Some years ago when I was taking horseback riding lessons, I felt this unfamiliar and fleeting sensation that could only be described as getting the hang of it. In that same millisecond, my trainer, glimpsing perhaps smugness, knocked me off my high horse saying, “A good rider is not one who can ride a good horse and look good; it’s one who can ride a bad horse and look good.”
Life. So humbling.
This maxim is reverberating in my head as I get psyched up to move next week into the fourth house I will stage to sell. House No. 4 will have design challenges. I don’t know what they are yet, but challenges come with every home along with the keys.
A great designer isn’t one who can make a great space look fabulous. A great designer is one who makes a house with issues look as if it fell from the pages of a magazine with the initials AD.
To gear up for my next staging project, I tap the vision of Beverly Hills interior designer and master home flipper Nicole Sassaman, whose new book, "100 Sassy Tips: Renovations" (Design Life), just came out.
We engage in a little shop talk then get right to down to business. I throw house problems at her like fast balls, and she hits every pitch. That bathroom tile in colors that date back to “Miami Vice,” that hallway that looks as if it leads to the temple of doom, that picture window that looks straight onto the neighbor’s air conditioner, that column in the middle of the living room… where many decorators see obstacles, Sassaman sees opportunity.
“Don’t just focus on what’s there,” she said. “Focus on what could be.”
“Or divert attention,” I said. “Whenever I don’t like what I see, I put up a mirror to reflect something better.” It’s a cheap trick, I admit.
“In Los Angeles, where I work, the city is pretty built out,” she said. “I don’t have the luxury of working with new construction. I’m constantly having to work with and around design flaws.”
“I feel that way every time I get dressed,” I said.
“When I’m done, the former obstacle often becomes my favorite part of the room.”
Now that’s what I call talent.
Here are some common design challenges, Sassaman and I have both run up against, and some solutions.
• Dreary hallway. Often hallways feel like something you just have to get through. They tend to be long, narrow and boring. Sassaman adds interest and dimension by creating niches on one long wall. She adds a downlight in the niches and something artful, like flowers or a sculpture. Painting the hallway ceiling darker and walls lighter will also give the illusion of width.
• Boring tubs. Straight up white, rectangular bathtubs are common, but not special. Tearing them out and replacing them gets expensive. Instead, Sassaman suggested covering the prominent flat side with a veneer of stone or tile. Then use the same material around the top to create a ledge all around. The treatment gives the tub more edge.
• No entry. Homes that have a built-in entryway feel more gracious than those where visitors arrive directly into the main room. But when a home doesn’t have an entry, you can make one with furniture, said Sassaman. Put a console table in front of the door, for keys and purses. If the door opens by a wall, add a small bench. An area rug or a change of flooring can also declare the space as an entry.
• Wasted space. Odd halls, the space under the stairs, landings, and the gap between cabinets and ceilings are often wasted. Make them usable and more attractive by building small desk areas, book niches or wine racks into them.
• Outdated tile. When old tile or floor pavers detract, don’t replace, repaint, said Sassaman. Materials are available to turn orange clay pavers into a more up-to-date color like chocolate. Similarly, when bath tile is turquoise and bubblegum pink, and you want ecru, ask your paint professional about paints specially designed for tile surfaces.
• No boundaries. Many of today’s open floor plans backfire because they are too vast and ill defined. When that happens in a kitchen, for example, a row of hanging pendant lights between the cooking and eating areas can create a subtle boundary.
• An ugly view. If a window looks onto a less than scenic view – say, a cinder block wall, or an alley of trash cans – don’t just close the blinds. Cover the wall with a ceiling to floor drapery on a fabulous rod, or place a decorative folding screen in front of the window.
• Inconvenient columns. When a column lands in the middle of a room or another inopportune place, turn it into a statement or bury it. Cladding it with mosaic tiles or a smoky-mirror veneer will highlight it. Wrap a circular bench around it and add pillows. Or hide it by building a double-sided book case between the column and the wall, encasing the column inside, so no one will know it’s there, said Sassaman.
“Look at these situations from different angles until you see all the possibilities,” she said.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through marnijameson.com.