House Sense

February 1, 2008

Residential specialists face a wide range of house questions from customers, ranging from “How often do I need to replace a furnace?” to “Will my furniture fit in this room?” For these special House & Home features, we’ve sought expert advice on a broad range of topics — from decorating trends to maintenance musts.

First up: looking at a home through a designer’s lens.

Good design may be timeless, but staying up to the minute on home trends has become a round-the-clock national obsession.

As cable television design shows and glossy decorating magazines and catalogs vie to keep consumers current, people of every age and income level are becoming more and more savvy about what constitutes good design, says Oma Blaise Ford, senior deputy editor of home design at Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

They’re also becoming much more determined to personalize their home to reflect their specific taste, says Melissa Birdsong, vice president of trend, design, and brand for home-improvement retailer Lowe’s. “In developments, especially, covenants often restrict the design changes an owner can make to a home’s exterior, but inside, people really want to make a statement,” she says.

This widespread focus creates both opportunities and pitfalls for home buyers and sellers. Staying up on the latest trendy touches that say “own me” to prospects can help sell your listings faster.

“I designed about 4,000 home interiors for more than 100 home builders, and we found that we could always sell the model home faster than the exact same house without the decoration,” says Sami Martinez, a Ventura, Calif., interior decorator and territory director for Décor&You, an interior design franchiser.

Likewise, having the current hot design ideas at your fingertips will let you guide uncertain buyers struggling to visualize their new life in a home that may not suit their style. “People are buying lifestyle in a home, not just features,” explains Price Connors, senior designer at Dujardin Design Associates in Westport, Conn., and Nantucket, Mass. “A beautifully decorated home makes buyers want to live that life, even if it’s not theirs.”

Fine, you say, sounds great. But I’m working 12-hour days now. I don’t have time to spend hours watching HGTV or channeling Martha Stewart so that I can help my clients stay au courant. Don’t worry. We’ve done it for you. Here’s what today’s and tomorrow’s buyers will want in their next home.

Clean Lines and Looks

Simple and sleek is the look of today. Even clients who like a more traditional look are requesting fewer accessories and less “froufrou,” says Beverly Stadler, president of Design Focus in San Clemente, Calif.

Square arms and simple, pointed legs dominate chairs and sofas. Shades and motorized blinds are used in lieu of heavy draperies or in conjunction with simple stationary panels. Elaborate trims and tassels are being replaced with leather and other sleeker materials.

“People want to be able to see the lines of the furniture and have room to breathe,” Stadler says. “That’s not to say that all trims are gone, just that they’re not so elaborate as in the past.”

The continued appeal of mid-century modern design — from the classic Eames leather recliner to the whimsy of a George Nelson bubble lamp — echoes the trend for uncluttered looks. Strangely enough, it may also tap into a return to traditional styles, says Connors. “Fifties styles are what baby boomers grew up with. It seems like home to them.”

Another variation on the trend toward cleaner lines is an emerging revival in art deco, the geometric look first popular in the 1920s and 1930s, says Patty Bouley of Bouley Design Inc. in New York.

“People are much more eclectic in their environments, more willing to mix traditional and contemporary. I call it ‘traditional with a twist,’ ”says Jan Parr, editor of Chicago Home + Garden.

Simpler, more informal looks also make it easier to up the comfort quotient, another widespread design trend. “Comfort is a huge concern, “ says Ford. “You don’t see the number of trophy rooms you once did. People want rooms they can actually use.”

The next new thing: Look for a sophisticated variation on traditional Americana, with dark hues and gilded finishes, sometimes with stars and eagles, says Stadler.

Making Every Inch Count

Built-in window seats with storage, beds with drawers underneath, and dining benches that allow visitors to face the table or turn to form conversation, all echo the multipurpose goals of today’s furniture designs.

Screens and movable walls, or shifts in color from one area to another, can take the place of walls, opening up more living space in smaller urban footprints, notes Gioi Tran, of Applegate Tran Interiors in San Francisco.

The pervasiveness of open kitchens and their growing role as the home’s center has promoted a new level of decoration in those spaces, says Ford. Sconces, chandeliers (which are growing in popularity), and more decoration of all sorts are now almost as important as functionality in a kitchen space.

Garages are also becoming multipurpose living spaces and social gathering places, “and not just for the men in the family,” says Birdsong. Pegboards for tools and a couple of storage cabinets are giving way to interlocking tile and epoxy-coated floors as well as permanent workstations for gardening and other hobbies.

The next new thing: Mobile closets replace walk-ins to free up floor space in smaller homes, says Tran.

Warm, Clear Colors

Color, perhaps more than any other aspect of design, is a personal preference, says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute and author of several books, including Color: Messages and Meanings.

“You rarely get a revolution in color trends; it’s more of an evolution,” she says. Yet preferences do ebb and flow. The sophisticated use of rich jeweled colors — purples, yellows, and burnt orange — are on the upswing, according to Eiseman’s color predictions for this year. Chinese reds and blacks also continue in their popularity. She terms the trend “ethnic chic.”

People are also getting more comfortable with color, says Diane Barber of D.E. Barber & Co. in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. “Lately, I’ve had a couple of past clients come back to me and ask me to use a more intense version of colors we chose two or three years ago,” she says.

Metallic accents, such as burnished golds, coppers, warmer silvers, and pewters with a golden undertone, can give a home an of-the-moment look, says Alene Workman of Alene Workman Interior Design in Hollywood, Fla.

Consumers are focusing more and more on metals, from door hinges in brushed nickel to bronzed gold switch plates, agrees Birdsong. Crystal, brass, and bright silver look dated, although shimmer is holding its own in the forms of Lucite and glass lamps, says Parr.

While bright shades continue to dominate most design palettes, a shift may be underway toward cooler grays, purples, and lavenders, says Bouley. The designer, who creates home furnishings products for a variety of international clients, says this color scheme was all over the 2007 Maison & Objet show in Paris and may be poised to take a jump across the Atlantic.

The next new thing: One of the Pantone color palettes for 2009 is called Animé, a nod to popular Japanese animation. “These vibrant, sometimes clashing, colors reflect the look of Japanese comics and appeal to younger clients,” says Eiseman.

Texture and Pattern

In a shrink-wrapped world, the appeal of hand-crafted, textured surfaces seems a natural. Pillows with raw fabric edges have replaced braid for a tailored yet tactile look. Chenille continues to be popular, as do suede and leather. Fabrics are more intricate, with damask, embroidery, and beading offering a more handmade feel, says Stadler.

Texture also extends to the walls, as that reviled relic of the 1980s, wallpaper, makes a comeback. Technology advances have made wallpaper much more exciting, allowing for a wide variety of designs from retro to traditional.

It’s now possible to print life-size images onto paper for a truly custom look, says Bouley. Grass cloth is also a hot item, she adds. Wallpaper doesn’t cover the full wall but stands in for a chair rail when applied halfway up the wall or becomes art when framed and hung, adds Parr.

Wood and tile are making gains on floors, and what carpeting there is has been taking on a more sculptural look, says Barber. Tone-on-tone texture and slightly stronger colors are replacing the ubiquitous Berber floor coverings.

The next new thing: Mini-shags and “hairy” rugs from Flokati, says Parr.

Eco-friendly Features

The popularity of bamboo, in flooring and now also in fabrics, is just one example of perhaps the single biggest design trend: sustainability. What was once a fringe sector with expensive and often ugly products is now everywhere. “You can’t tell our green designs from our regular ones,” says Connors.

Mainstream paint companies, such as Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore, feature paints with low volatile organic compounds that make for better air quality. Lighting has also gone green via light-emitting diode fixtures that are cooler than incandescent and use less energy. LEDs have “exploded on the market,” says Workman.

New materials, such as insulation made from old blue jeans, “wood” panels from compressed sunflower seeds, and composite wood veneers that represent scare exotic woods, speak to the growing consumer desire to help the environment without sacrificing aesthetics, notes Jennifer Gustafson, principal designer at Haven Designs in San Francisco.

The next new thing: Eco-resins made of recycled plastics embedded with recycled glass, grasses, or shells can be used as shower doors, tabletops, or light fixtures.

Individuality Trumps Trends

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about home design trends today is that there is no one trend. Access to more design ideas in the media has spurred consumers to trust their own taste.

Whether it’s combining styles or melding Ikea with antiques, “people are making space more personal. Design is less and less about what’s prescribed in the catalogs,” says Ford.

Your customers may worry that an exotic look may affect the value at resale, but designers say as long as it’s well done, owners have nothing to fear. “Personal design doesn’t hurt resale value,” says Martinez, “only poor design.”

Places to Watch for the Next Design Trend

Design trends once took three years or more to filter down from other arenas into home furnishings. Not anymore. The Internet has sped up the migration cycle to just a few months, say experts. Here’s where to look for the next home design trends.

  • Hotels: Travelers often pick up design ideas from hotel rooms, notes Gioi Tran of Applegate Tran Interiors, San Francisco. For example, The New York Times Magazine said the baroque interiors of the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York signaled a shift to a more opulent style.
  • Fashion runways: “Homes and fashions have a love affair. Sometimes it’s a fling, sometimes it’s a relationship,” says Patty Bouley of Bouley Design Inc., New York. A return to neutrals in spring fashion may be the start of the next home trend.
  • The street: Teenage trends are now a major design influence. “The skulls and bugs I saw last year on my daughter’s T-shirt are now gracing candlesticks at design shows,” says Bouley.
  • Movies and TV shows: The look of a popular show or film can swiftly migrate to home design. The yellows and greens from the popular “Shrek” movies have moved into the design mainstream, says Leatrice Eiseman of the Pantone Color Institute.

Fluff It Up

Owners can improve their home’s look without spending a mint.

  1. Add molding. Chair rails or decorative crown molding give a room a luxurious touch.
  2. Paint. It’s a cost-effective way to change the look and feel of a room.
  3. Frame it. An inexpensive print will provide a focal point in a knockout frame.
  4. Be bold. One dramatic sculptural piece—a vase, for example—can set off a room and echo a trend without a big financial outlay.
  5. Throw on the style. Use accent pillows or an afghan to incorporate a trendy element; then replace them when the trend changes.
  6. Buy live. Faux flowers are so last year; live green plants give an instant lift.
Mariwyn Evans

Mariwyn Evans is a former REALTOR® Magazine writer and editor, covering both residential brokerage and commercial real estate topics.


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