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The Making of a Showhouse

By Bob Capazzo

On a cold March morning, twelve moving vans were lined up, bumper-to-bumper, around the circular driveway of Ginna and Richard Kelly’s Greenwich home on Stanwich Road. The couple, however, was not moving out. Well, not precisely. They were temporarily vacating the premises, emptying their 1928 bastide-style house — a residence that would look equally at home in Provence — to make it available as the site for the Greenwich Designer Showhouse.

Managed by Tony Manning of the nonprofit Hampton Designer Showhouse Foundation, the home décor tour de force featured the work of twenty established design professionals and a landscape designer, who dramatically redid the interior and exterior. The Kellys rented a house down the road for the duration of their home’s total, if time-limited, transformation. At the end of the showhouse tour, except for “permanent installations” like the kitchen and bathrooms, custom furnishings will vanish and walls will be restored to basic linen white.

A showhouse does several things: first and foremost, it benefits a charity, in this case, the Greenwich Hospital Center for Integrative Medicine; second, it gives design professionals a chance to demonstrate their talents; and last, it provides a sketchpad for homeowners to gather ideas for their own digs. What the visitor sees on tour belies the frenzied weeks of preparation that preceded the opening night preview party.

Several weeks into April, it was gridlock again in the Kellys’ front yard. An army of painters, plasterers, electricians, carpenters and plumbers jockeyed for position, trying to park their trucks as close as possible to the front door. Precious time had been lost due to unexpected construction at the house.

Carefully laid plans were thrown seriously off schedule and the clock was ticking, but that was business as usual for these professionals. Crack teams of skilled workmen were ready to tackle ten thousand square feet of space, rushing to prepare floors,

windows and walls before furniture, draperies and artwork were installed. Decorative flourishes, like lamps, table settings and flower arrangements would be the final touches. Their mandate? By Monday, May 7, every detail had to be in place, camera-ready — the preview party was Thursday night, and the next day the showhouse would open to the public.

Ginna admitted to feeling a bit shell-shocked, although she was still game for whatever the designers came up with. Empty nesters, the Kellys had had their house on the market, but when it didn’t sell, they figured that after seventeen years, it probably needed a face-lift and liked the idea of doing something that would benefit the hospital. “So we decided to go for it,” Ginna says.

The Stanwich Road house was perfect: It had enough spaces for twenty designers, adequate parking, a good stretch of lawn for a tent, a central location and architectural interest. “It was really nerve-wracking at first because everything had to be pretty much pulled apart, and I had no idea what most of the designers would be doing,” Ginna admits. “That’s how showhouses work.”

She points out that homeowners should be aware that, unlike the television show This Old House where costs are paid by the producers, hosting a showhouse can get expensive. “This is not free,” she says.

A case in point? The chimney in the kitchen divided the space in two, limiting designer Christopher Peacock’s options; the decision to remove the chimney meant that the Kellys had to pay for a general contractor. “The chimney brought heat upstairs,” she says, “so all the ducting had to be redirected.”

In addition, removing the keypads on the kitchen’s security panels caused the entire system to be deemed not up to code by town inspectors. “Once a building permit is involved, there are new standards imposed,” she says. “We had to replace a perfectly functional system.”

Nevertheless, the Kellys will pay much less than the usual Peacock client for a luxurious combination of functionality and classic elegance created by the gifted designer who did Bill and Hillary’s Chappaqua kitchen. “When we do a showhouse,” says Peacock, “I get on the phone and work whatever contacts I have for rock-bottom prices on the materials I need.”

Makers of stone flooring, lighting and high-end appliances were pleased to cooperate, benefiting by having their products so prominently on display. As for the cabinetry, Peacock points out, it’s made in his own factory so cost is not an issue here.

Discussion of the kitchen design began back in December. “My husband and I lived in London for many years,” Ginna says, “and Chris is British so we were pretty much on the same page right from the start.”

The time frame to complete a showhouse kitchen is typically very short: perhaps three months to design, build and install it. Even with cooperation from suppliers, the designer’s investment can run $150,000.

Like the other participants in this showhouse, Peacock was very selective about making the commitment, carefully considering the property, the community and management. “Our priority is to return to the best venues,” he says, pointing out that he’s doing the Kips Bay Decorator Show House for the third time even though working without a client there means removing the entire installation after closing. “The value of it, I find, builds over time,” he says. “It’s not, ‘How many jobs did I get from this particular one?’ It doesn’t work like that.”

Dan Barsanti and his partner Patricia Healing agree. “We’ve been doing showhouses since 1986,” Barsanti says. “It’s like a runway show for a fashion designer, allowing us to create buzz and showcase what we’re doing in design at that moment.”

The Healing-Barsanti approach for the Kellys’ living room epitomizes the brand they are currently building: HB Design. “You don’t have to be a jet-setter to live in a stylish and creative home,” he says. “If what we do in a showhouse attracts clients, that’s wonderful, but that’s not why we do it,” he says. “The reason is much bigger than that.”

But first-time showhouse participant Carmina Roth, whose Belle Haven Interiors is in its second year of business, looks at it differently. She hopes that her rather substantial financial investment will pay off in clients. “More established designers who do a huge annual business with vendors can ask for and get whatever they need to borrow,” she says. “I’m not at that point yet.”

For a newcomer, the dollars can be daunting. With fees totaling almost $3,000, insurance premiums of at least $1,000, as well as a $5,000 refundable security deposit, a designer needs cash on hand just to sign up.

In addition, Carmina spent $15,000 on Swedish antiques and $8,000 on custom contemporary furniture for the rear bedroom. Those pieces are destined for her booth at Hiden Galleries in Stamford. But she’s had to pay almost $10,000 for carpeting and fabric to upholster the walls.

“I called Sleepy’s and 1-800-Mattress, thinking they would lend me a bed or give me a break on one, but no dice,” she says. “At least my upholsterer is doing the work for free, hoping that it will pay off in future jobs.”

Although second-time showhouse participant Lynn Garelick has been in the design business for thirty years, she did her first showhouse only last year. “That showcase paid for itself in new clients,” she says, “so I decided to take the leap again. The fact that it’s in my own backyard makes it feasible.”

Lynn considers her $20,000 investment to be excellent use of her advertising dollar, pointing out that a full-page color print ad can cost from $5,000 to $15,000 depending on the publication. “An ad runs once,” she says, “and can be missed. This is an event that had hundreds of people walking through every day for five weeks.” The upstairs sitting area that Lynn designed was her first choice in the lottery.

According to Tony Manning, thirty designers were invited to submit ideas. The twenty who made the cut were invited to tour the house, after which they listed three choices in order of preference. This is Manning’s tenth showhouse (he does three a year), and the routine is always the same. “We go through the ballots,” says Tony, “and match designers with rooms.” Not everybody gets their first choice and being high-profile is irrelevant. “We’re usually able to make people happy,” Tony says. “And the designers are so talented. They can look at a bare wall and know how to make it fabulous.”

“My space consisted of two hallways and a tiny seating area,” Lynn says. “It’s the nut of the bedroom wing which appealed to me, but I also saw I could do it without breaking the bank. I don’t need a lot of furniture in there.” Artwork valued at $120,000, on loan from local sources, transformed the two hallways into mini galleries; the seating area was anchored by a borrowed, circa 1800s English mahogany secretary.

Patricia de Niemeyer Kahane, owner of Kate & Leo’s, a children’s furnishings boutique in Greenwich, has seen her merchandise used by designers in many showhouses over the years. So doing the nursery in this one immediately felt right to her. “I’m a specialist in this one area, more perhaps than a designer who does a whole variety of rooms,” she says, adding that her challenge was to transform a large, walk-in closet off the master bedroom into something not only beautiful, but practical as well: Besides the crib, there is also a daybed for when the child is older.

Patricia hopes the other participating designers will become aware of what she offers. “I was in such good company there,” she says. Veteran designer Connie Beale, who transformed the loggia into a conservatory where the owners could host cocktail parties, suggests there are pluses and minuses to having no client to please. “You have complete freedom to create your own vision,” she says, “but the flip side is, without someone’s needs and preferences to guide you, there are just too many choices.”

Connie does a carefully selected showhouse once every three to five years. Although she’s been in both the Kips Bay and the Hampton showhouses, she fondly recalls one she did in Fairfield in 1980 that jump-started her career. “It’s a great way for a young designer to become recognized in the community, to be established as a professional with valid credentials,” she says. “These days, I do showhouses more for fun; it’s a chance to demonstrate what I can do.”

In business since 1981, Scott Lalley is now a consulting designer with Safavieh, a company that specializes in antique and reproduction rugs. He used pieces from the company’s furniture collection for the showhouse library whose colors were drawn from a magnificent 1880s antique Oriental rug. Lalley describes his challenge as “showing how stylish and daring I can be just using products from this one store.”

“The nice thing about the library,” he says, “was that I only have to decorate it; we applied a glaze on some of the blue painted surfaces to give it a fresh look and covered the back of the bookcases with the same wallpaper we installed on the walls.”

Regarding the delay in getting started, Lalley, like his showhouse colleagues, is philosophical. “I work really well under pressure,” he says. “Everything was tagged and ready to go. And when it takes longer than expected, which is always the case, we’ll get there early and leave late. We’ll do whatever’s necessary to make it happen.”

Three days before the photographers arrived, chaos reigned, but, despite it, there was a nice sense of camaraderie that eased the tension. “We don’t get too many prima donna personalities,” says Mary Lynch, showhouse administrator.“ Typically, we see the seasoned professionals stopping in to compliment those who are new to the business.”

“What we’re doing here,” says Manning, “is a kind of theater really, but instead of Broadway ‘angels’ we have sponsors.” The showhouse, he suggests, is the stage; designers are the actors who get to strut their stuff upon it. The rooms they’ve created, of course, are the stars of the show.