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He Teaches How to Decorate the Imperfect Way

Design: Christopher Lowell's TV show aims to help women overcome fear of perfection. His boutiques will simplify the do-it-yourself concept with one-stop shopping.

February 21, 2001|KAROL V. MENZIE | BALTIMORE SUN

BALTIMORE — Christopher Lowell, TV decorating maven, is a sort of slim Dom DeLuise type with a style that one dubious fan called "spontaneous combustion."

What has fans shrieking in adulation is Lowell's you-can-do-it-let's-go-team attitude and his ability to shed light on a subject that the high priests of design often prefer to keep shrouded in brocade and jargon. What has them chasing after his autograph is a new arrangement with Burlington stores that will place Christopher Lowell shops inside the stores, where customers can get advice and find, in one well-thought-out spot, all of the Lowell line of housewares (mostly bed and bath, so far, but expanding).

When Lowell, now in his mid-40s, was preparing to do the TV show, much of his research focused on how women's roles had changed at the end of the century, and "how the family dynamic works," he says. "I was watching these how-to shows, and I didn't get it. Here's Martha Stewart showing you how to live in the Hamptons. . . . There was something missing." He kept that in mind when developing this own show, originally called "Interior Motives," and now "The Christopher Lowell Show." (It appears on the Discovery Channel twice a week.)

People are indeed hungry for information on how to make their homes their havens, but examples of perfection scare them away from trying, he says. Plus, he found that women had a problem with self-esteem: They didn't believe they had the skills to redo their home. "I tell people, if you can put your makeup on properly, you're overqualified to faux finish."

But mostly, they also didn't have time to try to round up a look by visiting a bed and bath store, a home improvement store, a department store and a paint store, says Lowell, in whose home base of Los Angeles such a search could take months, if not years.

Thus the concept of "boutiques." If someone likes a bath towel, he or she can carry it a few feet to bed linens or paint and see what matches. "It's the type of cross-merchandising that women want these days," Lowell says. "We're trying to offer stuff you love but can't afford at a price you can afford."

If hitting $1 million in sales of bed and bath products in the first three weeks on the market is any gauge, Lowell is dead right. "The system seems to be working well," he says.

His new book, "Christopher Lowell's Seven Layers of Design: Fearless, Fabulous Decorating" (Discovery Books, $29.95), describes the layers (paint and architecture; installed flooring; upholstered furniture; accent fabrics; non-upholstered furniture; accessories; and plants and lighting) and offers further clarification on topics such as how to choose a room color and how to turn large flowerpots and a glass top into a bedside table.

"Your home is a road map for where you are mentally," Lowell says. His advice "helps people redefine their spaces."

Color, in fact, is the subject about which he gets the most questions, Lowell says. "What color should I paint this, what color should I paint that? Once they understand that all of our colors are the same color value--that they're designed to be background colors and that no two will clash with each other--we've taken the mystery out of it."

The image of daytime TV conveys messages of both fun and angst. Although Lowell's conversation is studded with references to Martha Stewart, the undisputed queen of lifestyle marketing, the image that comes most readily to mind with Lowell is of another TV personality, Oprah Winfrey.

In fact, Lowell, who came to interior decorating through a circuitous path involving concert piano, sculpture, theater sets and special effects, sees himself as a cross between the voice of reason and the listener in the confessional. He wants to help people with their inner as well as their outer spaces, drawing on what he calls a "deep motivational, spiritual base."

He's so sure he's homed in on the heartbeat of American womanhood that he's just completed the pilot for a talk show that will deal--shades of Winfrey--with women's issues such as self-esteem and self-confidence, even if it just means rearranging the items on your mantel.

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