“Big Picture” Renovations: Pulling Together the Pieces to Make a Grander Whole

Sometimes, we take on project homes where the individual main rooms are in good — or even great — condition, but the house needs an overall upgrade. That was the case for this 1980s-era stucco single English manor-style house in Chestnut Hill.

While it’s an attractive structure that includes a two-car garage and a lovely gated backyard with lots of mature plantings, the home had been a rental for a while, and was a bit worn and somewhat outdated when our clients bought it in order to downsize. It had a lot of builder-grade trims and doors, as well as plain drywall throughout much of the lower level. In addition, the house, which is rather sizable at 3,000 sf, felt rather choppy and not at all as grand as it could be. Our job was to give the house character and definition, particularly throughout the first floor.

Here are the solutions we implemented on the lower level:

  • Created and applied an appealing trim, door, and panel program that created a cohesive look and feel that added interest to the walls.
  • Reorganized and upgraded the kitchen range and hood to modernize the appliances and provide better functional space. (Proportions rule! When you have the right proportions, everything feels right.)
  • We will also replace a dated brown glass tile backsplash with new simple running bond tile that has a handmade feel.
  • Installed a new vanity sink, counter, and toilet in the powder room.
  • Installed new oak flooring throughout the kitchen and powder room to blend with the existing flooring, and stained all of the floors in the house a medium-dark brown.
  • Upgraded the lighting fixtures, switches, and outlets. This includes the removal of a Gothic chandelier hanging over the kitchen island and a builder-grade “Italianate” tray ceiling with lighting, which left the whole ceiling simpler and cleaner.
  • Helped select colors and finishes that tie the various rooms together and complement the homeowners’ furnishings, including a mix of new items and things moved from their previous home.

And on the second floor:

  • Created new “his-and-hers” walk-in closets in the master bedroom. We drew up the floorplan of the room with the furniture our clients wanted to use, and then identified the logical placement of the closets. We also moved and upgraded the lighting outlets and switches so they made more sense. By adding inches to the width, a foot to the length, and installing pocket doors, we freed up floor and furnishing space, and netted our clients a walk-in closet more appropriate to a master bedroom. The previous closets, while somewhat large, were not originally laid out for the sizes needed to get the maximum hanging and storage space.
  • Helped refit the clients’ existing custom office furniture into their new office space. Again, we drew a floorpan to determine where their belongings would best fit.
  • Assisted with selecting colors, lighting fixtures, and accessories.

In the end, we didn’t move any walls (except for the master closets), and we didn’t do full renovations of the kitchen or bathrooms, but we did make this house feel a lot grander. Now, when these clients entertain or return home from their work travels, they can feel their house wrap around them with solid comfort and long-lasting style.

Nelson Lamp Giveaway

We are excited to announce that we’re partnering with Design Within Reach’s Princeton Studio to provide and install a lovely George Nelson Pear Bubble Pendant lighting fixture for one lucky winner.

Architect George Nelson developed this fresh solution to lighting design in 1952 by spray coating a skeleton of steel wire with a layer of translucent plastic that allowed light to shine softly through and protect the eye from glare. The tautly stretched plastic emphasizes the simple form and sculptural quality of the lamp, making it an ideal fit for many different styles of home design. This giveaway, including installation, is valued at $750.

For a complete list of giveaway rules and to enter for your chance to win, please visit our Facebook page. Tell a friend!

Styling Your Space Like a Pro

Whether you’ve just completed a renovation project or you have an older room that simply needs an aesthetic makeover, if you’re like most homeowners, you may find that you struggle a bit when it comes to furnishing your space and giving it the perfect finishing touches. But make no mistake about it: styling is important. It’s what makes your house feel like a home and what makes guests take notice.

Of course, anyone with the resources can fill a house with a bunch of “stuff.” The difference lies in how the items are arranged. For this reason, even magazines hire stylists to prop rooms to look make them picture perfect. Here, Philadelphia prop stylist Lisa Russell, who helps Myers Constructs make project homes look their best during our photo shoots, shares with us her insights about personal home styling:

Q: How did you get your start in prop styling?

A: After graduating from art school 12 years ago with a degree in photography, I took a job working for an architectural photographer in Philadelphia. After a few days of accompanying him on photo shoots, I learned that even professionally designed spaces had to undergo a transformation process in order to make them “photo worthy.” I also quickly discovered that I was completely addicted to this process. Rugs and furniture would be rearranged, artwork would be moved, and decorative accents would be added or replaced to create just the right balance of size, shape, color and texture. In the photo and film production business, virtually every location undergoes this transformation process.

Q: Why is it important for the average homeowner to understand how to style their homes for everyday use?

A: If our space looks good, we feel good. I’ve encountered many homeowners who believe that it takes an interior designer or high-priced furnishings to make their space beautiful. They feel that if they don’t have the right artwork or the best furniture, then why bother? Whether it’s an entire living room or a shelf on a bookcase, many people struggle with arranging their things in a way that looks pleasing. But what every good prop stylist knows is that you can make anything look good if you simply understand how to arrange it properly.

Q: What are some useful styling tips that most people could easily implement in their own homes?

A: Here are four basic steps to styling any room.

Step 1: Look at the Overall Composition of the Room

This is the “big picture.” When you first glance at a room, what stands out? What seems wrong? You’ll know what it is because your eye will go right to it. It will be the thing that most bothers you. Look at the room from all sides — inside and out — and then arrange furniture so that it’s pleasing from every angle.

Resist the urge to push a sofa or other upholstered pieces up against a wall to get more space. Keeping furniture at least six inches out from the wall will make the room feel bigger. Large cabinets or TV stands, however, should go flush against the wall. The backs of such cabinets are usually not pretty. Now, go out of the room and look back in. Maybe you only see a half of a table when you look in from a hall. Moving it into full view from the hall can give you something interesting to focus on from there.

Next, identify other problem areas, such as a bare bookshelf or console table, or a lifeless sofa. Once you pinpoint the problems, you can start working on solutions. The sofa or chair might benefit from colorful pillows and a throw. Similar colored accents on a side table could also create some interest. A bookshelf may need something mixed in with the books for contrast, such as photos or a vase. This process of analyzing your belongings takes us to Step 2.

Step 2: Learn to Create Vignettes

A vignette is a pleasing display of your belongings that tells a story in the context of a room. Look around your home. Are you telling a story of your collections that is visually pleasing? This is a secret talent and obsession that all stylists share. It’s an understanding of how to create a beautiful “still life” on any available surface. While there is a bit of an art to it, to be sure, the bottom line is it all comes down to composition. There are a few simple styling guidelines that can help anyone transform their space and display their objects like a pro:

  • Tips for Table Surface Displays. Whether it’s a coffee table, bookcase or mantle, it’s a blank canvas for your next vignette. Use these tips and start styling.
  • Group objects together. Instead of placing random items far apart, create small groupings to make your collections look intentional and less cluttered.
  • Odds are always better. Placing similar objects in groups of three or five is always better than groupings of two or four.
  • Don’t straight line it. Placing accents in front of one another adds depth. Your objects will not always be viewed straight on, so create visual interest by overlapping them.
  • Mix it up. Don’t be afraid to make your displays eclectic. Random objects often look great together. Two mismatched candlesticks may look odd, but nine mismatched candlesticks will look fantastic.
  • Create balance. Combine small and large items in your groupings. If you have something short on one side of an arrangement, place something tall on the other.
  • Look at magazines. When trying to do this at home, take a look at some design magazines and photos on the Internet. When it comes to professionally designed photos, it’s guaranteed that every single photo has been styled. Look at the displays and study what the stylist has done. Note how many items are on the table or shelf, how they’re arranged, and what kinds of colors and styles are used together.

Step 3: Your Wall Is a Surface

Don’t limit yourself to table surfaces, look at every surface in your room as a potential place for a vignette. While decorating your walls can also seem like tricky business, with the right approach, it can also be a fun, creative process.

  • Start on the floor. When creating an arrangement, begin by laying the arrangement out on the floor.
  • Treat several objects as one. If you were to hang one frame over your sofa, you would center it and hang it at eye level. Treat your grouping of artwork the same way. Center the middle piece of artwork over the furniture and build outward evenly on both sides and above.
  • Follow the two-inch rule. When hanging several pieces of art together as one unit, place each peace of art approximately two inches away from the others, next to, above and below it.
  • Large and small belong together. If you have several large pieces and several small pieces, don’t divide them by size; arrange them together. If you have one arrangement of small pieces and one arrangement of large pieces, the wall will feel unbalanced.
  • If YOU like it, collect it and hang it. We often think of wall art as photos, paintings, or sculptures, but wall art is really anything you can hang on the wall (safely). This could be a collection of pots and pans (my entire kitchen), masks, baskets, plates, and even toys — you name it. Right now, my dining room wall is covered with giant cutout paper snowflakes made out of old wallpaper. I love them, and I’m keeping them (at least until it gets warm out). This takes us to Step 4.

Step 4: Have Fun!

Despite the fact that I talk about rules, the most important thing to do is to have fun with it and don’t take it too seriously. The reason prop stylists enjoy their work so much is because we get to play around with different items and arrangements until it looks just right. In your home, you should do the same. Keep trying until it looks good to you.

Remember also that nothing is set in stone. If you get bored with a particular vignette, clear the surface and start again. Rearranging your bookcase or mantel is a great way to use some creative energy without spending a dime.

Q: Are there any resources you would recommend for homeowners who want to learn more?

A: There are resources everywhere. There seems to be an online design magazine for every style out there. I literally have hundreds of sites bookmarked on my laptop, but these are my top four for both inspiration and practical application:

  1. www.designsponge.com
  2. www.housetohome.co.uk
  3. www.decor8blog.com
  4. www.anthologymag.com

Lisa Russell is a West Philadelphia-based prop stylist, set decorator, and writer specializing in interiors, still life and food styling for print and television. With a background in photography, graphic design and marketing, she brings the artist’s and the audience’s perspective to every shoot. Some of her clients include IKEA, Benjamin Moore, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Brownstein Group, Arm & Hammer, Philadelphia Magazine, Taste of Home Magazine, Wine and Spirits Quarterly, QVC and others. When she’s not working, she can be found indulging in her guilty pleasures, which include flea markets, vintage textiles, clean design, sewing, re-purposing old furniture, and using objects in ways for which they were not intended. Samples of Lisa’s work can be seen at www.stylingbylisa.com.

Q&A: Vintage 101 (and a Giveaway!)

In follow up to last week’s newsletter, When Vintage Decor Meets Modern Renovation, we sat down with Natalie Rettinger, owner of Media, PA-based vintage furniture boutique Reconsidered Home, for a primer on antique furnishings and how to incorporate them into your home.

Q: How did you get started in selling vintage furnishings and antiques?

NR: I found my first chair in a thrift shop a few years ago. It was a tufted, armless chair with a dusty mustard yellow fabric. I bought the chair for $15, took it home, and immediately took it apart to see how it got its shape. I learned a lot from that chair and still have it, mostly to remind me to leave reupholstering to the professionals!

Q: What are the advantages of decorating a home with vintage finds?

NR: Vintage furniture, in combination with your existing pieces, allows you to be truly unique and actually helps you to find your style. No one else will have what you have. Of course, the other obvious reason to choose vintage is for its affordability. We have customers that often look to trade in their pieces in order to explore other shapes or styles.

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Q and A: Checking in With Myers Constructs

As the busy fall home-renovation season kicks off, Myers Constructs co-owner Diane Menke sits down for a chat about breaking traditional design build paradigms, finding paths for growth in a difficult economy, and the surprising places where her team finds design inspiration.

Q: Tell us about your design to build philosophy.

DM: Generally speaking, design build is a model in which the design and construction phases of a renovation project are done in a streamlined fashion — often by having design and construction professionals team up in order to save time and money. Our approach is a different take on this concept. We do both design and construction in house, using a very tight system of steps we have developed over the years. We call it Design to Build™ because we only design projects to build them. We don’t spend a client’s financial resources on exploration of ideas that won’t be built. Our system uses proprietary designing and budgeting tools to ensure the design and construction phases of a project are developed with efficient precision, as well as with great style.

My business partner, Tamara Myers, and I developed this approach after dozens of frustrated homeowners started calling on us with their architect- and designer-driven designs that they couldn’t afford to buid. We both come from backgrounds in fine arts and crafts. While studying for our respective BFA degrees, we were expected to explore and understand departments outside of our major. This philosophy mirrored Germany’s Bauhaus Movement, in which artists were expected to understand all of the arts — craft media, 3D, 2D, color theory, architecture — because they are so interrelated. In addition, we were taught the history of these various media. That exploration helped explain world history, and how various media and styles of architecture, literature, music or crafts arrived in places around the world. If I had to use one phrase to describe this kind of education, it would be “stay curious.” This is how we approach the many disciplines of home renovation at our company. And it’s this curiosity that made it possible to develop a logical system to address the design and construction needs of the homeowners, but keep control of the budgets for them.

Q: What motivated you to break the traditional design build mold?

DM: We really wanted to form a strong, lasting business to take care of customers and employees really well, long term.

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Finding the Magic in Your Home

We often talk to new clients who come to the table with ideas about all kinds of “stuff” they want to buy and install in their homes. While this is a perfectly natural place for most people to start their renovation process, our job is to get them to back up a little and talk to us about their lives. What we really want to know is how they want to live, and how their home fits into that picture. Many times, we have to ask them to stretch a little, imagine a little magic in their everyday lives … and explain what that magic would be.

Typical questions we ask in the initial consultation include:

What works and doesn’t work in your home?

What do you love and what do you hate in your home?

When you travel or visit the homes of friends and family, what do you enjoy about those places?

What kind of experience do you want to have when you come home? What does it feel like?

What do you do for fun and relaxation?

How long has the issue you called us about been a problem for you?

If you closed your eyes and imagined your perfect home, what would that look and feel like?

How do you want your rooms to function? For example, in your kitchen, you cook, eat and store goods … but what kind of cooking do you do? What kind of foods and goods do you store, and in what quantity? Do you have religious or cultural guidelines you must follow in your kitchen? Is wine or beer a feature of your enjoyment of food?

Bathrooms, too, leave a lot of room for magic, if you open up your imagination. A bathroom can be a bare-bones space for performing necessary functions like cleaning your body … or it can be a pleasurable oasis consisting of luxurious materials and textures.

So we infuse some of this type of magic into all of our clients’ projects. And this is so much more important than merely selling them “stuff.”

Special Reasons to Think Windows and Doors!

Winter is right around the corner … now is the time to think windows! In addition to energy tax credits that are currently in place, you can save up to $550 with a mail-in Live Smart Rebate when you replace your old windows or patio doors with select Weather Shield® products with Zo-e-shield® glazing before 12/31/10. And, when you purchase a window-replacement project worth at least $10,000 from Myers Constructs (choose from select brands available), you’ll receive a complimentary home BPI energy-efficiency audit (value: $500). This test will identify areas within your home that may be causing you to spend more than you need to on your monthly utility bills.

Call us at 215.438.6696 for details on how to qualify for these exciting offers.

Significant Home Ruined by Poor Window Choice?

A couple of years ago, I toured a home that was for sale and built by esteemed architect Louis Kahn. It was a lovely 3-bedroom, 2-bath, very modest-sized gem of a house in Elkins Park, a suburb just outside the city limits of Philadelphia. At that time, I was looking to move, and I found this house very charming and beautiful. Everything about this house “fit” within it. The yard was well tended with mature plantings and a small stream. The price was not out of reach. But, in the end, it was just too small for our family. But I’m so glad I took the opportunity to go see it because it reminded me about an important lesson: windows can make or break a house, even an architecturally significant one.

If you visit the Louis Kahn Wikipedia page, you can see the house I am talking about on the right-hand side, and I’ve included an image in this post.

When I saw this house, it was almost completely original and “un-remuddled.”

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A Stylish DIY Project

Many people think of furnishing their home as a single expedition to a big-name supplier where they can buy a “set” of furniture to fill their rooms. They plop down their credit card and call their room “done.”

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