e’ve all seen the design shows on HGTV—but how does stuff like that play out in real life? Do Madisonians subscribe to “Design on a Dime,” want orange walls or their home made over in forty-eight hours? Not exactly, say local designers. But we are becoming savvy about what we want and how we want it in our homes. So forget HGTV and read on for what our expert designers say are their personal styles, home splurges and most outrageous projects.
owner of Brownhouse
You’ve probably seen or heard of something designed by Laurel Brown or Brownhouse—be it Cornbloom’s at Hilldale, any number of private residences, or the new luxury apartments called “Lucky” under construction in the old University Square site. Clients use Brown because of her approachable nature and eye for style—”I love your shoes!” she says as I walk into her office (she’s wearing snakeskin print heels herself).
Tell me about the Lucky project. It’s a multi-use development with housing and retail. There are 364 units. It’s an enormous project—it’s on a scale I’ve never worked on before. It’s so much fun. It’s when you get to take your twenty-five years of experience and put it all to use—it’s really exhilarating.
We’re also designing the food court—there will be a nine-vendor food court that’s going to look like no other food court you’ve ever seen. The housing, retail and food court phase will be done in August 2008.
What kind of client hires Brownhouse? [We don’t do] a one-room redo—we like to work on a larger scale, like a custom home. Or a client might just want to completely redo the home. We’re starting to shift to more residential; it gives us more of a creative outlet. I love working on that kind of stuff.
What’s been your favorite project to work on? Gorman & Company’s headquarters in the old Oregon school. I went to school in that building in the sixties; I grew up in that town. To be involved in a renovation project in that town was really fun. There were the lunch trays and chairs—stuff was stacked up because the school was being used as storage. Gary’s [Gorman’s president] office was in the old art room—I remember that room! It was a really, really fun project.
Where do you like to shop for furniture and the like? High Point, N.C. It’s not because I don’t like things from around here, it’s just that it’s Grand Central Station down there for furniture. It’s kind of like going to a mega, mega mall for furniture shopping. You’re saving forty percent off.
What furniture lines do you like? Swaim and Marg Carson. Marg Carson is very Old World, large scale and very decorative. Swaim is high end, urban and clean. It looks like something you’d put in a New York City condo. Both lines have the most amazing finishes and selection.
What does your home look like? It’s an English Tudor. I definitely tend to err to the more traditional—but I love to work in the different styles. I inherited this home when I married. It’s a beautiful home. I needed to keep the interior consistent with the outer structure.
I like the house to be filled with things you collect when you travel. We culled interesting pieces: artwork, sculpture, furniture and decorative items. We have things from everywhere—we spent a month in China and Southeast Asia last year. We brought home some beautiful pieces like a handmade silk screen and a half-size terra cotta soldier.
Do you have a favorite item from your travels? Murano wineglasses. We walked around the factory [in Italy]. They’re one of a kind. They’re probably my most cherished things to collect.
You say your personal style is more traditional. What if a client wants something totally different? We figure it out. We try to deliver the best of what that is. Interior design gets a bad rep for that—and some [designers] do get locked into that. It’s much more fun to work in different styles, though. To do the same thing over and over again, I’d die of boredom!
What do you tell clients if you don’t agree with their ideas? We deal with this all of the time. First and foremost, my job is about diplomacy. You learn really quickly that you don’t bash anyone’s ideas. I believe my job is really to educate my clients; I mean, it’s making them understand the ramifications of going down a certain path. I use my experience to educate them as to why what they might want to do isn’t a good idea.
What makes something well designed in your opinion? Really good design stands the test of time. Getting the scale right is huge. It also must engage the senses and be tactile. It’s all in the details. If people can walk into a space and say, “Wow, I really like this”—they might not know why—but the reason for that is that all of the details were addressed well.
Do you watch any of the design shows or read shelter magazines? I don’t watch any. They de-professionalize the industry and make it look like anyone can do it, they make it look easy, and it’s not. We do get Decorator magazine, Interior Design magazine and Hospitality Design magazine.
interior designer & owner of Fontaine
After eight years in the business, Avery opened Fontaine in September, his smartly—and fashionably—outfitted home shop. Walk into a whirlwind of sparkling chandeliers (they look vintage but are, in fact, brand-new), feel-good music (Motown) and his well-edited selection of home accessories (everything from a hand-carved bone lobster to topiaries). If you talk to anyone in the know, Avery’s beautiful shop, design skill and attention to detail aren’t exactly a secret.
What inspires your designs? I’m not so inspired by rooms in magazines as I am by fashion. I look at what’s hot in fashion and translate that into rooms. So I try and stay ahead of the curve that way. Fashion really does drive me spiritually and emotionally.
How did you know you wanted to go into design? I didn’t really know if it was the career for me. A dear friend of mine loved what I did for my home and said, “You should do this for other people.” My first client was a neighbor who trusted me; it was a small job, a window treatment or paint or something like that.
What’s your design style? New traditional. Interiors that are vamped up. My interiors tend to have Hollywood glam, luxe and organic elements all put together.
What’s an inexpensive way to change the look of a room? Sometimes it costs no money—it’s simply rearranging the furniture.
Paint is the most inexpensive way to change a room.
What do you recommend clients invest more money in? I would invest money in good, timeless furniture. You can also spend money on well-designed fabrics—there’s something very different about the silkscreen process, the weave, the texture and the overall result. I love Lee Jofa, Pierre Frey, Manuel Canovas and Clarence House [fabrics]. They take traditional and try to make it new again. Their fabrics are vibrantly and intensely colored.
What materials and/or colors do you favor? It can come from the simplest of things. I like raspberry, chartreuse, acid green and a winter white. Organic materials like glass, marble, granite, onyx and bone.
What has been your favorite project to work on? I hate to say anything because I don’t want to exclude anything; it’s all gotten me to where I am. One I’m currently working on is a master bedroom rework; we’re gutting it down to the studs. It’s a one-hundred-year-old home. We’re doing new molding and trim and using metallic wallpaper in a flowering quince branch pattern—it’s just fabulous. It will have charcoal gray wool bedding; a Baker gentleman’s chest; a high-gloss black lacquer lamp; a retro/modern chandelier; and silver, white and tomato red fabrics, all with a metallic sheen. We’re also doing a custom upholstered headboard.
What trends do you see coming up in interiors? Wallpaper will make an even bigger comeback. It started up two years ago and people are ready for it again. Color will continue and people are learning to appreciate color.
What would you never do in an interior? At one point I said I would never do paneling. But paneling is hot again—vintage chic. I will never do floral borders, though. I won’t do oak trim, vinyl flooring—like a spec house.
I just don’t ever want to do anything that’s void of personality, character or eclectic charm.
What’s a big seller in-store? Boxwood topiaries and all things organic have been doing well. Our custom pillows—people have been splurging.
Why did you open Fontaine in addition to your interior design business? I wanted to take my skill to the next level and create a place for my clients to get custom work done and satisfy the desire for immediate gratification. I wanted them to have a place to get great gifts.
senior designer at Rubin’s
A self-taught expert, Johnson has been with Rubin’s for twenty-five years and has worked on homes throughout Wisconsin, and in Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, St. Thomas, St. Croix and overseas—including Germany, Finland and the south of France. This international flair is clearly evident in his detailed and sometimes ornate room designs, many of which employ modern furnishings with cozy, Old World surroundings.
How did you know you wanted to go into interior design? I was seven years old. I loved watching the old classic movies on TV. I was more into the set designs. [A friend told me], “Why don’t you give yourself permission to do what you want?” I was always fascinated with making a house a home.
What does your home look like? People think of me as an extremely contemporary designer. My personal style is [actually] extremely eclectic. I like bolder colors. I like anything from the Empire period (Napoleon era) or anything Egyptian. I have two stuffed peacocks (laughs)—one in my living room, one in my bedroom. I have some original oils in gold, gilded frames and Egyptian artifacts. A lot of the fabric and bedding in my home are Versace.
How do you start the design process with a client who has very different taste than you? Well, they’re not going to live with me and I’m not going to put my style in their home. Even though my personal taste isn’t contemporary, it’s like being a playwright or an artist; you’re creating something for them.
What’s the most unique or off-the-wall room you’ve designed? I’ve done six different homes for one client. In his Florida home, there was a sixty-foot round by sixty-foot tall domed room. We designed it like an Italian palazzo. We created an illusion that it was an open-air courtyard with trompe l’oeil. We used color to create dimension.
Why should people work with an interior designer? A lot of people build or buy a home and wonder if it’s re-sellable. But people investing money in a home should be excited and want to be in there. Now more than ever, people want to make their own personal statement. A lot of people are afraid to work with an interior designer—they think they’re going to cost so much money.
You always have to start with a plan. By developing a plan we can work within a budget … we can scale it out and price it out.
How is it different working in a retail atmosphere like Rubin’s? In a retail shop, a lot of people come in looking for one thing. Then I’ll ask them more about what they’re doing in their home, and I sit down and talk with them about what they want to do in their home.
If you look at our competition, we’re not married to one manufacturer. When people come in here, they see things they don’t normally see. By having things in-store, people get to touch things and they get to experience it.
Where do you find your design inspiration? Being seven [years old] and watching the classic films, I was intrigued by the lighting. I used to work in theater, and it’s lighting they use to create the sets.
If you were to come to my home and sit there for forty-five minutes without me there, I’d want you to “meet” me.
Do you watch any of the design TV shows? People [viewers] don’t have the experience or know where to go and get these things. So I don’t really like the design shows, but they do get people talking about design.
What’s the biggest splurge in your home? My art. I live in a small condo downtown on the lake. I’ve collected beautiful vintage oil paintings. My favorite is by an artist from the south of France with a woman leaning on a piano with a violin resting on it. You can see the blue sea in the background. In this painting, it looks like my house. The art objects give me a lot of joy—I can appreciate the creativity of another artist.
owner of Zander’s Interiors & Zander’s for the Home
Take an interior you’ve seen in House Beautiful and you’ll see it replicated in Zander’s store on Monroe Street. Stunningly simple interiors accentuated with punchy throw pillows, sofas covered in luxurious fabrics and pops of color are his trademarks.
Why did you start your own interior design store? As designers it’s a tool we have to take things in stock and be able to take them into homes. Then it turned into a retail space that anyone can walk into and pick things up like a lamp or pillow and take it with them.
What’s your design style? I guess it’s eclectic. I like combining a variety of things together from antiques to things that have a cleaner line to things that are almost contemporary. It’s a way to make a statement for your personality.
What does your home look like? I think color adds so much personality to a space for a little bit of money. I love having color on the walls. Right now I’ve got very deep brown-gray walls and my floors are stained very dark. The furniture colors are orange and raspberry. The living room and dining room are probably the spaces that I’ve spent quite a bit of time putting together. I have some French antiques in combination with clean-line, upholstered furniture. [For artwork] I have expensive pieces to very inexpensive pieces.
Where do you find your design inspiration? When I’m traveling. When you see a new product line, it inspires you to create a new look. If you pick one particular thing up, it can be the catalyst to design a room.
What’s the biggest splurge in your home? I definitely have some nice artwork I’ve collected over the years. I have a great person I use a lot who has a very unique gallery: Peter Lundberg, who owns Janus Galleries. He finds things through different auction houses.
What’s an inexpensive way to change décor in a room? Accessorizing often is a huge force. Having pillows, throwing a rug down, just changing out things you have. Sometimes by just changing out accessories periodically gives a room a different look and doesn’t have to cost much, if anything.
What’s overdone or something you would never do, décor-wise? I guess it depends upon the region you’re in. Hollywood Regency is a huge look right now and can work great in certain environments; in the Midwest, it can be a little bit difficult to pull off. In a different climate, it can be unique.
What’s the most extravagant project you’ve worked on? I’m currently working on a house in Colorado that’s over-the-top in terms of materials and detail in the house. That includes bringing in full-grown, forty-foot evergreens so when the house is done and you drive by, it’ll look like a house that’s been there one hundred years. The look is a very wonderful quality that is extravagant in this day and age, and it’s costly. You just don’t see projects like that very often.