Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A walk down Charleston's design district

I've missed another weekend of posting, but better late than never! Things have been crazy busy here; I've taken on my first employee and am in the process of rebranding my graphic design business to reflect that it's transitioning from a single practitioner operation to a firm. In a few weeks it should all be sorted out, but it's meant about 12/7 (as opposed to 24/7--mercy) for the past several days!

I made myself break away from the desk on Thursday evening, though, for the much-anticipated (at least by me) spring design walk on upper King. For those who don't live in Charleston, King Street is a rather cosmopolitan shopping boulevard in historic downtown Charleston; CNN has called it the "Rodeo Drive of the Southeast". A bit north of Calhoun Street (a major downtown thoroughfare), though, King Street has seemed rather downtrodden in the past. During the past few years there has been a revival of sorts, with lofts and hip new restaurants going in... and even better for the likes of someone like me, design shops of various stripes: lighting, furniture, home decor, commercial decor, etc. Now it's quickly becoming known as Charleston's design district.

(For more on the revitalization of upper King, read Caroline Fossi's tidy, very good article in the Post & Courier. Unfortunately I believe the Post & Courier now charges for its archived stories, but you may be able to locate the article elsewhere.)

Likely based on the highly successful French Quarter Art Walk a bit to the south on Charleston's peninsula, the design walk opened the shops up to attendees without any unwanted sales pressure, whether real or imagined, accompanied by some rather upscale refreshments... very nicely done! No plastic wine glasses here.

So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite items from the evening...

Interior design shop Dwelling made the top of my list Thursday evening. It's hard to choose favorites here, but the sight that greeted my delighted eye as I first entered the shop is to the right: a modern little living room vignette. Coffee tables can often be boring but this one, with its Asian-inspired curves and dark lines, is pure elegance. I'm confident Carisa (Bravo's Top Design) would love the retro green pillows.

Another from Dwelling: this bedroom vignette was *much* more striking in person. It has all the right elements, which can be distilled down to two words: comfort and style. I especially liked the padded headboard and stainless steel desk lamp used on the bedside table.

Just one more from Dwelling! Unlike the bedroom above, it's not high on comfort... but it's definitely high on style. I imagine it can be difficult to pull off the equivalent of a bus stop bench with flair, but this designer has done it. I'd love to have that in my bedroom or foyer.

This scene, from restaurant Chai's Tapas, wasn't on the design walk's list of participating venues, and indeed Patrick shot this picture through a wrought iron gate/fence since the restaurant was closed at the time, but the fountain and modern courtyard decor caught our eye as we walked by. The camera angle (necessitated by the fence) perhaps do it justice, but in person it was quite striking.

Two displays of teas caught my eye at the French Hare. (www.frenchhare.com) Elegantly designed, each silken tea bag was housed in a paper pyramid stretched tall, with a single paper leaf atop a flexible wire stem extending from the tip. Each pyramid even had its own little square ceramic serving platters shaped perfectly to its base. I was sorely tempted and may go back for these.

I'm hoping I have the name of the shop right in this case, since we came home with quite a collection of photos and only our memories to match them up with the proper locales... but I believe this sophisticated little table set for two resides in the rear of Lesesne. (www.shoplesesne.com) The wood and the craftsmanship of the table itself was stunning.

Besides memories of all the eye candy and a determination to come back to many of the shops on a more regular basis, strangely enough I came home with a hefty bar book from Maine Cottage. (www.mainecottage.com) Can't wait to try out some of those recipes! Though I don't take time away from my business often enough to indulge, an interesting cocktail is one of my favorite things. When my schedule becomes sane again (stop laughing), it's off to Total Wine for whatever ingredients I'm missing.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Top Design's top elements (finale)

With the way the show was building, I honestly expected the judges to choose Carisa in the white room. Words like "exuberant" and "bold" were used to describe her style, while in a rare and brief moment, Matt was demoted to a simply "a decorator."

And in this, the final episode, Matt's quiet arrogance built up a head of steam and became just a bit too much for this designer. I said earlier that I felt Matt would work well with clients; if he takes this kind of attitude, though, his welcome could wear thin quickly. Of course, the producers of the show are able to pick and choose from reams of footage and perhaps they were playing up the drama; maybe they asked him leading questions or baited him, one can never know.

But onto the actual designs!


As elegant as ever, it's difficult for me to quibble with Matt's loft. The furniture was pristine, I adored the chocolate browns and the very occasional accents of blue, and the master bedroom was spare elegance itself, clean and inviting. The chandelier and aubergine walls in the bathroom were where Matt took his boldest risks, and they paid off.

The only thing possible detraction is that it is not very loft-like; Matt seemed to try his best to turn it into a fairly modern house in the suburbs, but that's just a matter of style. Some will gravitate toward urban loft living, some will gravitate toward traditional suburban living.

Bottom line: I'd live in this loft in a New York second.


Carisa showed a surprising amount of (a) affection toward Carl and (b) generosity and compassion in this episode, with the exception of the decidedly uncomfortable moment during which she walked off cursing from a threesome of carpenters who had just busted their rears for her. But again, the producers will show what the producers will show...

I admired Carisa’s bold use of red, paired with black and white (many times in the form of a grid) in her loft. The corkboard wall and dining table-slash-ping pong table were very cool, and she surprised and delighted the judges with her round, sunken bed. I noted she chose the same dining set for one of the rooms that Andrea had utilized in her chef’s room, which makes me wonder how extensive the Pacific Design Center really is (they always make it look huge on the show, but in the chef’s room episode there were only four designers and yet Carisa could not find a matching set of chairs that had not been taken except for patio chairs) but I can’t blame her: it’s a striking set. I liked the black shelves besides the table but do wish she had filled it a little more with accessories. My own style is more minimal than Carisa’s natural style, but this was too minimal even for me.

The green shade of the bathroom was risky and striking, if a little harsh, but the mirror would have driven me crazy every time I looked at it. It’s nice as a piece of art, but as a mirror when you’re trying to get ready in the morning, it would be a cruel joke.

I came away from the entire Top Design show with an important lesson (thanks, Todd Oldham!): always let your natural style shine through. So often on these reality shows, contestants seem to be chosen on the strength of their personal style, but the judges quickly become bored with it and then want them to branch out into what are truthfully their weaker areas, and that’s not always fair. These judges didn’t seem to want that; they did seek to shore up weaker areas and they did want to see risks taken, but they applauded each contestant’s natural style and missed it when it wasn’t there.

When I look back at all of Matt’s rooms (at least, those where his voice is evident enough; in some of the group challenges it’s not), I see his signature elegance carried all the way through, and it became even stronger in the end. He knows his style and as a practicing designer, if he chooses his market/niche to match, he’ll be in a very strong business position. This is a good reminder for me as a graphic designer as well.

(Apologies for the late date of this post; due to severe storms we lost power over the weekend when I normally post, and it took down not only our cable modem but that of many others, so that there was a long waiting list for a replacement. Life without internet and email = life in the dark ages, ugh.)

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Top Design's top elements (episode 9)

When the designers entered the white room this week, for once I didn't have any idea who the judges were going to send home.

Two of the three rooms this week were very beige; the remaining selection featured walls slathered in bright white. With the exception of Carl's textured brick wall, there was little pattern other than in small doses.

Don't get me wrong; I actually love beiges and taupes as warm yet neutral background colors in interior design and much prefer a smooth, sleek wall devoid of pattern to wallpaper... and I'm not afraid to admit I was glad to see Matt stay away from the high-contrast striped walls of his chosen inspiration room. The confluence of neutrals just didn't provide the judges with a whole lot of variety. Of the three, Carisa's room stood out the most, while Matt's and Andrea's might have appeared in the same house or article.

I didn't have a strong favorite. Matt's natural style, as usual, was closest to mine, but I didn't see much of a connection between it and his inspiration room. Carisa's was boldest, but the furthest outside my natural style and so difficult to judge; one of the features the judges loved the most, too, was her carpenter's idea rather than her own.


Andrea, a hard worker who has shown consistently good taste, made it hard on herself by choosing an inspiration room with tall, narrow dimensions, despite the long, horizontal dimensions of her blank space. It would have been hard for any designer to meet that sort of challenge. What would I have done? I don't know if it would be possible within the time constraints of the challenge (though I think that about nearly everything these designers do), but perhaps she might have added two walls to make three narrower rooms rather than one long one.

As it was, her very well-done windows were spaced much too far apart, and the guest judge was spot on: all her furniture was on the same horizontal plane. She also spent a great deal of time on what I thought was a creative idea but ended up looking like a rather hokey touch (though the judges did like it): embroidered baseboards painted a dingy hue rather than matching the striking and elegant molding around the windows. Her artwork on the right wall didn't seem to relate to her inspiration room at all, and the plant and pot in the left-hand corner seemed too small or otherwise somehow out of place.
Interior designer Linda Merrill, who also covers Top Design in her blog, made an observation that was right on: "The windows might have served this purpose, but she needed a big bold cornice molding around the ceiling to really pull it together." Without that the room seems unfinished.

On the other hand, the tall windows themselves were perfection, the console against the left wall in right on in terms of the inspiration room, the shades of the wall and floor were elegant and sophisticated, and aside from the lack of height differences, the furniture was right on. I also liked the artwork along the back wall and wish she would have replaced the large artwork piece of the right wall with those. Though the room did not seem like a cohesive whole overall, the marks of excellent taste were present here and there.

When Andrea was sent packing, I was sad to see her go. She would have made a formidable opponent against Matt in the last round.


Many viewers don't like Carisa, but this seems to be their personal reaction to her, which I lack. She doesn't annoy me though I think it is essential that she address her eye-rolling habit, a passive-aggressive mannerism that could hold her back professionally. I don't think she even realizes she does it, and it was painful to see her scramble when the judges called her on it a few episodes back.

As mentioned, Carisa's chosen inspiration room is the furthest from my own taste so it's difficult for me to judge, and I can claim very little expertise here, even as a graphic designer.

What I liked: the artwork (nicely lit, as the judges pointed out), the shades used (just not in the right places/proportions for me), the spunk, the uniqueness of the room as compared to the other two designers, and that Carisa knows her own taste and style. This room seems the most cohesive of the three.

What I didn't like: the Dr. Suess fireplace flue, the stark white walls, the stark laminate blacks, and the slabs and plastic nature of the furniture that seem to boast all the comfort of sitting on cement.

All in all, the high contrast, the low comfort level, the starkness of the main colors, and the self-congratulatory artsiness of the room combine to shout "uninviting!" and if I came across such a room in an upscale establishment of some sort, I'd want to run away. This, however, goes for both the inspiration room and Carisa's room, and is a matter of personal preference and taste, not skill.


Matt, as ever, proves himself an elegant designer. The inspiration room aside (which his room does not much resemble), his room oozes a smooth sophistication that I love, and is definitely the one where I'd be most at home. The curtains are both cultured and graceful, the chairs flanking them are well-placed, and I also adored the placement of the furniture in the center of the room, lending the room a museum-exhibit-type quality. I loved the almost Asian simplicity of the bordered rug and the lighting, and to me the dark woods and black ink of the artwork versus the white molding and light upholstery on the daybed added just the right amount of contrast to the room.

I do wish he had chosen a different stain or paint for the floor. It was absolutely gorgeous going in; the sort of drab "old suburban back deck" shade it ended up with just did not do it justice. Kudos to Goil's carpenter for stepping in on short notice, though, and to Matt for being game to work with another carpenter after he had become accustomed to relying on Ed.

Unlike the judges, I would have loved to see the artwork hung with cables from the rod, and like them I think the right wall begs for its missing mirror. It's a shame Matt wasn't able to squeeze everything in during the time allowed, but I'm consistently amazed at how much the designers are able to squeeze in during each challenge, regardless! How they manage to start the last 15 minutes with no furniture or accessories installed at all and end with a finished room is nothing short of a miracle.

As a side note, Margaret notes in her blog, "Matt chose our April 2006 cover, which features a bedroom in Amy and Todd Hase’s château in the Normandy countryside, and he seemed quite miserable that he didn’t have a château-size budget to shop with." Matt's snob factor unfortunately did rise in this episode; every day on HGTV designers are scrambling for dramatic makeovers on a $500 or $1,000 budget, and Matt was seen turning up his nose at $7,500. Carisa (who was in the very same boat) managed to find her materials cheerfully enough. On the other hand, this was probably one of the most difficult challenges to take on without the resources of the PDC, and it had to be difficult to find furniture in an unfamiliar city, much less furniture on a budget. I can definitely sympathize with Matt's plight, and at least he knows his market: those who have much, much more than $7,500 to spend per room. There's nothing wrong with knowing your market and sticking to it; in fact, it's very smart.

Congratulations to Matt and Carisa! Andrea, meanwhile, gained many admirers during her tenure on the show (see the title of the blog Project: Top Design; it's just one word, all in caps, "NOOOOOOOO!!!"), and I am certain business will be plentiful for a good while as a result.

I'm on pins and needles for the final episode. Will Carisa surprise us all by toppling Matt, or will Matt breeze through his final challenge with his usual aplomb? I'll be joining design fans everywhere next Wednesday when I'm glued to the television.