Design of the times

Interior designers bring skilled eyes to home decor

Marci Goulart

Marci Goulart

Photo By Tom Angel

Doug, Genevieve and Hildi make it look so easy on Trading Spaces. Just scrounge up some furniture, take a chance with fun fabrics, learn phrases like “bring the outdoors in,” and you’ve got it: a cleverly designed room.

But a few thousand dollars and spousal arguments later, you may find it’s not so simple after all. That’s because designers—whether on TV or in real life—really do know what they’re doing.

To say “interior designer” usually implies that the person has a bachelor’s degree in the trade and is likely a member of the American Society of Interior Design (ASID). An interior designer can read blueprints, understand construction and electrical plans and knows the technical reasons why certain things just plain “look good.”

Marci Goulart designed the great room and kitchen in this Chico home, whose owner asked not to be named. With a sisal-like carpet and Asian touches, she’s created a look of casual elegance.

Photo By Tom Angel

Sue Haase, who taught interior design at Chico State University for eight years and opened her large showroom at 375 East Park Ave. in 1996, has a master’s degree in interior design and lighting.

But she said there’s one trade secret that has nothing to do with color or scale. “Listening is the biggest skill you need for interior design.”

“When people come to us, they want things to be not just aesthetically pleasing, but also functional and suiting their family’s needs,” said Karen Zinniel, of LHP Interiors, who works out of a cozy office built behind her home in a classic Chico neighborhood. Zinniel, a 1983 Chico State interior design school graduate, is also known for her commercial work: assisted-living facilities, model homes and the like. A decade ago, she did the décor for La Hacienda restaurant.

In the kitchen, the ceiling was lowered and fluorescent bulbs were replaced with recessed lighting and lights suspended from the skylight.

Photo By Tom Angel

Marci Goulart, a Chico State interior design school graduate who in January was appointed to the city’s Architectural Review Board, has been practicing her craft for 16 years. She recently redesigned the outside of the building where her business is located among others at 180 East Ninth Ave.

Goulart loves the challenge and freedom of designing from the ground up—sometimes before a home is even completed. “I ask the customer a lot of questions and get to know their lifestyle and how they will use the home,” she said. That way, she can identify issues early on, even “something as simple as changing the swinging of a door.”

She asks new clients to gather examples of designs they like from magazines and such, but any décor junkie probably has a stack of clippings already.

Photo By Tom Angel

Don’t be afraid your designer is going to steamroller her ideas all over your house. “A myth is that we’re going to come in and tell them it’s all going; we’re going to start over,” Goulart said.

Zinniel said, “To be in the design business you have to love people, and different types of people.” She can often gauge what type of room a person would like “by how they’re dressed and by going into their homes. That’s where your psychology classes come in handy.”

The designers also bring skill, training and intuition to the table. After all, that’s what you’re paying for.

Sue Haase

Photo By Tom Angel

Professionally trained designers in Chico typically charge in the range of $80 to $90 an hour—a “consulting fee” that applies while meeting with clients but usually not when purchasing goods or dealing with suppliers.

Sometimes, homeowners are pretty sure what they want to do but want to make sure they’re on the right track before they start writing the big checks for furniture and appliances.

“A lot of times, I come in to validate what they want to do,” Haase said. “Most people know what they like and need someone to come and in say, ‘That’s a great idea.’”

Sue Haase took cues from room size and shape when designing for a couple who asked not to be named. The formal living room is long and narrow, so they created a space for the piano as well as a sitting area, “so it would be intimate for a small number of people.”

Photo By Tom Angel

Others do one room at a time to keep costs bearable.

“Some of the most creative things I’ve done have been on a real budget,” said Haase, who’s as likely to suggest a chair that costs $600 as she is a similarly constructed one with a price tag of $1,900. And new knobs on your kitchen cabinets can set you back as little as $1 apiece to as much as $35. It’s all up to the homeowner.

And, all of the designers we talked to were quick to point out, the most dynamic change you can make to a room is also one of the cheapest: paint it.

In the larger room off the kitchen, a family room was put together that takes advantage of the open feel.

Photo By Tom Angel

The flood of home decorating shows on television have been a mostly positive trend, local designers agreed.

The programs can give homeowners a false confidence that they can do it themselves, but more often they bring attention and appreciation to the skills designers have.

But those shows are a little misleading. For one thing, there’s a lot that goes on that isn’t factored into the budget. And, unlike the designers on Trading Spaces, yours probably isn’t going to break out the hammer and nails and start building stuff and installing floors herself. They recommend experts for that.

Karen Zinniel

Photo By Tom Angel

Thanks to the Internet and even the big-box stores, with their easy access but limited selection, “Today’s consumer is so much more educated before they even come into the store,” Haase said. “They know a lot about what they want and what they don’t want.”

A fear of any homeowner who’s plunking down thousands of dollars for new furniture, accessories and consulting fees is that sooner or later the room is going to look dated. No one wants to look back at their pricey granite countertop or slate floor and think, “That’s so 2005.”

“Anytime something becomes a ‘must have’ it will look dated,” Goulart said. “Everyone got ‘mauved’ in the ‘80s.” But she added that today interior design is in a trend toward the timeless. Natural materials such as bamboo are less likely to look dated years from now. A sure sign something has become too trendy is when it hits the big-box stores—like that Asian-influenced line at Target. “That’s when you know it’s going out,” Goulart said.

Karen Zinniel designed this common room at the new Sterling Oaks apartment complex on Bruce Road. Zinniel said there’s a movement toward designing spaces that honor families, whether it’s a cozy media room, kitchen nook or fun kid’s room. “That’s a positive trend,” she said. She’s also noticed a renewed interest in wall coverings and molding. “It finishes off a room. It adds some sophistication to it.”

Photo By Tom Angel

So, what if you have your heart set on a gaudy display that makes your interior designer cringe? Most will tactfully steer your toward something classier.

“I just tell people my honest opinion,” said Haase, who added that the most common mistakes are those of scale: trying to cram a beautiful but too-big sofa into a small room, for example.

One element of her work Zinniel loves is what’s known on TV as the “reveal.” Sometimes, her client will be out of town and return to “a brand-new living space.”

While Zinniel has noticed trends toward Asian influence and what she calls “the Tommy Bahamas, tropical-plantation look,” Haase has recently found herself designing everything from “country farmhouse” to “Italian villa.” And bright colors are back in a big way, with home builders ditching the traditional Navajo white interiors for something more daring.

“I think we’re living in a great time because there is no one look,” Haase said.