There is a relatively old concept in the interior design business: Make a house a home, not the other way around.
Several designers are focusing on this objective because they say they find a lack of that lived-in feeling in Orange County homes.
"California seems somehow less permanent and more transient (than other areas)," says Barbara Dubbin, president of Perceptive Design in South Laguna, who has spent years designing in Italy and New York.
"When you purchase a co-op in the Big Apple, one might wait months for board approval. And it generally becomes a lifetime commitment. In Italy, a villa is passed down from generation to generation.
"But in Orange County, it seems like houses are almost a hobby. People buy, sell, trade and speculate. This seems to be the prime diversion for Californians just like shopping is to the New Yorker or Italian.
"Consequently, many houses are purchased with huge mortgages or highly leveraged financing," she continues. "And sadly, many of them never become homes because they are never completed on the interior. Their imposing facades yield nothing more than an empty shell on the inside.
"I think it's quite sad."
She says "sensitive, cost-conscious" interior designers should advise people to invest just a little more conservatively in a house--even if speculative--and not focus as much on how they might profit in a few years. "A family dream, after all, is fulfilled by creating a warm, intimate and stable atmosphere. A sense of permanency. A sense of roots.
"Children who grow up in houses with empty rooms, bare floors and barren walls have no concept of whether the home is 2,000 square feet or 10,000 square feet. They remember the furniture. The paintings. The comforts. This should be a very strong aim in design circles here in the county."
Abby Menhenett of Design Associates West in Laguna Beach, agrees. "I understand that people are sometimes hard-pressed for finances after purchasing or building a house, so many end up living in empty or near-empty shells because they didn't leave any money to personalize their living space.
"People think that it takes a huge effort and a lot of money to give your house a home personality, but there are ways of doing it. And you don't have to be a creative, interior-design genius to have your own handprint firmly in your home environment.
"Real homes are not perfect. A model home is perfect. And there is nothing wrong with a gorgeous model home--for a model home. Because the whole function of a model is to have absolutely no personality, so that every person walking into it can visualize themselves in it.
"But a home is about something different, about your own heart. This, after all, is where you live, so make it have your own fingerprints. When you walk into a room, you can immediately tell if the room is part of a home, or just a part of a house," she says. "Things like family photographs, personalized art and antiques (immediately catch) the eye."
Dorian Hunter of Hunter & Associates in Fullerton says space function is most critical when a designer attempts to create a "home" environment for clients.
"People don't need huge food preparation areas, and 1,000 square foot entryways to create a home," she says. "Just go into a well-designed studio apartment, and lots of times you get a feeling of home more strongly than you do in a big, oversized Big Canyon house."
She says once function has been decided upon, personal touches such as art, fabric and color create the personality of the interior.
Menhenett offers these suggestions in personalizing a home environment:
* Have a visual picture and plan of your living space.
"A lot of people know what they like, after they see it," she says. "But we suggest people do just what designers do--go through books and magazines and see what really appeals to you."
* Think of several words that describe what you'd like your home to be, such as "warm," "easy maintenance" and "comfortable."
"If someone gives me these 'descriptors' and then says, 'I saw this beautiful white silk couch, it's a little expensive, but it's gorgeous,' well, certainly this couch will ultimately be an intrusion on the homeyness of the house. It does not have much to do with the home's main personality."
* Make a list of what your home needs to provide: How long will you stay in the space? Will the family structure change as children come and go? How much house and maintenance work are you willing to do? What things do you have to work around (antiques, artwork, a favorite old chair)?
* Evaluate the property and architectural structure and see if it has a strong personality of its own.
"Surprisingly enough, a lot of people don't seem to take this into account," Menhenett says. "You'll see a very traditional, modern Californian house, and the clients want a highly traditional, 18th-Century interior. It could work, but part of having a home environment is to give it a coherence and personality structure. Too many incongruent styles tend to chop things up and create uncomfortable feelings.
"Comfortable feelings is what you are always after inside a real home."
Interior designers Abby Menhenett and Lisa Dunlevie of Design Associates West will host a free seminar on "How to Make Your House a Home" at 10:30 a.m. today at the historic St. Clair Building, 31709 Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Seating is limited and reservations are required. (714) 499-0522.