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SPECIAL ISSUE: SPRING HOME & GARDEN GUIDE : Inside Jobs : Interior Design Firms Finally Come of Age in Orange County

March 05, 1989|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

Lorna and Howard Hitchcock wanted a change. Their Fullerton home was dated, and they were looking for a new place at the beach. After months of house-hunting, they gave up, realizing they would never find the perfect property--one that needed no work and approximated their nearly 1-acre yard. But they still weren't happy with a home that hadn't been redecorated in nearly two decades.

Then there was the Corona del Mar couple with the antique-filled, 5-story, ocean-view house. They had built it themselves and lived there for more than a decade. As traffic in Orange County worsened during that time, they found themselves entertaining more at home instead of going out. And the house needed a face lift.

And there was the young professional woman with a new condominium in the northern part of the county whose friend had arranged the bargain of the century: several thousand dollars worth of pricey floral fabric for a fraction of the regular price. The cloth became drapes, and the drapes took over the room.

Three families, three problems, one solution: They all hired a designer and will soon be living tastefully ever after.

It is probably a good thing that these calamities didn't strike sooner. While the Orange County interior design field is considered fully matured today, it was still suffering through adolescence as recently as 5 years ago, local design experts say.

"Four to 5 years ago, there was nothing here," said Scott L. Brown, who operates J.S. Brown Design in Corona del Mar with his mother, June D. Brown. "We had to travel to Los Angeles, Dallas, New York for furniture, fabrics, antiques and art."

While it still sometimes pays to travel to the far reaches to find that perfect accessory, most interior designers say there really is little reason to leave the confines of the county. Today, nearly everything a designer could desire is here.

The credit for the county's swift design growth goes in part to Design Center South, a 240,000-square-foot complex in Laguna Niguel. The 4-year-old design center houses 70 showrooms, which include such large fabric lines as Brunschwig, Et Fils, Stroheim and Schumacher.

It is home to furniture from around the world, carpeting and rug showrooms and lighting displays. Designers can also get antiques and accessories at the center, which does not sell to the general public. And an 80,000-square-foot addition is in the works. Local designers can also find supplies at the South Coast Design Center in Costa Mesa, which has 22 showrooms.

"I would definitely say that there's no need to go to Los Angeles anymore," said designer Abby Menhenett, also of Corona del Mar. Whatever is available there can be found here, she said.

Including clients. Orange County's rapid growth and enduring affluence--the 1988 median family income was $45,000, well above the national figure of $29,000--has swelled the ranks of interior designers. In the early 1960s, there were only a few here; today, the county boasts more than 300 members of the American Society of Interior Designers.

(ASID membership is a safeguard for consumers because it means the designer has passed an examination and served a 5-year apprenticeship.)

Orange County clients range from young, first-time condominium owners with very fixed budgets all the way to the wealthy. Menhenett said she considers them "real sophisticated": well-traveled, well-educated, well-informed.

"They definitely want quality," she said of her customers. "They're defining their own sense of what their nest should look like."

Not surprisingly, designers contend that residents can't do it alone, and that everyone needs their services. To a certain extent, they are right.

Dorian Hunter, a designer who has practiced in Fullerton for nearly 30 years, saw evidence of this need as recently as 3 weeks ago--it was Hunter who got the call of the colorful curtains.

The floral drapes in question might have been a bargain, Hunter said, but they quickly turned into a quandary for their owner. Until the young client was left with yards and yards of powerful pattern dominating her small space, she hadn't really thought about whether she was even fond of flowers.

What is she going to do? Hunter is working on that problem now. What she should have done was call for help first and decide to buy later, Hunter said. The designer compares her work to that of the accountant who fills out your tax forms: The accountant knows the rules and how to solve the problems; so does the designer.

And that saves customers money and time. For while designers' fees here range from $50 to $100 per hour--above and beyond furniture and supplies--one of their main tasks is to keep clients from making costly errors.

"People just starting out need a direction and a plan," Brown said. "They can take a 5- or 10-year plan and put it into effect as they are able to afford it. And people who are filthy rich need someone to curb their spending habits" so they don't over-decorate.

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