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Scripted Interiors

A home 'stager' uses screenwriting skills to fabricate private lives

August 06, 2000|DEBRA J. HOTALING

Finally, the home of your wildly successful IPO dreams: a Viking stove, wine cellar, two guest houses, gym, oceanfront view. And still, a nagging sense that something's missing. A good story, perhaps?

"People will walk into one of these large houses and say, 'I don't know how to live in this space,' " observes Meridith Baer. A former screenwriter, Baer now spends her days creating fiction for Southern California estates that are on the market. With a 10-person staff, she fills residences with all the props--from king-size beds to chicken soup simmering on the stove--to make them more appealing to home shoppers.

"We call it 'staging,' " says Baer, weaving her way among the workers hauling chandeliers, couches and antique rugs into today's set, an empty 10,000-square-foot French chateau--asking price, $5.95 million--on the Malibu bluffs. At the end of Baer's five-day run here, she'll add the finishing touches: in the kitchen, a slightly munched bagel; in the library, a wine glass with a drop of Cab lingering at the bottom.

"We create characters for each room of the house," she says. "Everything from clothes to reading materials. We make it look as though someone has just left the room to answer the phone." Which means Baer owns 50 pairs of slippers, 60 mattresses, 70 couches "and I don't know how much firewood."

"I picture a rather sophisticated couple living here," she says of the chateau's master suite. "They want to live at the beach but also want elegance--maybe they just moved here from the East Coast. He may be fascinated by Freud. Or cars." And the lady of the house? Well, judging from her apartment-sized closet, a transplanted New Yorker who likes fancy ball gowns (prom dresses from secondhand stores, says Baer), tasteful little handbags and trysts in lacy lingerie. As for the authentic curlers strewn over the powder-room counter, Baer whispers, "Those are mine."

She happened into this line of work 2 1/2 years ago when her Brentwood rental house was sold out from under her. While searching for a place to live, Baer asked a friend whether she could store her things--furniture, vintage rugs, 250 pots of roses--in an empty house he was selling. "I created a garden in its backyard using my pots and outdoor furniture," she recalls.

The house sold that same week. Suddenly, Baer's phone was ringing off the hook as brokers and developers vied for some of her Hollywood storytelling magic. And folks buy it--sometimes from soup to nuts. Recently a family not only bought the house, she says, "they bought everything--rugs, couches, tables. Even an antique croquet set."

Giving these residences an authentic lived-in look meant that, until recently, Baer literally moved into the homes she was decorating while they were on the market. Living like a millionaire gypsy may sound like fun, but Baer says she's relieved to be planting roses in her own new and relatively modest 1950s ranch-style home. "It's just more bedrooms," she says of the neighborhood-eating estates she decorates. "When I put my coffee down, it can take me an hour to find it. And by then," she shrugs, "it's cold."

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Meridith Baer's essential components for turning four walls and a SubZero into a cozy home:

* A crackling fire.

* A dog (preferably snoozing in front of crackling fire).

* Books.

* Slippers next to the bed.

* One flea-market-find vintage painting.

* Good lighting.

* A beautiful rug.

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