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SPECIAL ISSUE: THE AGE OF AFFORDABLE | DECORATING

Maybe a tweak is all you need

November 10, 2005|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

THE newest trend in redecorating is not to.

Instead of calling an interior designer for new things and a new look in your home, call in a quick-fixer to use what's already there. It's the low-cost alternative to high-price interior designers, whose bright ideas -- and pricey purchases -- may be out of financial range.

This option may not appeal to people who think they hate what they have. But if they bought it in the first place, maybe they really like it. Maybe all they need is someone like Tara Riceberg, to walk around their house like a medium, and "see" things they can't.

Riceberg is one of the new breed of "instant decorators" who aim to transform your environment without spending big bucks (maybe no bucks at all) -- by switching, mingling, rearranging -- even scavenging in closets for things you thought you'd never use, but which they may find enormously useful.

Some are one-day decorators who operate long distance. You send a photo of a room that's in trouble; they tell you by phone or e-mail how to set it right. These are the least expensive services around.

For a fee of $125 per room, for example, New York-based Dial-a-Decorator (owned by Barbara Landsman) counsels on how to enhance your space based on your photos and a description of your taste and needs. At Redecorate.com, a nationwide service, you can sign up for a visit by a local designer, who'll suggest how to update your decor for about $350 per standard-size room.

More in-depth work is done by those like Riceberg, who'll recalibrate an entire home in person and on-site for an hourly fee -- and who'll also do legwork and source-sharing when the case warrants.

Riceberg aims to give a whole new look simply by switching things around, suggesting inexpensive additions such as colorful cushions or curtains -- or even small do-it-yourself projects, such as changing knobs or painting accent trims. She can even make detested elements or areas seem to disappear.

Like the powder-pink tile counters in Gwen Rehnborg's 1930s kitchen, for example.

"Ugh," said Rehnborg every time she used to enter the room. But her house is a rental, and there's no way she and her husband would sink money into changing the countertops, she says.

The couple, both in their mid-30s, also decided not to buy new furniture for the place, because they're not sure how long they'll stay. "We'll be here a while, but what we buy for this house may not be right for the place we eventually settle into," Rehnborg says.

Their home is filled with items acquired when they were singles traveling the world, then in Boston where they met, and in New York where they married. They stuffed it all into the Santa Monica condo they bought as newlyweds, where their first child was born.

With a second child on the way, they sold the too-small condo and rented the 1,700-square-foot house with hardwood floors on a leafy Santa Monica street. With its comfortable country look and big backyard, it seemed a great place to nest. Trouble was, no matter how Rehnborg arranged and rearranged their possessions, the house felt cold and unwelcoming instead of cozy and warm.

"Something wasn't right; I didn't know what," says Rehnborg, who is director of the Nutrilite Health Institute.

"What I needed was a new set of eyes; I'd stopped seeing possibilities."

She read about Riceberg in the online tip sheet, Daily Candy, and arranged a one-hour consultation at $250. "I had no great expectations," Rehnborg says. "I figured it was worth a try."

Riceberg, 37, walked around the house with her new client. "She tossed out a bunch of ideas," Rehnborg says. "Didn't touch or move anything, just kept coming up with really solid suggestions. It wasn't until halfway through that I thought to pull out a pen and write things down."

The cream-colored living room, for example, had unmatched facing sofas, with a bare coffee table in between. Two cabinets and a bench sat at the far end near the fireplace, its mantel adorned with a Larry Bell painting. Blah and bland, the room seemed more suited to a therapy session than an evening with friends.

The kids' room is large enough to double as a playroom for the couple's now 2- and 5-year-olds. Rehnborg put cushy area rugs on the floor, but "for some reason they still don't want to play there," she said.

A large bathroom mirror with an ornate white frame looked like a Tony Duquette reject. It came with the house, Rehnborg said, pronouncing it ugly. The white kitchen, with its gingerbread woodwork and pink tiles, was in her view, "a mess."

But Riceberg, who calls her firm Twe-k, saw huge potential. She appreciated the couple's eclectic possessions. "Even if I didn't, I'd never criticize what people own, because it's a reflection of who they are. Nor do I impose my own personal style. Why emulate me or anyone else?" By the consultation's end, Rehnborg felt hopeful and decided to try some suggested tweaks.

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