July 14th 2008

Design Intervention

Since I have devoted my life to averting design disasters, I forget how many people really don’t put much planning into design. I recently moved and have spent much of my time de-pinking the house. The previous owner loved pink. Me? Not so much. The entire first floor of the house was a beautiful cream marble but with 2×2 PINK marble insets! So, my tile contractor was in my home with one of his employees digging out the pink marble insets. It was a huge job and the guy working on it was a delight.
On the second day he asked, “Do you mind me asking? Why are taking out this marble?”
I told him that the Liberace’s didn’t live here any more. I was going to put a beautiful marble that was more neutral in their place.
“Do you mind if I keep the marble we are digging out?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I told him.
As I went through my day, I frequently thought of why the tile guy would want the pink marble and thought it might be worth a conversation of what he was going to do with it. Call it design instinct, but it didn’t feel quite right.
When I got home that afternoon, he was cleaning up and I asked him what he was going to do with the pink marble.
“Oh, I’m going to surprise my wife. She is out of town and I want to put in a backsplash over the range like what you did in your kitchen.”
His intentions were very sweet, but my greatest fears were about to be realized. I have a pretty elaborate backsplash with inset tile and a medallion in the middle. It was carefully selected from the finest materials with a medallion I found in an antique shop in Chicago. A far cry from pink marble insets dug out of someone’s floor.
“Really?” I asked. “What does your kitchen look like?”
“It really needs some updating” he admitted. “It has brown or tannish cabinets.”
I really started quizzing. “What color is the floor?”
“Brown or tannish, I think.” He looked confused.
“What is the countertop?” I asked
His voice sort of trailed off…..”Brown or tannish, I think.”
We sort of looked at each other as if we were from different planets. “Sounds lovely,” I said.
“Do you think she will like it?” He sounded a little worried.
“I’m not sure this pink marble will go behind a brown or tannish backsplash, cabinets and floor. Maybe you should ask her first.”
“But I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” he said.
I quickly added that women can be kind of picky when it comes to decorating their kitchen and he should consider spoiling the surprise.
He conceded that he bought her some kitchen towels one Christmas and for some reason she never used them. When I asked him what color they were, he told me they were brown or tannish or something like that.
I told him I would be happy to talk to her when he came back to put the new marble in my floors. Maybe she would like to see my backsplash first and see if she thinks that pink marble would work on her backsplash.
Two days later he called and said he would be there to work on my new marble and asked if he could bring his wife. I told him I would be there to meet her.
She brought a picture of her kitchen. Her cabinets were a pickled wood with green countertops and a gold floor. In 20 minutes, we decided that instead of putting in a pink marble backsplash they could paint the cabinets a golden brown, get new hardware and change out the countertops to a laminate that had a granite look and lay new tile in the kitchen, after all I knew a good tile layer.
“Hey, I think I might have enough left over from another job,” he said.
“NO!” His wife and I said in unison.
“I’ll go pick something out and I’ll run it by you before he installs it,” she said to me. Sounds like a plan!
As they walked out she turned around behind his back and mouthed, thank you, thank you, thank you.
I just smiled. Another design intervention.

June 10th 2008

Trying to Afford Ourselves

Clients come to me to help them with all the decisions, big and small, that go into a custom renovation or build. I always tell clients that we can’t have everything we want, but we can have what is most important to us. Each decision can be a daunting task as there are thousands of choices today. Sometimes several choices, within each decision.

Case in point, in a recent meeting we began discussing countertop choices. Sounds like an easy question and they answered quickly…..granite. May the games begin! What kind of granite (name of the stone)? How does that stone relate to price (each stone is a different price which has WILD variations of price)? What thickness (2 CM, 3 CM, single or double thickness)? What profile edge (ogee, double ogee, bullnose, eased, etc….)? The list goes on and on. So, of course, the clients look at me like a deer in head lights and we begin from the beginning…..what we want, need and CAN AFFORD!

We control costs by controlling our perimeters of what we look for. After design meetings, I send the client to look at our regular vendors show rooms and meet with our regular sales reps with whom I already have negotiated great pricing and have a rapport with. The client knows that if they are unable to make selections or are uncertain, no problem, just bring samples back and we will discuss how the possible selections work with the total design. I let the vendor know the budget before the client ever meets with them. I talk with vendor about the design and what we are trying to accomplish and how. They know they must answer to me if they are trying to sell items outside the budget or re-inventing the wheel of design. Many times, I will go with the client to the vendor or showroom to finalize design choices after their initial meeting. Throughout the design process there are constant checks on where we are in pricing.

I met with a client yesterday who lost her mind in a stone warehouse the week before (without my knowledge). She immediately called me from the parking lot so excited she could hardly contain herself. She had found the most beautiful stone and decided to use stone on every countertop surface in the house. I immediately called the warehouse, asked for the person she met with and asked that they fax me a bid for the selections. When the fax came over, I knew there would be a problem. Her selections were three times what we budgeted for countertops, over $30,000. At our meeting, I showed her the fax. He eyes welled up with tears and she said, “Now what do I do?” I told her, we would go together to look at the materials and go over all the options.

We met with my normal rep (not the one she hooked up with on the sales floor). As we went over each stone, we talked about edges and thickness and price. We used alternate stone that was far less expensive without compromising the look on some areas and used the expensive ones on smaller areas (the island in the kitchen with less expensive stone on the perimeter cabinets). We put more expensive edging in the formal spaces. It took two hours and we got within our budget. She was thrilled and I was happy that we were back on track.

When there are so many choices, you have to make wise decisions on what to use and where. Unfortunately, most of us do not have unlimited budgets so we have to keep ourselves in check throughout the process. I completely understand because I am always trying to afford myself.

May 15th 2008

Throwing my body in front of the bus

As a design professional, I pride myself in giving great advice on every aspect of the project. I bring elaborate designs with carefully chosen materials for a look to die for. Then, there are those rare moments when I just have to throw my body in front of the bus. A design disaster is eminent and I just have to stop it. Luckily, I use the utmost tact when body throwing, but I just flat out refuse to let someone make a mistake.

In my initial meeting with people, I always tell them that every choice is always theirs to make. My job is to bring creative ideas to the table, share with them “every trick in the book” about how to get a look and not, necessarily, pay the price. I bring options, they make the choice. But I promise them right then and there that if you are going to make a mistake, I will throw my body in front of the bus.

Your home should reflect you and your lifestyle, so what may be good for one person would be the absolute wrong choice for another. That’s where I come in. We talk about what the client wants, needs and can afford. We also talk about what the goal for the house may be. If you plan to live in a house for two years, your decisions would be very different than if you plan on going out of the place feet first.

Recently, I had a client who transferred in from another city. He wanted to build a house and the plan was to live there about five years before he went to the next city. He was single and really only wanted one bedroom, though the house would be about 5000 square feet.

So, could we build a one bedroom house? The good news is yes, you can build a one bedroom house. The bad news you will never sell it to anyone else. So, it would not be a wise decision to build just a one bedroom house when you will be selling in five years. He seemed very disappointed and I told him I would have some options for him in the next meeting.

I designed a plan that had a great Master Bedroom and two other wonderful suites. One he would use as a Study since he worked from home much of the time and other would be an exercise room. When he planned to move, we would stage the rooms as bedrooms. Problem solved. I threw my body in front of the bus and he was grateful.

Not only did he get the perfect floor plan for him, he also would eventually need it. Within a year, he married a woman with a small child he adores. We are now finishing the lower level for a play room, a media room (for Barney videos, I imagine) and an exercise room. He has decided to stay put in St. Louis to be near family and they want to build a new home in two years to house a whole family of kids! Good thing we didn’t build a one bedroom house!

April 15th 2008

More Cuss & Discuss

As the designer of some pretty complicated stuff, it is my job to understand what the client wants, needs and can afford, and then design and build that vision. Sounds easy enough, eh? Well, there are always moments when it is not so easy. There can be very different opinions on what is beautiful from the two different personalities who might be in that design meeting.

For instance, she wants a beautiful, peaceful spa-like bath. He wants a plasma TV in the tub, each vanity and in the water closet (where the toilet is located). She wants a cook’s kitchen with built-in compartments for each conceivable cooking need, pull out cutting boards, a place for the Cuisinart with power in a “secret compartment”, etc. He wants to put the blender on the center island so he doesn’t ever have to find it. Oh yeah, with a plug ON TOP of the countertop. She immediately goes into combat mode and he looks surprised. This is a bonifide hissy fit moment. She digs in her heels and he is trying to run damage control.

This is one of the most important requirements of my job….marriage counseling. I throw myself right in the middle of the melt down and calmly say, “This is what we call a ‘Cuss and Discuss’. We will table the design for the kitchen at this meeting and move on. But, I want you both to write down what is important to you to include in the room. Then, cuss and discuss, and let me know in the next meeting what you decided.” Both go to their respective corners and we move on.

At the end of the meeting they almost always apologize and I let them know that it wasn’t the first time that has happened (probably not even the first time that day). This is a common occurrence in my world of Designdom.

I would love to be a fly on the wall in some of those “Cuss and Discuss” talks. But, without fail, at the next meeting they proudly come up with a compromise that works. Sometimes the compromise is not in the same room. He concedes to not give his input in the kitchen, but he has full control over the media room. She gets the kitchen of her dreams with thought into every single thing she does in the room, down to the flip down computer with all her recipes, connected to the internet to find even more. He wires the media room for plasmas, surround sound, speakers in every crevice of the room, and every conceivable source of media known to man. The wiring in the place would be the envy of NASA.

There, problem solved and everyone is happy. I always give a very wise piece of advice (when asked). Pick your fight, then fight to win!

April 24th 2007

Who’d Ever Imagine (aka Who’d Have Thunk It?)

Sinn Design Build Renovation Ladue LibraryA few years ago I bought a real fixer upper for my own family.  As my husband lovingly reminded me for the DURATION of the design and build, it was more a tear downer.  Regardless, I loved the house.  It had charm that is difficult to build (and afford)  in today’s terms.  There were alcoves in children’s bedrooms upstairs with sloped ceilings, window seats and built-ins in most rooms.  It was flat out cute.  “Cute” is a chick term, the male term is “way too much work heap of bricks”. 

I literally bought the house on the hood of a car and then called my husband to tell him we were moving.  I was very thoughtful in asking him if he wanted to see it.  He declined, trusting my instincts.  After the deal was done, I walked him through.  We drove up to the house, it had a nice presence and was on a beautiful lot.  So far, so good.  Then we walked inside.  He was strangely quiet.  The house rambled from room to room.  There was a breakfast table in the hall to the Master Bedrooms (yes, rooms) because there was no breakfast room.  The kitchen was the size of a powder room in some of the houses we build and the garage was detached with an open breezeway. 

As we approached two bedrooms on the first floor, he managed to speak.  “Are we really going to live here?” 

“Of course!”  I said indignantly.

“Are we planning on having separate bedrooms?”  He looked a little worried.

“No, silly.  This bedroom is the Library.” 

He looked at the green shag carpet and the green foil wallpaper and the green trim and said, “Really?” 

Now, I have been married to this man for 19 years.  He has seen hundreds of elaborate designs go through our office at Sinn Design•Build and then he builds them.   How could he doubt me now?  But, it is true.  When it is your own home you can’t seem to see through what’s there to see what could be there.  Luckily, I had enough vision for the both of us.  I saw it clearly.  There would be four additions to the house with a fabulous Kitchen, Master Suite, Master Bathroom, another bedroom upstairs (since we were losing one to the new Library) and added a stone turret (in the Master Bedroom) and a new stone front entrance.  I was determined to take this cute house and make it grand!

I would run the designs past my husband on a daily basis.  He always did the same thing………looked at me like I had a third eye.  As I was finishing up the floor plans and exterior elevations, I started on the interior.  The Master Bath was incredible with separate water closets, separate vanity areas, separate dressing rooms, separate linen closets and a  “human carwash” of a shower that could clean an extended family all at the same time, separate jet sprays from every angle (one side for him and one for me) and a seat to soak up the steam.  Did you notice how separate came up a lot?  Most of our bathrooms are designed that way…..STAY ON YOUR OWN SIDE!!!!! 

Now, my husband was perking up a bit.  Then came the Library.  He is a master at trim work and at building difficult designs.  He is always consulted about trim in our design process.  Once I had sketched out something, Mr. Builder Man took over and completely planned out this awesome ceiling detail with an octagon and chandelier, bookcases with trim that we had to buy from out of town to get the look we wanted.  When he finally “saw” it, he was like a horse for the barn.  The entire gut renovation and four additions took only five months to complete.  The guy down the street did a similar scope of work renovation and his took 18 months and litigation with the builder.  When he asked how we were doing this so quickly, I explained that I was sleeping with the Builder.  But, I recommended not doing that since he wasn’t married to his.

I am sitting in that Library at this moment writing.  I work in this room every day and love it as much now as I did when it was first completed.  One night I ran across a picture of the room before, green shag carpet and all.  We even had a TeleTubby bed in there for the little coward that would come down in the middle of the night from upstairs.  I showed it to my husband.  He studied it for a moment and said, “Who would have ever thunk?” 

“Me. It’s my job, remember?”