‘People do not understand what showhouses are really about. They lose sight of the fact that it’s a fundraiser,” says Deborah Leamann, one of 34 interior and landscape designers from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, who have transformed 50 Hodge Road into the Junior League of Greater Princeton’s Designer Showhouse & Gardens XIV, on view through Sunday, May 21.
“The showhouse attracts a select audience, those who are interested in homes and maybe have a decorating project in mind. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the items are there to be purchased; there’s a price list in every designer’s room. What you have is a collection of designers who have searched the ends of the earth for fabulous things. Visitors are seeing the best of the best, the cream of the crop, and if they can take advantage of that, it’s fabulous for them, it’s great for the League, and it’s a good thing for the designer too.”
A portion of the proceeds goes to Junior League initiatives such as ROCKETS (Raising Our Children’s Knowledge by Educating Through Science), a theme-based literacy program designed to improve the math and science skills of preschool children, currently being taught in partnership with Trenton Head Start.
What many people also don’t realize is the extraordinary amount of work and expense it takes to create a room in a showhouse, which this year is a three-story 19th century Colonial Revival with a Georgian influence in Princeton’s exclusive Western section. Its owner, Marsha Lewis, the founder of the Lewis School in Princeton, is just the fourth owner of the house since it was built in 1898. The house boasts 10-foot ceilings, Palladian windows and dormers, six bedrooms, four and a half baths, and seven working fireplaces. Designers, who must be invited to participate in the showhouse, are given the opportunity to “bid” on three rooms of their choosing in the house (this year’s showhouse includes eight exterior design spaces). They must draw up detailed plans for each, and the League then chooses which designer will design each space.
Designers must absorb all the expense for materials and labor for completing their room. Leamann, for example, has spent upwards of $30,000 for past designer showhouses, which she has participated in since 1993, but she says it’s worth it. “It’s a great way to find a designer. And it’s great for the designers. I have gotten a lot of clients from showhouses. The phone starts ringing, the kudos, the comments. It even travels a little bit further, to national publicity,” says Leamann, whose Edwardian sitting room from the 2001 Greater Princeton Junior League Showhouse was just published in “Designer Showcase: Interior Design at Its Best,” by Melissa Cardona and Nathaniel Wolfgang-Price” (Schiffer, 2006).
Leamann has taken on arguably the most difficult room in this year’s showhouse, and not because of its size — it’s a mere 12 by 16 feet, just off the kitchen. Says Leamann, in an interview in her cottage-perfect studio on Main Street in Pennington: “This room is unusual from the standpoint that it is a very multi-functional room — it is a hallway, an entrance to the laundry area, an entryway to the kitchen, an entryway into the pantry, and an exit door to the side porch. There’s a lot happening in this room, a lot of movement, a lot of crisscrossing.” Sounds more like the board game Clue than a designer’s dream room. But Leamann, who has been in the business more than 30 years, was undaunted.
“Tucked away in a corner was this little charming copper sink set into a wood frame, which was the focal point of the room. Per the homeowner’s request, it would remain. It was a place to water plants; thus I named it the Garden Room. When I first walked into the room, all that was there was a ton of plants, some trees, and one round table.” But, she adds: “It gets good light.”
The process Leamann went through to develop a design for the room reveals some important lessons for anyone interested in redoing a room in their house. Leamann admits she had some false starts with this design. She began, as with every design, with a drawing called a floor plan with a four-wall elevation, in quarter-inch scale, which looks like a box opened flat; the bottom of the box is the floor and the flaps are walls. She points to the drawing, full of intricate detail — chairs, window treatments, carpet.
But it didn’t start out that way. It was literally just the outline of the space, a floor, ceiling and four walls. “So all this is bare and I’m sitting there, and I say, yikes, what do you do in this room? We thought, oh we’ll put a chaise in the corner and it’ll be a parlor, and then I thought, who the hell is gonna sit there and read? It would just clog up traffic. I had to consider the traffic plan and nixed the initial idea. This was the biggest factor to get over — it is a traffic area. How do you make a charming quaint space in essentially a hallway?”
Leamann did what many of us need to do to make an important decision. Get away from the office and get some fresh air. Leamann took home the blank paper and on a Saturday afternoon settled onto a chair on the porch of her home in West Trenton, a 100-year-old cottage with a 1914 two-story addition, where she lives with her husband, Jeff Gordon, a jazz pianist, and their daughter, Arielle, 23.
The porch — a “TB porch,” which Leamann says many houses had at the turn of the century, for people recuperating from tuberculosis — looks out on three and a half acres on the Delaware Canal. “I have deer and wild turkeys and lots of old trees. It’s my favorite spot in the whole house, it is very inspiring. I tend to go out there and work a lot. I looked and looked at the drawing, and then I started to draw, asking myself, what can I do to make this really work, to make the best use of the space?
“The vehicle for decorating this room needs to be wallpaper because the majority of the design space is wall space; there’s very little decoration we can do as far as furnishings and other components because it’s a teeny tiny space, the walls are the biggest part of the palette. That became a springboard to the balance of the color scheme. All of sudden I knew I needed an umbrella stand, I knew I needed a mirror. I got the idea for a built-in banquette, which is great when space is tight.” And it went from there.
The wallpaper, chosen as carefully as one might an original painting, is Kininvie in “Leaf on White” by Brunschwig and Fils, which Leamann calls “very tender and sweet. I think people will come in the room and say, ‘Oh, I want to come home to this.’ I’m really about beautiful interiors. That’s my signature. I like to be fresh about it though. I like symmetry and balance; it really gives people a sense of comfort. Why come home to ‘Ugh, yuk.’
“There’s not really an eat-in kitchen in the house, so I’m making this room the best of all worlds; because it is an old home, the kitchens were not a focal point to live in like they are in modern housing today. This room is right off of the kitchen so hence my thinking behind having a table and chairs. I imagined it as a room where you might have a bite to eat or a friend over for coffee, and you could have your laptop for checking your E-mail or planning your garden. I was thinking about putting a little flat screen TV, but was worried it might look ugly, but I’d love to have a laptop in there.
“You could have all your garden books and magazines there, you could do all your research and planning there. I have a goal of marrying beautiful things and technology, as in, ‘hey, this is a beautiful space to be in but hey we can also work on our computer at the same time,’ the wireless life. If a family lived there, I imagine it as a little getaway, and because it has a side entrance, I also want the room to make people say, ‘I’m happy to be home.’”
The palette is a delicious marriage of creamy yellows and garden greens. “I’ve taken a dowdy, nobody cares about me space and said, let’s get this room up and running.” The wallpaper and fabrics are Brunschwig & Fils, the wool floor covering is Patterson, Flynn, and Martin, and the bamboo chandelier is Chelsea House.
Leamann has also mixed in some antiques. She shows me an antique bamboo plant holder with antique clay pots. “I’ll put ferns in that,” she says. She has picked out a 19th century solid bronze borderline Victorian/Art Nouveau umbrella stand to hold old canes and umbrellas. “We’ll have some antique porcelain pieces hanging on the wall. And then a Regency style chest that is being custom refinished to work with this room. We also updated the lighting.”
Leamann approaches her designer showhouse rooms as a marketing tool. “It’s the largest (marketing) expense that a designer will take on. Here you are planning on spending a whole lot of money that is going towards a charity, so you look to your vendors whom you’re very loyal and faithful to, and many of them will give you a discounted product or volunteer their time and services, which is a beautiful thing. My painter, Kelly Painting in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, is doing the trim, and didn’t charge me anything. Companies like Brunschwig and Fils are happy to give you a discounted product but they ask that you only use that one brand in the room.”
The behind-the-scenes cast of vendors who donated their services includes decorative painter Kelly Ingram, based in Trenton, who is doing the finishing on the chest and curtain poles; Gordon Mitchell from Mitchell Woodworking in Trenton, who built the banquette and breakfast table; Nassau Electric for wiring; Karen Graves of Plant Profiles in Skillman, who provided all the plants; Adrienne Presti of Dahlia’s Floral Concepts in Pennington, who donated all the fresh cut flowers, and Jeff Zepp of Zepp’s Paper Hanging.
Leamann says she spent about $15,000 on this year’s room, about half of what she has spent for larger rooms in previous showhouses. “In the past it would be grueling. Now I’m established. This year I’m much more relaxed, I’m just going to have fun and do what I do. I think I do it very well, and I think it will be a great success.” In fact Leamann is much more focused on the upcoming opening of DL Interiors II, at 99 South Main Street in Lambertville, which will offer furnishings to the residential luxury home market.
Leamann’s distinctive eye for design and indefatigable resourcefulness were nurtured from a very young age. She grew up in Hamilton “in a suburban three-bedroom ranch like everyone else in 1952,” Leamann says. Her father, now retired in Florida, was in management for General Motors and her mom, who died in 1988, worked off and on. “They weren’t country club goers, the main focus for both of them was the house. My parents really took it on as a labor of love. They were the first owners. They added on, they had an architect, and they worked with an interior designer. We had a complete rec room in the basement. In the addition they put on, they added a fireplace. My mother had Peki cypress sent up from Florida and my father paneled the room with it, and he made his own whitewash finish for it.”
Not surprisingly Leamann’s was the house everyone wanted to come to. “We had a swimming pool, the rec room had a sleepover area and bunkbeds. We had great parties. I grew up going into model homes and lighting stores because my parents searched the ends of the earth for the most special thing. My parents also talked about moving many times but never did. Housing and homes were always a premier part of our lives. In retrospect I have called my father and thanked him for giving me a beautiful environment to grow up in.”
Despite being steeped in design from her childhood Leamann initially chose a different career path. For a short time she was a communications and theater arts major at Trenton State, and was slated to study at the University of Madrid, but the trip fell apart. She studied French and Spanish, thinking she might become a translator and work at the United Nations.
But interior design was tugging at her heels all along. After floundering a bit Leamann says she remembered the after-school job she had at a furniture store when she was 15 and attending Hamilton High East (where she graduated in 1973, just a year or two behind Supreme Court Justice Alito). “I used to ride my bike there. I did all the odd jobs, running errands, dusting furniture. So I thought maybe I’d try interior design.”
In 1974 she approached the family that owned the furniture store to get some practical experience while she commuted to the New York School of Interior Design, which was then at East 57th Street. “We would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was a life-changing experience,” says Leamann. “My mother didn’t want me to go. She’s from Durham, North Carolina, and was a bit of a country girl. She thought if I went to New York, I’d get mugged and terrible things would happen to me.” She earned a two-year certification in 1976.
Serendipity has been a close companion in her professional life. “One day I met a man on the train coming home from New York, and he said, ‘I like you, kid. I’m going to set you up with a job.’” She became the assistant for the design director of a large furniture chain in south Jersey that had just opened a design center. But the economy was difficult at that time, and Leamann was laid off after a few years. After taking a little bit of time off, she interviewed at Park Lane Furniture on alternate Route 1, which had very high-end things, she says. “It was the store that my parents had worked with — I ended up working with the designer my parents had worked with.” Stints at a manufacturer of home accessories in north Jersey and at Nassau Interiors in Princeton followed.
Leamann says her real turning point came when her mother died. “About a year went by, and I said I really want to do my own thing. I said this is it, I gave my notice.” She initially set up shop at home, then moved to Pennington Professional Center. In 1991 the studio in Pennington became available and she’s been there ever since.
She notes there is a distinct difference between designing a room for a showhouse and a room for a client. “When I work with a client, we meet and see if we have commonalities and a comfort level in our communication abilities. I see what their ideas are and if they jive with my ideas and understanding of what the job’s all about. Then we document the job site with photographs and measurements. We look at the shell — a blank space, a box with four walls and a ceiling — and put it all on paper.”
Then the real work begins. “Then you pull from your skills and your background and your talent to put together a finished product. It’s not all that different from a dress designer or a fashion designer — only their blank slate is a mannequin,” Leamann says.
“Architecture is definitely a driving factor. I think that there should be a marriage between an exterior and an interior. What is the house asking for? I listen to the house and listen to the homeowner and then find that road to go down.”
Even if you’re not in a position to use the services of an interior designer Leamann has some tips for people before they go visit the showhouse. “Go around and take pictures of your house, and then take a look at them, honestly look at them. Are there wires draped across or things out of order or pictures tipped over and crooked on the wall? Are things looking a little dingy or is the pillow all lumpy and worn out? If you’ve ever had someone take a picture of you and you say, ‘Oh, my hair looks terrible’ or ‘If only I’d put lipstick on’ or ‘I really need to lose weight’ or ‘I hate that picture of me.’ It’s the same thing when you take pictures of your house and then do a little study of them. See where areas look bare or blank.
“A picture is worth a thousand words. When people take a look at the pictures I think it helps them analyze their spaces a little bit better. I always document things with photographs and we do a study for our clients. If people are trying to do something on their own, that’s a wonderful tool for them.
“Also I tell people to tear out magazine pages of things that inspire them. You’ll hear designer after designer after designer say that.” Leamann herself subscribes to dozens of magazines. “I’m reading a lot of designers from other parts of the country. Then I try to extrapolate components of that region (into my work). I read Coastal Living, two magazines from Florida, Architectural Digest, Traditional Home, Country Living. Veranda and Southern Accents are my favorites.” Leamann also finds inspiration in travel and museum-hopping. She has traveled to France, where she has soaked up the treasures of the Louvre and also loves the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Although Leamann clearly doesn’t subscribe to the “look don’t touch school” of decorating, some things never change. “My mother always kept these nice tea towels on a towel ring between the sink and range area, and we were never allowed to use them. As a teenager I always said to her, ‘Mom, this is silly.’ Guess what? Now I have the most beautiful towel collection, with linen towels and beautiful hand-painted towels from Italy. They’re part of the decoration — and no one’s allowed to touch them.”
Junior League of Greater Princeton Designer Showhouse & Gardens XIV, through May 21, 50 Hodge Road. Open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Fridays 10 a.m to 8 p.m., and Sundays noon to 5 p.m. The house will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. $20 in advance; $25 at the door; $20 senior citizens. For tickets visit www.jlgp.org. Tickets ordered online will be charged a $1.50 handling fee.
Lunch with fashion designer Dana Buchman, fashion show with New York models, lecture and booksigning, Tuesday, May 2, noon to 3 p.m. Buchman will discuss her new book, “A Special Education: One Family’ Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities.” $35 (does not include showhouse ticket).
New member information session, Wednesday, May 3, 7 p.m. Light refreshments in “The Veranda Cafe.” Free.
Cinco de Mayo Grilling Event, Friday, May 5, 6 to 8 p.m. A fun-filled evening of grilled food and margaritas, served on the patio. $30 (does not include showhouse ticket). Rain or shine.
Hodgetini Happy Hour, Friday, May 12, 6 to 8 p.m. Sample the Hodgetini and appetizers on the patio. $30 (does not include showhouse ticket.) Rain or shine.
A Mad Hatter’s Mother Day Tea, Sunday, May 14, two seatings at 12:30 to 2 p.m. and 3 to 4:30 p.m. Traditional tea sandwiches, scones, and sweets served in “The Veranda Cafe.” $30 (does not include showhouse ticket). Rain or shine.