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Hampton Designer Showhouse, an insider take

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Marshall Watson   Jul 28, 2009 2:26 PM

As a rule, showhouses are charitable events created to fund a worthy cause, present the talents of local designers eager to showcase their untethered creativity, and hopefully, bring the community as a whole closer together with a common goal. This year’s Hampton Designer Showhouse—which is on display through September 6 at 179 David’s Lane in Water Mill and benefits Southampton Hospital—is no exception.

As a participating designer, the most frequently asked question is “But what is it like to do a showhouse?”

The answer is both intriguing and complicated. For instance, generally, the showhouse organization must find an owner who is willing to lend their empty house—lock, stock and barrel—for at least four months. The house must be in a reachable location with parking available and the appropriate permits must be applied for as well.

The house must also have a multitude of rooms for the many designers who apply and want to perform their magic. The rooms must be reasonably-scaled and the house should be somewhat attractive to entice designers to participate and the attendees to want to plunk down their sheckles to tour this would-be wonder.

With other similar events, the houses may be run-down or unsalable white elephants. This is certainly not the case at the Hampton Designer Showhouse.

Ofttimes at showhouses, the contractor is in the process of building the structure and cannot meet the deadlines. Luckily, this also was not the case at the Hampton Designer Showhouse where everything worked and the house was in move-in condition.

But no matter what—unfinished cabinets, nonfunctioning appliances, plumbing not installed, electricity wavering, pool not marble dusted, leaks, fires and floods—the show must go on. And go on it does and has.

These challenges, of course, are just some of the headaches of the showhouse management—in addition to the orchestration of 35 designers, some divas and some not, who all want to paint, install and move in on the same day. The logistics are mind-boggling and disasters do happen.

The designer’s perspective is no less straining. Six to eight weeks prior to the opening night, the designer is invited to participate and asked to submit three choices of spaces he or she might like to transform, all of which will be thrown into a hat and drawn at random. The designer will be assigned one space only in the house, be it the kitchen, closet, laundry room, media room or master bedroom.

Once the space is decided, the designer then signs a contract and shells out thousands of dollars in deposits, insurance, room cleaning and various other fees that allow him or her to be included in the Showhouse Journal, of which 20,000 copies are printed and given to each attendee.

Then comes the fun (within reason, of course). The designer can create whatever he or she desires without flooding the house or setting it on fire as long as he or she returns the room to its original (generally bland/bare) condition.

Of course, this is not without cost because furniture, fabrics, carpets, lighting, sound systems, decorative finishes, electrical, plumbing and painting labor do not come gratis. Either the designer funds the purchase and installation for everything or gets on his or her knees and pleads for all the vendors to lend product or labor.

As luck would have it, the showhouse is generally terrific advertising for all involved. So dealers lend their priceless antiques, decorative artists faux for free, drapers donate curtains and hardware, fabric houses discount their fabrics, carpet purveyors literally roll out the red carpet and galleries lend wonderful artwork.

This quid pro quo does not always go so easily though. In my case, for the Hampton Designer Showhouse, I had my heart set on certain fabrics and furniture but alas it was not to be.

The curtain fabrics I wanted proved unavailable so I had to redesign my schemes three times. The dining table I longed for (and even included in my room rendering for the journal), was sold.

Notwithstanding the limited time we have to prepare, designers must submit a rendering of the finished room and a list of all suppliers down to the guy that lent the eyeglass case that sits on the side table!

The designers are not the only ones pressured. I cajoled the always busy and extraordinarily talented Springs-based lighting designer Mark Figuerado to whip up a pool table light whose ingredients would include fresh hand-blown balls, English bee skeps and carved walnut and marine-grade hemp rope. He miraculously produced it and hung it in three weeks.

Additionally, I conceived the idea of a grandly-scaled stencil on caramel shellacked walls that decorative artist Judy Mulligan executed while flying back and forth from a huge job in Los Cabos, Mexico. I also humored Gordon Fergusson to sew up 11-foot drapery panels of linen in a week. And I begged Joe Upholstery, Inc. to reupholster all of my dining room chairs in four days.

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