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Decorating Challenges

Three Greenwich decorators pass the test with flying colors



Tim Lee

If you’re good at what you do, then it’s almost a given that the most difficult jobs are the most rewarding. Easy doesn’t stretch your creative muscles or wake you up in the middle of the night to reach for the bedside scratch pad and a pencil. It’s all about facing a challenge and facing it with energy and skill and no small amount of style. We talked to three Greenwich–based decorators, talented and seasoned veterans all, and found that the more challenging aspects of their favorite jobs were a large part of not only the attraction but the satisfaction. Whether it was personalizing a lofting space while losing none of the drama, creating a sophisticated bedroom to take a boy through adolescence into manhood or devising a palette that took its cues from the joyous hues in classic Hindu art, their reward was not only in the result — and pleasing the client — but in the work itself.

“I like a challenge,” says Victoria Vandamm, who last year moved Vandamm Interiors off Greenwich Avenue and into a private atelier with twelve-foot windows through which the sun streams from dawn ’til dusk. She describes her style as “modern with a twist; classic with a fresh appeal,” and if she has one piece of advice, it’s that nothing in your house should be static. “What’s on your coffee table should change,” she says. “Your furniture should walk around the room, happily.

“I wouldn’t say that a large space is more difficult than a small space,” she states, although one client’s house in Riverside put her theory to the test. The spaces to be dealt with in the newly constructed waterside house were not so much large as they were tall. Challenge No. 1 was the central tower, some two and a half stories straight up to the exposed roof beams. Wallpaper was the solution for removing any vestiges of the chilly or intimidating from the vertical distance, and Vicky went with a trompe l’oeil design that replicated a faux finish of slightly peeling paint. “When you put up wallpaper, you know what you’re getting,” she says of the decision to go with printed over painted. “When you deal with an artist, to a certain extent it’s up to the artist; sometimes that’s exactly what you want, but in this case we wanted to know, before.” She laughs and adds, “I gave my wallpaper hangers awards for being artists.”

Wallpaper was also the key to the two-story-high master bath, for which Vicky used a cream toile de Jouy patterned with roses. “Not a dense toile,” she explains, “but one with lots of space between the patterns so it’s very airy; it’s a matter of proportion.” A chandelier visually lowered the ceiling, and a sumptuous balloon shade on the window over the tub further softened the grand proportions of the room without cutting off the spectacular view over the water.

Then they got to the steam shower. “Two walls of glass, and glass on top,” says Vicky. “How do you wallpaper into the corner? That was at the top of my challenge list: working around the glass top of the shower. We tried cantilevering the guys over it, we tried scaffolding on both sides and making a bridge.

We tried everything so we wouldn’t have to take the shower stall apart.” (Installing the shower after wall-papering was never an option as new houses need to settle for a time before wallpaper can be applied.) In the end, there was nothing left to do but remove the top of the shower and scaffold across it.

“We called a glass shower expert, and they said, ‘Oh yes, we do this all the time.’ They cut off the roof with a special tool and attached a giant suction cup and lickety-split, the top was off,” says Vicky’s client.

“I think the moral of all this is, call an expert. This house does present a special set of challenges — I’ve got special ladders for changing light bulbs because the ceilings are all so high — but it’s lovely to be in the tub and look out over the water, especially in the morning when the sun is coming up.”

Vicky’s next challenge is a bedroom and bath for a feng shui instructor, a discipline that from a decorator’s point of view, she says, can be both freeing and limiting. “You can get hung up on all the rules, but some of them can be fluid, depending on how they are interpreted. For instance, we were putting a decorative tile in the bathroom, a simple shell pattern. And we had to place the tile with the hole in the shell facing up, so your luck is caught and flows into it. You don’t want it upside down so your luck falls out!”

“Pack rat is the No.1 decorating challenge in the world,” states designer and style columnist Barclay Fryery (AskBarclay.com). “Probably because people don’t always give the right gifts, and everyone thinks they have to display what they’re given. Put it away; put a rogues’ gallery up in your attic.”

One of Barclay Fryery’s most enjoyable challenges was designing a bedroom for Wendy Force’s eleven-year-old son Jordan. Enjoyable because in the process of decorating the first floor of her Cos Cob house, he and Wendy had quickly segued from decorator and client to fast friends — challenging in that a relatively small bedroom had to work for study, play and relaxation. And there was that pack-rat problem, in this case literally hundreds of Beanie Babies. “This was about three years after Beanie Babies were over,” says Barclay. “So I walked in the room, and I told Jordan that he had to choose one Beanie Baby, and the rest had to go into the attic.”

“I knew Jordan’s room needed changing,” says Wendy, “and I had just asked Barclay for a paint color. But Barclay being Barclay, he said, ‘Let me do the room for you.’ Sometimes I think decorators don’t always keep in mind who they’re decorating for, but he was able to take the things that Jordan needed and translate that into such a beautiful space. It gives Jordan everything he needs to be a teenager, and it keeps him organized.”

“When I take on a project, I assume the identity of the character, or the client, like an actor,” says Barclay, “so I feel that it needs to be done to the T. Call it method decorating. And I knew we could do this in one day.” On the assumption that few eleven-year-olds enjoy hanging out in furniture stores, Barclay and Wendy dashed off to Crate & Barrel — not upscale Barclay’s usual haunt, but they were on a budget. “I discovered interesting shapes that were affordable,” he says. “I don’t do rooms that you have to change as you grow up. Once the bedroom is done, it is adaptable, by editing, to be an adult’s room, so you feel intelligent. So you feel like a big boy when you’re not.”

Barclay decided on a theme of “Boy James Bond,” with a coolly masculine color scheme of pale gray-blue walls, accents of white and black and gray, and vivid splashes of royal blue and gold. “They wanted a king-size bed but the room could only handle a twin bed,” he says. “Well, if your architecture doesn’t lend itself to a king-size bed, then put it in the living room and put your living room upstairs; it’s all about proportion and practicality.” Barclay selected a modern sleigh bed in blonde wood, a slipper chair upholstered in durable gold corduroy, a bordered carpet and black felt blinds. He describes the formula for Jordan’s room as 70 percent Crate & Barrel, 10 percent found items from around the house (he went downstairs to the library and pulled classic coming-of-age books like Catcher in the Rye to fill the black storage étagères), and 20 percent “couture” touches, like the throw pillows, the blinds and the
custom-made carpet.

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