Sunday, December 8, 2013

...about Holiday House 2013: seven tips from a St. Patrick's day show house room.

Show houses are fantasies. Purchasing budget? No concern (as long as you have generous donors). Clients? None (unless you count the fictional ones many designers use to create a room’s back story).

But even in fantasy, there are lessons to be learned.

And even though my first ever show house room, at the prestigious Holiday House, now in its sixth year here in Manhattan, was pure folly (inspired by St. Patrick’s Day, to suit the house’s “every room is a different holiday” theme), it illustrated many of the principles and approaches I use in any room design. Here are seven tips that, even though they're based on a room with a one-month life, can help your home year 'round.

1. Small, Dark and Handsome
Painting a tiny room bright yellow won’t make it any bigger, physically or visually, so when faced with a small room or space, I like to go dark. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s not: Dark colors make the edges of a small space fall away. Plus, you end up with a room that embraces you, looks sexy after nightfall (every home needs a night-time space, whether master suite, media room or guest room) and just seems deep, dark and luxurious.

What makes a small room seem small is contrast, so to make sure these dark walls didn’t close in, I employed one of my favorite tricks: Keep window treatment (from MT Custom) and the largest furniture close in color or value to the walls. The two pieces with the largest mass are the sofa (Avery Boardman) and the antique chest (Anthony Lawrence Belfair), yet since they’re so close in tint or tone to the wall colors, they don’t take over the space.

Artwork, Tim Lehmacher, Daniel Cooney Fine Art
2. Minimal isn’t Always Maximal
You can still get a considerable amount of function from a small room, and that means more furniture and lighting than you might otherwise think (or had budgeted for).

In this space, barely 10 x 10, there’s seating for four to six, room for a laptop, space to put your feet up, considerable storage, a bar, tables for drinks and books, and five light sources, not counting the window. And a lot of the furniture is flexible, movable, and ready for multi-tasking.

3. Celebrate the Givens
Considering we had to spend three of our eight days of set up merely PREPPING the room to get started (due to about five years of layered wall treatments, ghosts of designers past), I was relieved to see I could make the gold ceiling and grayed floorboards work with my intended scheme. And that’s not unlike the challenge of working with a client’s rental wall color, flooring, or other unchangeable elements (or early choices that seemed like a good idea, but cause some midway panic before calling in some designer back up).

So the gold ceiling made even more reason to bring brasses into the room, and the gray floors worked with the intended plan to use white as a real color player in the almost-all-emerald room. The white marble with gray veining (bounced around the room in Chesney’s fireplace mantle, Atlas side table, and Gold Leaf SIde Table) worked the floor "choice" up into the rest of the room.

When you celebrate the givens, they end up looking fresh, new, and totally intentional, not remnant afterthought of a past homeowner, tenant or designer.

4. Change Your Architecture with Décor
This room was a basic box when I first saw it, with an opening (door or window) in every single wall. and those doorways and windows were placed off center on every wall. It also had a very high ceiling, both blessing and curse.

So, like when working with renters or the contractor weary, I turned to pure (and portable) décor to mold the room back into something more livable.

Enter the upholstered screen (custom made, and meticulously studded by The Workroom), stretching wall to wall and hiding one doorway, giving me a wall where I could thankfully center a fireplace (Since I wanted a somewhat formal feel to the room, at least one symmetrical elevation was crucial). This screen would also allow you to hang and wire sconces or picture lights without busting into plaster walls, so you can get your security deposit back at lease’s end.

Window treatments hung higher and wider than the actual window’s dimensions, did three things: visually widen the window, accentuate the room’s height (making sure that gold ceiling was celebrated), and hide a hideous window unit air conditioner.
Widening the window treatment past the size of the window also meant the sofa had a suitable place to park, without looking like it was balanced precariously like a tufted seesaw.

The scale of the artwork, and a brought-in fireplace, also add "architecture" where there wasn't any.
"Demitree" gold resin side table, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams; Hall chair, O'Sullivan Antiques

5. Weight Down, Step Down
Depending on the proportion of the room, a super high ceiling can be both pro and con. Here, in a room I wanted to give the vibe of a Dublin rowhouse sitting room, a ceiling this high wasn’t ideal, certainly not conducive to “cozy” or “intimate.”

So how do you tame the height? Weight down, and step down. I added a wainscoting and chair rail to weight the lower portion of the room (beautifully aged by Jason Phillips and Raj Autencio, grads of the Alpha Workshops Studio School). It also gives a relatable point and strong anchoring horizontal when seated.

All barware: Waterford
To keep the eye from wandering all the way up to the highest corners of the rooms, you have to point it earthward. At the top part of the room, the highest element (the window treatments) step down to the screen, which in turn steps down to the art and mantle, and the room’s one odd soffit. The end result? The room’s proportions are really relatable when you’re seated... it doesn’t feel like you’ve fallen down a well.

6. Text(ure)book Solutions
Small rooms benefit from a monochromatic scheme, but whether beige or emerald, a limited-color room really relies on texture to make the room look intentionally color-limited, and not look like you just had the budget for one can of paint and one bolt of fabric.

So the green appears as velvet (crushed and not, hand-painted and not), sateen (all from JAB Anstoetz), pieced grass cloth, "Heliodore," from Arte, through Koroseal, at Studio K in the D&D Building, and painted finish. The color-matched but texture-varied approach makes the room lush, and rewards the eye without fatiguing it. 

Tray, decanter, faceted box: Waterford

The same rule applies to the whites used in the room... white marble, sheepskin (on the Modernist bench by DESIGNLUSH, matte metal lamp from, white (lacquered and painted) picture frames.
Artwork, top: "Mr. Green," Dan Romer; Bottom : "A Stranger Blue," Jefferson Hayman

7. Swing Both Ways
My favorite rule for making choices and additions to a room is “Compare and Contrast.” Things should be intentionally similar, intentionally different, or a little of both. So the geometric wall covering has a curvier counterpart in the Roman shade’s  handpainted pattern from Coleman & Taylor (through Savel in the D&D Building) over the JAB crushed velvet. The Vestal fire screen has traits in common with the Wisteria candleholders and the Orgues brass (and sexy) light from Donghia, but enough difference so they don’t all look like they came off the same shelf.

The mix of hard and soft, contemporary and antique, light and dark, matte and shiny also yield a room where both men and women find something to like (It’s interesting to have hundreds of people walk through your room, a never-ending focus group, of sorts) and proves the point that every room should be a mix.
All barware: Waterford

Fantasy or not, teachable moment or fleeting folly, show house rooms always have something to say. And being able to design a room at Holiday House has been a dream come true. Is it wrong I’m already plotting another holiday theme, if I’m lucky enough to be asked back??

All photos: Jody Kivort

Holiday House NYC is held in the Academy Mansion, 2 East 63rd Street, New York, NY. The  house is open to the public daily from November 21 through December 18. All proceeds benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.


  1. Gorgeous room, Patrick - and the single best and most comprehensive treatise on how to make the most of a small, dark room I've ever seen.

  2. Hi Patrick! This is GORGEOUS - all your hard work paid off beautifully! Wanted you to know that Studio K New York is also on Facebook and Twitter now. They're new to the party/parties but trying to make up for lost time, and they'd love to stay in touch with you. Thanks again for working with them - it's an honor!
    (Full disclosure: I work on marketing communications projects for the showroom.)

  3. Happy to share the Studio K love... they have been SO, SO generous to me over the years, and have such amazing offerings. I'll update the "Get Social" section to include the new Facebook page!!

  4. Thank you - they will be thrilled!

  5. Hi Patrick!

    It was a pleasure meeting you today at the Holiday House! !I absolutely adored your room and really enjoyed chatting with you about all of the details. This is a great article that I will definitely be sharing with others...such useful tips for an NYC city dweller!


    1. You made my day TWICE now! First with your visit, now with this comment!!