In 1988, I was asked to participate in my first “Art and Design” showhouse. My vision was impeccable... until it wasn’t.
In 1988, I was asked to participate in my first “Art and Design” showhouse. Back then, a large and often historic home would be selected because it was either on the market and needed some significant cosmetic upgrades or it had been recently purchased and the new owners would benefit greatly from those same upgrades, saving the expense of undertaking all those renovation costs themselves.
The owners would have to agree to vacate the house for a minimum of two months. The first four weeks were allotted to a group of designers and architects who would arrive with their contractors, painters, wallpaperers, and truckloads of furnishings to transform a space they had been assigned. The house would then be open for a month, and the public would pay a fee to tour the finished house with the money raised going to a particular cause or charity.
Many communities would sponsor these designer events. The Main Line had its Vassar Showhouse, and New York had its ever-popular Kips Bay Decorator Show House, which is one of the few that continues to be held annually. Chestnut Hill hosted the Art and Design Show House.
As a young designer with a fledgling business, I was thrilled beyond belief to be given the opportunity to transform a room in the Victorian Eleanor Huston Smith House, located on the campus of what was then Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science in East Falls.
Designing such a space would not only be a valuable experience for the exposure it would bring to my business, but it also gave each designer or architect the chance to design a space that was truly their own individual expression.
As a self-described “Anglophile” I immediately envisioned the space I was assigned to become an English country-style parlor, a room that would reflect warmth, relaxation, and comfort. There would be pillows scattered in front of a fireplace, warm throws tossed across overstuffed chairs softened with age, books and newspapers piled high on rustic end tables and baskets filled with kindling and pine cones. My vision was impeccable…..until it wasn’t.
Each designer was asked to submit their room description to the house committee for approval. Several committee members appeared slightly confused, and a few others commented that this room may not reflect a cohesive design style. It did not take me long to realize that a “show house” is really a shelter magazine come to life, and the completed rooms not only need to appear as well-thought-out spaces, but they also need to exemplify the particular aesthetic of the house as a whole.
I guess I could have stayed true to my initial vision, at the risk of having to listen to comments on the room’s uber-relaxed state and unceremonious appearance. I imagined myself having to explain why there were newspapers strewn on the floor, and blankets tossed haphazardly across a sofa.
So I reluctantly relented. My completed room became an homage to a more traditional English country-style parlor, with firm loveseats covered in cabbage roses and stunning antiques on loan from a local dealer. A brass and crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling and a gilded mirror was shown above the fireplace.
The room was a smashing success…..not the success I envisioned……but one I think of as a success in a substitute kind of way.
Patricia Marian Cove is the principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and can be reached through her website: patriciacove.com.