal shades (the statuesque Soria floor lamps from Room & Board) throwing dramatic shadows, two can uplights and two halogen spots (both from Lamps Plus) adding pinpointed drama. 
It’s my number one trick for making a small space live larger: limit the color and/or value difference (how dark or light a color is) on just about everything in the room. When wallcovering morphs into wood blinds (The Shade Store’s uber-sharp Matte Edged wood blinds, in Grey Ash) and the main upholstery pieces relate to the wall color without stopping the eye, the room presents a seamless appearance, and even larger-scaled pieces (that banquette is NOT small) blur their own edges and settle back into the room. And tone-on-tone rooms always look like more money than you’ve spent.
You Can Never be Too Rich... or Too Taupe
But it’s not just the tones of colors you use to stretch inches and budget: it’s which ones. There are some neutrals that just ooze sex appeal: smoke, zinc, slate or charcoal. These rich neutrals (plus taupes and warm grays) ALWAYS look like more money than you’ve invested. I also think they live richer when pushed to their value extremes: pale and pearl gray, or deep, dark and stormy. It’s the middle ground of neutrals that have given them their bad rap. 

Aside from its budget-stretching alchemy, the beauty of a neutral envelope is that you can add just about any other color as an accent. (Here, smoky blues, gray-ed down greens and that shimmering aquamarine on the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Bette ottomans.)
Unless working with a pattern-happy client (which I love to do!), left to my own devices, I’d rather revel in texture than pattern. But love, as they say, conquers all, and when I first saw the Dransfield and Ross Tibet pillows, made from an amazing earthy, elegant and exceedingly tactile cut velvet (Tibet Small Scale, in Graphite, from Clarence House), it was love at first sight. I knew that pattern would be joining the room. (We ended up making our own versions of the pillows, from yardage graciously donated by Clarence House, and crafted locally by Anthony Lawrence-Belfair, to “spread the wealth” on donations, and not overtax any one vendor too much.) 
I also loved the “conversation” those pillows had with the stenciled cowhides and Foo Dogs (both from Lamps Plus) and the other globally-sourced pieces from Pagoda Red.

That pattern also turned the corner from the more pure neutrals in the room, bringing in a camel color (that paved the way for golds) and the blue-heavy graphite, which bridged blues and grays in the room.

It’s proof that if you’re stuck for inspiration, one amazing textile (or rug) can completely jumpstart your process. 
Tip the Scale
Go big when you go home. The biggest mistake I see when people are tackling small spaces is that they underscale everything they bring in. It looks meek, weak and underwhelming. Here, I opted for pieces that were anything but shy. But you have to know some of the tricks to make big pieces work (I’ve shared my tone-on-tone one already). That coffee table is an incredibly gutsy scale, but the mirrored finish tames it. The ample Major Leather chairs don’t have arms to block sight lines and seating access, and their reflective legs all but disappear. The other trick is...

Pairs and Shapes 
Shape, and mass, were big tools this year, to keep the look impactful, visual interruption to a minimum, and cohesion to a maximum. Selected pieces were big on shape, low on detail (except mirror finish or wood grain).
Blocky shapes were repeated (the coffee table, the Room & Board walnut Keane side tables and the sexy Virgo mirrored console from Currey & Company). Circles showed up in the custom painted Timothy Wilson tondo, custom framed by Gerald Kurian, through Steven Amedee, and the stone “bis” from Pagoda Red. 
Repetition is a major player in creating cohesive spaces... and so is symmetry: think in pairs when you can. Symmetry gives weight (the good kind) to a space, and creates elegant focal points. You can always break the monotony that sometimes happens with symmetry with a playful placement of one of the pairs, or just one rakish accessory (like the great Gazelle figurine from DwellStudio) or asymmetrical piece of artwork (like Dan Romer's “Essnce” print).

Gloss and Gold Digging
The dramatic potential of a bit of bling is truly celebrated in a dark space, and gold was the precious metal of choice, partially for its warm nature against cooler grays, but also for its Seventies swagger: the gold in this room is the equivalent of Bradley Cooper’s chest-nest of chains in American Hustle.
And don’t underestimate the shine factor of artwork (the glass on framed work, the high gloss of the main plexi-mount art piece), accessories (that not-at-all Fool’s gold pyrite candle holder by Kathryn McCoy Design), and even the sparkle brought in from barware, stemware and acrylic tray... not to mention the mirrored furniture, and Large Black Square Mirrored tray, adding a black band like chic eyeliner to the already mirrored coffee table.)

The Art's the Thing
I’m ending this story with where it all actually began: that show-stopper photo from  photographer Drew Doggett. When a bit stumped for inspiration this year, I found Drew’s work, and the minute I saw this image, I could see that elevation of the vignette already finished in my head, even before Drew had returned my first email begging for the donation. 

His globally sourced imagery is heavily informed with a fashion photographer’s eye, and this enigmatic image from his "OMO: Expressions of a People" series became the surprisingly urban tone-setter for what soon became dubbed “the Adventurer’s Lair.”  
It also shared what much of the rest of room was already doing... a dark tone-on-tone look, an earthy-urbane balance, and the rough textures of the actual image sealed beneath its mirror-like plexi facing. 

There’s NO better way to inject any space, neutral or not, with drama, than with the impact of contemporary art, especially of a larger scale. Don’t wait to pick the art; Start with it. And that’s my parting and artful shot on how to bring drama to any space, neutral or not.

Visit my Adventurer's Lair Pinterest board to see all the items in and sources for this year's vignette.

All main vignette shots: Jody Kivort.

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