Residential Interior Design - November 2010

By Jessica Chevalier

How does the recession shape high-end residential design? Some suggest that, in hard economic times, designers trend toward simple, calming colors and patterns to ward off the difficulties of the world outside the home. Others say that designers go bold with vibrant oranges and passionate reds in an effort to channel optimism and cheer. Still others suggest that designers and homeowners simply want the “next” thing, and the story of how design reflects larger issues, like the economy, is simply that, a story—in other words, if dark, exotic look hardwoods are trendy, designers want simple, light oak, if the current trend is toward interior wall colors that are rich and intense, designers prefer clean white planes the next time around.

To answer these questions, we asked five high-end residential designers to outline and translate current trends: Jeff Chojnacki of Jeff Chojnacki Residential Design in Houston and Los Angeles; Linda Woodrum, HGTV Dream and Green Homes designer, of Hilton Head, South Carolina; Linda Merrill, owner of Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings, of Duxbury, Massachusetts; Maria Killam, interior designer and Colour Me Happy blogger, of Vancouver, British Columbia; and Molly McGinness of Molly McGinness Interior Design in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. These five designers offered commentary on their favorite materials and looks for the floor and the home. 

Of course, the popularity of trends is determined, in part, by what area of the country is being considered. New York’s style will always be more contemporary than Birmingham’s. Many Northerners favor the warmth of hardwood, and many Southerners appreciate the coolness of tile. And, in general, trends that begin in the style capitals of New York and Los Angeles trickle down to smaller cities and towns thereafter. There are, however, overarching themes that cross city lines and regional preferences.

From New England to Texas to Vancouver, a degree of practicality and reserve are ruling high-end residential design. Ostentatious spending is out. Those that have the means to spend are doing so less conspicuously—covering an antique couch in burlap look linen, for instance, rather than silk. Homeowners are trending toward smaller, smarter homes and décor that they will enjoy for years to come. In flooring, that means classic looks that suit a range of décors and layouts. 

Hardwood is, by far, the favorite flooring choice of the designers that we interviewed. Because a hardwood floor provides a neutral foundation for a broad range of styles, interior designers like to see the material installed not only in the living areas of homes but also in kitchens, bedrooms and even bathrooms. McGinness notes that hardwood feels softer underfoot than ceramic tile and is therefore more desirable in spaces, like the kitchen, where homeowners are often on their feet for extended periods of time.  

But the allure of hardwood isn’t only functional. Several of our designers noted that they appreciate hardwood’s friendly feel, which can warm a cool, contemporary space or bring a welcoming feel to a formal setting. Because hardwood isn’t impermeable to nicks and scars, it develops a sort of lived-in patina that emanates hominess. Additionally, many designers like a layered look for flooring, and hardwood is a good base for this sort of décor strategy. Often, Woodrum will place a sisal rug atop a hardwood floor with an interesting and colorful accent rug atop the sisal. 

Regarding color, interior designers recommend choosing a hardwood that offers a versatile, classic look. Killam notes that “medium brown oak flooring has been around for many years and is still current,” as opposed to trendy “dark espresso brown floors, which are instantly dated and show every little speck of dust.” And when a home is put up for sale, a classic oak or maple is more likely to coordinate with a buyer’s décor and tastes. Victor Ermoli, dean of Savannah College of Art and Design’s School of Design, notes that the next generation of workers is expected to have 15 or more jobs during their lifetimes and will, therefore, relocate more frequently than today’s workforce. For this reason, residential design of fixed elements like flooring, lighting, window treatments and wall coverings is expected to move even more toward neutrality, since the foundation of a home’s design will need to fit an increasing number of residents’ styles.   

While designers prefer wood flooring for its aesthetic qualities, McGinness reports that many homeowners request wall-to-wall carpet in their bedrooms because it provides a soft, quiet surface. But the carpet popular in today’s bedrooms is different from the common plush of the ’80s and ’90s. Killam notes a trend towards textured broadloom in bedrooms, and Woodrum likes the option of having broadloom carpet serged and bound to create a one-of-a-kind look that provides more flexibility than affixed wall-to-wall. Because he believes that the master bedroom is the sanctuary of the home, Chojnacki is the one designer who prefers wall-to-wall carpet in these areas. His carpet of choice is high-end wool. Regardless of what style of carpet is chosen, many designers use the material, like hardwood, as a foundation on which to layer area rugs that feature accent colors and styles. 

For bath and kitchen tile, Chojnacki notes that his clients are tired of inexpensive porcelain and are instead opting for materials like Calacatta marble and Italian porcelain. On the West Coast, many clients request all tile baths, with matching floor and wall tile. Chojnacki notes that, “in an all tile bath, if I use the same material on the walls and floor, then I change the pattern on the floor. For example, if I use a 3”x8” Calacatta marble on the walls, then on the floor I will use the same material in a 11/2”x 11/2” mosaic, and I will usually use a nice heavy marble chair rail on the walls either at 36” or 48” to break up the mass of wall tile.”

Overall, residential interior designers report that the clean look reigns supreme in tile. Says Killam, “I see lots of white tile to replace all that earthy slate that has been going into bathrooms and kitchens for quite some time now.” In many cases, designers opt for large format porcelain because fewer grout lines add to the look of cleanliness. In the kitchen, Merrill loves to pair white with black for a crisp and classic checkerboard floor. 

The trend towards a clean look may have to do with more than simply taste, notes Woodrum. In the recession, she has noticed an inclination towards minimalism and attributes the movement to the fact that people want their home to be a calm, orderly refuge from the world. Therefore, as the economic situation has become trying, homeowners have opted to simplify their lives, eliminating clutter, which is oppressive and weighty, to create a stay against the hectic, unpredictable nature of the world outside the home. As Killam puts it, “A clutter free home looks luxurious.” Additionally, as people are traveling less and spending more time at home in an effort to conserve resources, it is all the more important to have a home that functions as a sort of a respite.

Homeowners are also using color to lift their spirits. Rather than following trends, they choose a color that they like and use a bit more of it than they might have previously. They choose tones with “a little more punch and saturation,” Woodrum notes. Rather than just a few pillows in a favorite turquoise, homeowners may now opt for a cheerful turquoise rug to brighten a room’s palette. As Merrill puts it, Americans want to be optimistic, and bright, happy colors exude a sense of optimism. Chojnacki reports that yesterday’s shades of beige are out. Instead, he sees palettes moving towards greys, blues, chocolate browns, lavender and, of course, white. Pops of lavender, orange and green paired together on throw pillows or other accent pieces are a popular choice.

Owners may have more money to spend on these accents since home sizes are trending smaller. Many people are moving away from the McMansions of the ’90s, homes that boasted opulence from the sidewalk but had empty rooms because the homeowners had no budget for couches, chairs or end tables. Woodrum believes that buyers in the current market are considering their lifestyle and what needs that lifestyle necessitates. Do my husband and I need a large sanctuary-style bedroom space free of toys and video games? Do we need both a living room and great room? Will we use a formal dining area more than once a year? Woodrum suggests that homeowners consider creating multipurpose rooms—a spare bedroom and office combo, perhaps—rather than adding an additional space that needs to be furnished, heated and cooled, and cleaned. 

While some of our designers still see the great room as a popular choice, Chojnacki believes the trend is ebbing. “People crave intimate space,” he says. The design challenge in a great room revolves around how the space can be made to feel more comfortable and intimate—making it a sort of complicated and ironic option design-wise. “In design, everything is about proportion and scale,” he notes, and the great room is often disproportionate in the overall layout of a home. In high rent districts like Los Angeles and New York, the great room is basically non-existent, since real estate is so pricey that homeowners don’t have the luxury of large spaces. 

U.S. residential design pulls from a host of inspirations. Each year Pantone, the company that created a standardized language for color communication, releases a color of the year that influences trends in fashion and design. Of course, high design usually begins with clothing, and the colors, fabrics and shapes trickle down to interior design. In some instances, there is a very deliberate and obvious connection between fashion and interior design. This year, Brizo, a high-end faucet company, invited designers and design bloggers to attend a Jason Wu fashion show. The partnership between Brizo and Wu is based on Brizo’s philosophy that “high-style can be achieved on the runway, in the home and all around.” In the event gift bags, the invitees were given a necklace, designed by Wu, inspired by Brizo’s Virage faucet set. Merrill, who participated in the event, predicts that the rich fuchsias and cobalts of Wu’s show as well as the pairing of tailored pieces with light, filmy fabrics will make their way into home décor. 

U.S. design also follows European trends. Generally, a style from abroad will take a year or two to migrate to the States. The Belgian industrial look, popular in Paris two years ago, has now hit the U.S. market at all levels, from luxury brands to Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.

Influences from commercial and hospitality design play a role too, often more so in larger cities. McGinness notes that carpet tile, which began as a commercial product, was a common sight in homes in Chicago, where she lived previously. Woodrum believes that many homeowners see new colors and innovations in commercial and public spaces, then file these ideas away for use in their own homes. Therefore, in many cases, commercial design is an indirect influence, filtered through the tastes and preferences of the homeowner. 

Chojnacki is deliberate in his approach to applying commercial design to residential projects. When visiting a new building, Chojnacki takes pictures of design elements that he likes. He recently spotted a commercial grade wall covering at the new Four Seasons in Beverly Hills that he plans to incorporate into a home project. Though commercial wall covering is more difficult to install and requires contractors who are experienced with its application, the covering produces a unique look for a home.  

However, when Chojnacki begins contemplating the design of a residence, he doesn’t start with the walls or the furniture, the tour de force design elements that you might expect. “The floor is the very first thing I start with,” he says. “The flooring sets the tone for the whole project.” Chojnacki goes as far as finishing the floor, to get a feel for the completed look, before specifying any additional interior finishes. He notes that all flooring design decisions should be made with regard to the lifestyle of the homeowners. He cautions designers to remember that, while a beautiful aesthetic is the goal, “someone has to live there after you’ve completed the project, and a floor that doesn’t wear well is a bad reflection on the designer.” 

Merrill concurs with Chojnacki’s advice about considering the client’s lifestyle first and foremost, and advises that designers ask themselves, “Is the floor going to be comfortable? Does it feel like it belongs in the home?” Merrill also encourages designers and homeowners to invest in the right piece. Her guide? The more expensive the element or piece, the less trendy it should be. “Think about whether you can live with it for 20 years,” she says. 

Woodrum encourages homeowners to go with the best that they can afford for large home purchases. In addition, she notes that homeowners should take flooring samples into their homes, place the samples where they will be used, and look at them in the light of the home. “Be honest about the way you live. Don’t be impulsive,” she cautions.

Though LEED certification and sustainability have made significant inroads in commercial building, the majority of homeowners aren’t yet demanding green products on a regular basis. Some homeowners, rightly or wrongly, believe that green products are of inferior quality, and others are simply unwilling to foot the higher cost of green products, especially in the current recession. Additionally, Chojnacki believes that homeowners have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea of what is truly green, since the concept is oversold to the point of meaninglessness. However, Chojnacki, father of two college kids, feels that it will be important for designers to be educated about green options moving forward, as the generation in their teens and twenties is highly concerned with sustainability. 

Woodrum believes that homeowners are most willing to invest in green products that yield some type of secondary benefit. If a solar panel array offsets 11 months’ worth of electric bills, its value is obvious and financially justified. As water conservation is important in Los Angeles—an area experiencing drought—homeowners in that region are more willing to spend money on low flow plumbing options where they will see a return on their investment. And, for those with allergies or asthma, green home products that reduce or eliminate off-gassing add a significant health benefit for which some are willing to shell out extra dollars. Woodrum notes that, due to the use of green products, there is no new home smell in the HGTV Green Homes that she designs; the new home smell is an off-gassing odor that may cause difficulty for those with respiratory problems.  

While there may be no single recession design style, it’s evident that designers and homeowners are reacting to the current state of affairs in their own ways—by using color to cheer, white to calm or hardwood to warm, for example. What designers do have in common is their belief that recession design should be smart. Big purchases, like flooring, should be of classic style and good quality. And while designers will always be looking for the next hot color, cool pattern and cutting-edge finish, the new reality may ensure that these are relegated to less expensive items like accent pillows and area rugs—value pieces that can be replaced, easily and guiltlessly, when the tide of trends turns. 

Copyright 2010 Floor Focus 

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