For designers, winning over clients reaps rewards

Interior design is often judged purely on aesthetics. You walk into a space and know right away it's beautiful, stylish and hip — or not.

But what casual observers don't see is the pith of design, its functionality — a space that works. The recent American Society of Interior Designers Maryland Chapter / ChesapeakeHome Magazine Design Competition recognizes interior design projects that operate on both levels.

The winning designers are at the top of their game. At the recent awards dinner, I chatted with many of these remarkable designers. This week, I followed up with a few of the winners, Teresa Buchanan, Liz Dickson and, Henry Johnson, posing questions intended to uncover their design personalities and find out what makes them tick.

Teresa Buchanan Honored for designing the interiors of a luxe waterfront Inner Harbor condo that needed the decor to match the locale, Buchanan of Designline Interiors is known for spaces that balance style and sensibility. In business for over 30 years, Buchanan's work is as fresh today as when she started, and her pragmatic approach underscores the goal she hopes to achieve for clients — to improve the way they enjoy their homes.

As such, she doesn't rush into filling her clients' homes with things. The best interior, she feels, "develops gradually, starts off with a broad plan, and then is implemented over time."

This long-term approach shifts her professional focus toward developing relationships. "Design," she says, "is working with people — not just pretty things."

Still, beautiful decorative elements are never far. Passionate about her own collections of Victorian wood boxes and Chinese porcelain, Buchanan appreciates the individuality such unique and irreplaceable elements bring to the decor.

Her award-winning condo project was composed of minor renovations to foster a new space plan, create better views and grant easier access to the guest bedroom. Details include extensive cabinetry and millwork and improved lighting throughout. To provide modern technology in a traditional setting, a coffered ceiling, a folding art screen and built-in cabinetry mask the requisite wiring and equipment.

Liz Dickson Principal of Mill Brook Circle Interior Design, Dickson won accolades for a 1940s ranch house renovation that opened up the interiors to accommodate a more contemporary family lifestyle.

Starting as a financial analyst, Dickson did not come to design by the typical path. After years of longing for a job that would exercise her dormant creativity, in 2002 Dickson gave up spreadsheets in favor of blueprints.

While she's adept at projects of any scope or scale, her favorite single-room project is the kitchen. Because most kitchens are a complete redo, the design often starts with a blank slate, and the first step is doing a space plan to develop flow to make the room functional.

Appropriately, the core of the winning ranch project is a totally reinvented kitchen. The new layout entailed not only opening the kitchen up to the rest of the house and the outdoors, but relocating appliances, adding a cooking island to define the spaces, and incorporating a large bar and a pull-out.

Large-scale projects such as this let Dickson do what she loves most: build relationships. While she concedes that it's a bit of a cliché to say that when the project is over she's acquired a whole new set of friends, it's hard to deny the bond that develops between a designer, clients and contractors when taking on projects of considerable scope.

With strong relationships as a goal, it's important to Dickson that when her work is done, her clients feel as if they were partners in creating the decor — that the space reflects them and the things they love.

Henry Johnson In the decade or so I've been following the ASID Maryland competition, the Johnson Berman partner has probably been recognized more than any other designer for consistently producing high-quality, beautiful and sophisticated spaces.

Although, as he puts it, he's been "earning a living" as an interior designer for about 40 years, Johnson feels as if he had been preparing for the profession since childhood. Having grown up on an 18th-century rice plantation near Charleston, S.C., he's a product of his environment, and tradition factors prominently in his work.

Johnson's earliest memories are of the antique paintings, threadbare oriental rugs and timeworn bespoke furnishings that filled his family home, and today he loves incorporating beautiful old elements into his designs. In a way, Johnson was green before green was cool, learning early on the virtues of preservation, maintenance and history.

And although Johnson values antiques, he recognizes that interior spaces are nothing without comfort. "Comfort," he says, "is the last great luxury. Luxury is not 50-foot ceilings or rooms the size of basketball courts. It's being in a space with your family, watching TV or sharing a meal, and being comfortable."

Often designing for high-profile individuals, Johnson avoids name dropping, and the recent award-winning project perched high on a bluff overlooking the Severn River is no exception. Constructed in 1922, this house was originally a copy of an early Maryland Colonial estate, but over the years it had been chopped up for institutional use and needed extensive renovations to make it function again as a house.

Always inspired and impressed by his clients' level of taste and interests, the renovation evolved through partnership with the homeowner and touched every facet of the interior decor and architecture.

"When I hear how important things are to my clients, in the end I almost always realize they are right: It is their house and it's my job simply to help."

As such, the Severn River residence incorporates furnishings, colors, fabrics, curtains and carpets that balance the more traditional Colonial style of the house with the homeowner's furnishings from Southeast Asia and the Far East.

Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome Magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@chesapeakehome.com.

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