Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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,
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,
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,
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,
Rutgers Landscape & Nursery, Ringoes, 800-422-6008, www.rutgersln.com
Silvere Boureau Murals & Fine Painted Finishes, Yardley, PA,
Sweet Willow Home Furnishings & Design, Doylestown, PA, 215-489-2810
Tuscan Hills, Princeton, 609-921-9015
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.