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Dressed for Success : Model Decorating Relies on Solid Market Research, Creativity and an Eye for the Perfect Accessory

November 12, 1989|SHERYL KORNMAN | Kornman is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

Their names are Chandon and Encantamar and they're fitted and painted and dressed to kill.

Their lives are short but their purpose is great. They are model homes, a home builder's most potent marketing tool in the competitive Southern California marketplace.

And the business--or art--of decorating model homes is just as fiercely competitive for the 50 or so interior design firms in the Southland who create these full-blown life-style fantasies within the confines of four walls.

Model-home dressing is an interior design specialty act. It's commissioned by the home builder, who expects the decorator to work with the architect and the landscaper to select the set of symbols for that market that will make the sale.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 10, 1989 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 4 Column 3 Real Estate Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Model dressing--In a Nov. 12 story on model home decorating, a picture caption incorrectly referred to designer Kari Kincaid as an assistant with the firm of Barbara Brenner & Associates. She is an associate with the interior design firm.

The keys to successful model dressing are solid market research, creative design and the careful selection of the perfect accessory--which is very likely to be stolen by a browser during the one- to three-year life span of the model.

With budgets ranging from $14.50 to $60 a square foot, with $22 to $35 the average, designers order from manufacturers and shop wholesalers and retailers for furnishings and accessories they hope will attract the largest number of potential buyers to a house.

Builders give designers three to six months, depending on how the construction crew is doing, to furnish and decorate the three to four homes set aside in each tract as models.

For most designers, the overriding goal is to make the home appear larger and more lavish than it is. The key is to use light colors everywhere, and as little window covering as possible.

And whether it's a grand opening or Phase 6, the designers face the same three-part challenge: They must attract a buyer, then help visitors distinguish one model from another, and most important, fix the image of the builder in the mind of the potential buyer.

Unforeseen problems can test a designer and force her or him to improvise.

When the deadline is close and the budget small, a wall covering in stock will take the place of the one that was preferred, and ready-made throw pillows will substitute for a handcrafted design that would be too much too late.

Toni Anderson of Toni Anderson & Associates Interior Design in Studio City recalls when she had three weeks to furnish three models at $14.75 a square foot (including her fee).

In three hours, she picked three housefuls of furniture off the floor at Cort Furniture Rental in Tarzana. There was no time to custom order from a wholesaler.

It was "the most exciting thing I've done," Anderson said, and she plans to do it again. The developer was happy with the job--she was on time and under budget--and using rental furniture gave her more to spend on accessories, such as an aquarium and a piano.

Never underestimate the value of accessories, Anderson said. They are the most important tools decorators have to show prospective buyers they "really belong in that home."

Designer Norman Colburt of Norman Colburt Interior Design in Los Angeles rejects the notion of using rented furnishings in a model home.

Colburt works on better-dressed models--detached homes and high-rise condominiums--on a budget of $30 to $35 a square foot for everything but flooring. "Not one piece of furniture (in my models) is from a showroom floor," he said. "It's all custom made."

The hunt for new ways to market new homes never ends, and Valencia Co.'s communications consultant Pat Willet thinks she's found one.

She decorated several model homes with live models just for fun for a VIP industry preview, but the models--who were actors--were such a hit that she asked them to do an encore for the public.

Valencia's marketing coordinator, Terry Taylor, booked them into the builder's Northbridge tract and told them to act just as if they lived there.

"Mark" welcomed visitors to his bachelor pad as he worked out in his den/exercise room while next door, "Greg" played with the children and his wife "Leigh" did her needlework. The actors talked to visitors about the homes, using the job as an acting exercise.

"The goal was to have prospective buyers enter the models and see themselves--almost literally--living there," Taylor said.

"It added a whole new dimension to the homes," said Nancy Hibma, vice president of residential marketing for Valencia Co. in Valencia.

Hiring live models might also help prevent theft, a recurring problem for decorators who must periodically freshen a project--replace stolen items and update others--depending on how long the models are on the market.

Towels, books, lamps, art objects, plates and small kitchen appliances--anything that can fit in a handbag--are stolen from the homes routinely, designers and builders say.

Decorators staple towels together so they can't be slipped off a rack and they fasten plates and place mats to the table, but compact disc players and pottery, even crayons in a child's room, continue to be taken by browsers.

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