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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the April 26, 2006 issue

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Hitting a Home Run Indoors and Out

`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.

Celebrity Chef Event, Saturday, May 20, 6 to 8 p.m. An evening of

cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the showhouse’s kitchen prepared by

Food & Wine columnist and frequent Today Show guest chef Grace Parisi,

author of "Get Saucy." $30 (does not include showhouse ticket).

Roster of Designers

Action Lawn & Landscape/ Ronni Hock Garden Design, Pennington,

609-737-8955, www.ronnisgarden.com

Amy Karyn Home Collection, Princeton, 609-945-0791

Bartlett Tree Experts, Lebanon, 908-735-6619, www.bartlett.com

Bruce Norman Long Interior Design, Princeton, 609-921-1401

Butterflies and Beyond, Hopewell, 609-466-4205

The Cottage Garden, 609-924-3446

Creative Finishes, Lawrenceville, 609-306-7485

Danielle Ann Millican, Inc., Florham Park, 973-360-0978

Deborah Leamann Interiors, Pennington, 609-737-3330,

www.deborahleamanninterior.com

Design Within Reach, Princeton, 609-921-0899, www.dwr.com

F.L. Crandall Interiors, Princeton, 732-821-2814

Florence Perchuk and Associates, New York, NY, 212-932-0441

Gina Bellando Photography, Elizabeth, NJ, 908-351-1423

Greenleaf Lawn & Landscape, Inc., Pennington, 609-737-9265

Gretchen Christie Interiors, Princeton, 609-924-5055

Judy King Interiors, Princeton, 609-279-0440

Katy’s Glamourous Gardens, Princeton, 908-431-0050

Kelly Ingram Finishes, Trenton, 609-462-2932

Linda Daly Interior Design, Ivyland, PA, 215-598-3345

Matteo & Company, Princeton, 609-430-1400

MHZ Designs, Inc., Cranbury, 609-655-5050

M.J. Harris Interiors, Hudson, NY, 717-646-0555

Moon Landscaping, Inc., Yardley, 215-968-5071,

www.moonlandscaping.com

Nassau Interiors, Princeton, 609-924-2561

NEST, Hopewell, 609-466-1515

Pedro Rodriguez, Bala Cynwyd, PA, 610-660-9611

Perennial Home, Hightstown, 609-448-8830

Peter Paul Interiors, New Hope, PA, 215-499-0999

Queripel Interiors, New Hope, PA, 215-862-5830

Robert Cannon Landscape, Architecture & Sculpture, Princeton,

609-924-1987

Rutgers Landscape & Nursery, Ringoes, 800-422-6008, www.rutgersln.com

Silvere Boureau Murals & Fine Painted Finishes, Yardley, PA,

215-295-8567

Sweet Willow Home Furnishings & Design, Doylestown, PA, 215-489-2810

Tuscan Hills, Princeton, 609-921-9015


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