Home Style

There are many of us who read decorator magazines or design columns and find ourselves overwhelmed with the idea of doing it ourselves. We flip through countless pages of brilliantly staged photography and think that everyone else's home looks better than ours, or perhaps we decide this has to be a "dream" kitchen or "dream" house, and that no one really lives like that. You may even be wondering what you're doing wrong because your rooms don't resemble those.

First, you're doing nothing wrong. Many (dare I say most of us) live in houses that do not look like magazine spreads. The rooms you see on those glossy pages are artfully, carefully staged to look and, more importantly, photograph in a particular way.

When magazine editors scout out homes to photograph, they are not looking for perfection - they'll create the perfection; they just need good "basic bone structure". It's much like supermodels in a way. Supermodels (they say) don't get up looking fabulous. They go to work clean and dressed like you or me. Then, by the magic of artfully applied makeup (by professionals who do this for a living), hair dressing (by professionals who do that for a living), designer clothes (and wouldn't we all look better in them?), and suddenly they're stunning.

When there is a professional photography shoot, be it homes or supermodels, there's a lighting director who meticulously creates just the right amount and location of light. Add to that at least one highly paid photographer and an entourage of production assistants who set up a carefully controlled environment. Adding fans for wind, and carefully selected props they create a predetermined "look". The photographer or his assistant then takes test shots (on Polaroid film) to see what's right and what's not. Adjustments are made and items are moved one direction or another until everything is, as they say, picture perfect! What may take only a few hours to photograph may take days or even weeks to prepare and perfect.

From my old days in the advertising business, I learned that food shoots are even more meticulous, often using non-eatable items like shaving cream in place of whipping cream. It may sound conjured up, and it is; it's all about how it looks! That is staging.

In the March/April 1999 issue of Coastal Living, the cover story featured a house in Maine that was made to look like a coastal home in the Carolinas. It was the beach house used for the filming of Message in a Bottle. The article accompanying the cover shot described how the house was "brought to life" by props, lighting and accessories -- by design. The artifacts used to decorate the house encompassed "things" that the woman of the house loved -- her canvases, paints, easels -- everything was authentically staged right down to the gooey looking brushes sticking out of a cup on her art table. That's staging.

By the same token, the rustic nature of the house, its beachfront location, the nautical props, leather overstuffed chairs and wooden floors spoke volumes about the man of the house; in this case Kevin Costner. When you saw the house and viewed its rooms, you were to feel that you knew the characters who occupied that space.

Model homes, which I constantly urge you to visit for decorating ideas, are another classic example of staging. The house is meticulously groomed, decorated, and filled with everything a family would need to live. With the exception of food and clothing, the house is ready! Everything is color coordinated, decorated and accessorized -- a dream house, perhaps.

But, if you were to look beneath the surface of that dream house, you might be surprised.

Flowing fabrics hanging from huge windows look regal and majestic to the eye. What you don't see is that the flowing fabric has been hot glued, stapled or duct taped to a cornice board that is mounted on the wall with simple metal "L" brackets. The cornice board might be fashioned out of anything from cardboard to foam core.

The drama is there, and the illusion is there as well. More staging! So ok, we all get it, but how can it benefit us?

Staging can be a real lifesaver for those of us who don't live in the perfect environment. I'll go back to the drapery example from above. To have a beautiful window treatment -- one that looks like a designer did it -- try using ordinary things rather than expensive rods and hardware. Closet dowel rods available from any home improvement store make wonderful curtain rods. They can be stained, painted, or covered with a simple fabric sleeve. PVC pipe (cheap, easy to cut, sturdy but lightweight) comes in many diameters and again, can be covered with paint or fabric. "L" brackets work as hardware, supporting wood rods, PVC pipe and cornice boards. Want a finishing touch? You can create a finial from almost anything including a tennis ball covered in fabric and shoved into the end of the PVC pipe.

Get off of what it is. No one has to know you used PVC pipe to hang your curtains. It's not what it is as much as what it does -- and how it looks! That's the art of staging. And besides, if someone comes to my house and snoops to see how my curtains are supported, they don't need to be in my house!

Staging is but one trick of the trade, but it's a good one to know about when you want your home to look nicer and you have little time and less money to do anything about it.

Even though a lot of people think I'm emulating Martha Stewart, I'm in essence closer akin to Erma Bombeck! With all due respect to both ladies, there is a milder, kinder, gentler, happier medium between weaving your own fabric at the loom and having everything custom made and professionally installed.

Now that would be a dream home, wouldn't it?