Low-End Budget, High-End Results


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Gone are the days when only the very wealthy could afford good design," says Patrick Lee, designer of many of San Diego's finest homes, now experimenting with a new approach-helping low-budget clients live in professionally designed homes that are pleasing and affordable.

Lee has a master's degree in architecture, is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and is responsible for the interiors of many fine homes in this area. But after years of working with half-million-dollar budgets, he's refocused the way he sees things. He's having fun. "I'd rather shop at Crate & Barrel than at Gump's," he says.

"A client will say to me, 'All right, I have $15,000-or $30,000 -for all the furniture.' He-or she-is hungry for design ideas. They're sensitive to their surroundings, but they can't afford the hefty markup many designers charge." And so Lee settles on an hourly fee and shops with the client at whatever stores offer good design at their price level.

"I look at the floor plan, then I'll go with them to Ikea, Interior Surroundings, Pottery Barn-anywhere. Or if I can negotiate with a professional showroom for the client to buy directly, I do that, too." This makes it possible for a young couple with limited resources to live in a well-designed home with tasteful items around them-and still keep within a budget.

"People compliment me on the African sculptures in my own home. Little do they know I got them at Cost Plus," he laughs. Lee welcomes the explosion of small specialty furniture shops in San Diego: "Metropolis on University, Circa a.d., the boutiques."

It's clear Lee likes his life this way. A far cry from the homes he's designed in Bangkok, London, Paris, Manhattan and Rancho Santa Fe. He enjoys the clients he now chooses to deal with, getting an obvious kick out of turning up fantastic ideas for a younger, hipper clientele.

Carol and Craig Halverson's house on a cul-de-sac in Cardiff is an example. Lee took a look at some of the materials supplied by the builder-standard materials, since this is what is called a tract home, though it is very elegant in its outlines. What troubled him most was the excessive use of a mauvish white tile on floors and counters everywhere. "I went into a closet one day and tried to scrape and paint that tile-but it was no use," he says. To offset the sterility of the tile, he carpeted the living room and dining room in reasonably priced sisal, a tightly knit hemp product, and covered the vast entry in the same material, bound so as to reveal only a small edging of what he calls "that sweet, anemic mauve."

Next Lee considered the extreme height of the cathedral ceiling-another feature typical of California homebuilding. It was excessively high in proportion to the tiny floor space, which was too cramped for most seating arrangements. So he abandoned the idea of a sofa with end tables and lamps to provide light. Instead, he strung rows of low-voltage lighting across the vault of the ceiling, to break up the space. These nine lights on three strands produce balanced illumination for the room and are particularly dramatic at night.

There was no reason to drape the windows (another saving), because a small patio and some recently planted palm trees provided privacy. Lee designed two formidable obelisks for each side of a large custom sofa ("When in doubt, make it bigger"), added two black swivel chairs from Interior Surroundings and picked up the ribbon-cut maple veneer of the obelisks in a grouping of mix-and-match occasional tables.

In the adjacent dining area, he used an immense Brueton table with inch-thick glass and six Martin Brattrud office chairs. "They bought good, basic pieces they can use again," he says. Lee's philosophy is to simplify-a Zen-like approach to design. He tries to create "a pleasurably soothing space."

His glimpse of the family room was anything but soothing. "There are two young girls in the family, athletes, and when I saw them doing cartwheels in the family room, I said to myself, 'A coffee table here is not going to work.'" In fact, he advised leaving the family room until a later date. "It's another trend-working in phases. Even my wealthy clients work that way."

This is a man who is both architect and designer, so it's natural he's also in tune with the work of local artists. A hefty slice of the Halversons' budget went into the Dan Sayles painting over the sofa. "It's something sneaky I do," confesses Lee. "Sayles is a San Diego artist. I love his work, and I was sure the owners would never want to part with it. So I hung it, then stepped back and let them buy it on time, directly from the artist."

How prevalent is this method of by-the-hour shopping with the client at moderately priced stores? Cathy Miller, ASID, calls it an option. "Not a trend, but an option. We've lost so many retail furniture stores that used to have quality in-house designers," she says. "With an hourly fee designer, it's better-you aren't limited to one store. But not every client wants to work that way. They're way too busy. They'd rather send me out for the right fabric or dining room chair. And send me out again if it's not right. But yes, it's certainly more and more an option."

High-end designer Andrew Gerhard, ASID, says it's not his customary method but admits to going out with clients on a consulting basis, mostly for their children or grandchildren. When he's taken to look at a piece of furniture, "Four out of 10 times I'll say 'Go ahead and buy it.'" The other six times? Sorry, no. At least he doesn't hear the familiar lament, "Why didn't I call you sooner?" But Gerhard doesn't see how an hourly fee arrangement can save the client much money. "You're paying retail," he says. "We deal wholesale, with a percentage markup."

Another top designer, Arthur Porras, ASID, chooses not to do homes piecemeal at all. Not even one room at a time. He prefers to do the entire package in tandem with an architect and a landscape designer for a total look. He starts before construction -or in the case of a major renovation, before the first wall is torn down. But his wife and colleague, Sandy, agrees it's always better to ask for a professional opinion rather than to make a mistake and lose money.

Megan Bryan, ASID, and her partner, Kim Lee Jackson, recently opened a design store in La Jolla called DiVan, where they showcase Bryan's own custom furniture and also high-end lines such as Donghia, Knoll and Bernhardt. Bryan says they are the first in the United States to do this-bring these pieces into a showroom setting available to the public-at a discount. "Until now, to access those lines, you had to hire an interior designer. Then it's their taste versus your taste," says Bryan.

"There's a vastly different market out there now, people with confidence in their own taste," says Jackson. "They see a lot of good design-on television, for instance. Somebody will see something on the Frasier show and say, 'That would look good in my home.' We always felt retail options were limited."

Patrick Lee likes the new flexibility. He likes who he works for. He gets so involved with his clients, "I become their step-relative," he says. And that seems to be okay with them.

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