Empty rooms, ingenuity and a goal. When Laurie Betz bought her first home, she began with little more. Her goal: to furnish frugally but with style.
When the Baltimore Design Center opened its doors, it, too, started from scratch. Whole floors of the former livery stable stood vacant, but developers dreamed of stationing there a bevy of bustling interior design services, retailers and custom furnishings makers.
These days, in Ms. Betz's north-of-the-beltway condominium and in the design center's brick building at North Avenue and Howard Street, the cavernous space is filling up. Ms. Betz, 28, counts herself among the pioneer clients of the design center. With its help, her style has evolved from the collegiate look to young professional chic. And the design center, which unlike those in Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles is open to the shopping public and not just to the trade, wants to multiply its successes with more clients like Ms. Betz.
First, Ms. Betz's story:
A hand-me-down sofa, a desk, a faltering TV and a favorite curtain and comforter set sufficed for furnishings when Ms. Betz bought her condo. "It was as empty as could be when I moved in. I wanted the place to be comfortable and I wanted to buy decent furniture, not knock-down furniture, but things that would last," she says. "I'm not married, so I don't want to go Ethan Allen and spend tons of money, and I want things that would fit in later." She turns to pat the arm of a cream-colored love seat. "Some day this may be family room furniture."
She knew she needed help. Through her work as director of communications for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, she often toured model town houses. It was inside one of these that she saw the work of Kathy Fine, design director for Papier Interiors and Design Group, the flagship tenant of the Baltimore Design Center.
Ms. Fine introduced her to the center's other services: a library of sample books, a painting and wallpapering contractor, a drapery workroom. Then the transformation of the empty condo started full steam.
"I thought the best thing to do right away was get a plan together," says Ms. Fine. Ms. Betz needed neutral, basic furniture that would make the condo livable and move with her to future houses. Also needed were colorful accessories to fill the space and give the condo hominess. Like many clients, Ms. Betz couldn't do it all at once, so they crafted long-range and short-range targets.
Ms. Betz pulls out her guide, an embellished floor plan, and uses it as she gives a visitor a tour of her condo. The plan gives her confidence about decorating, she says, because she knows exactly which colors will go on which walls, and what purchases she's saving money to complete.
For the living room, they selected the love seat and matching sofa, and a pine coffee table and armoire. The armoire purchase, says Ms. Betz, epitomizes her think-of-the-future approach to decorating. It is convertible. For now, it holds papers and music, but it has hooks and later can be moved to a bedroom to hold clothing. "I have to think, what am I going to do with this in 10 years? I want to decorate intelligently," she says.
Ms. Betz fell in love with the copious roses, ruffles and stripes of contemporary French country style, and the color blue, so they became her accents. (She admits that she also chose the florals, in part, because she wanted to but can't surround herself with house plants: Her cat Whoops has a penchant for knocking over pots.)
She selected Waverly solid and floral fabrics from books in what is now the center's Design Resource Gallery. She sent them to Designer Drapery Manufacturers (also in the design center) to be sewn into many welt-seamed and ruffled pillows. The drapery company also made a matching table topper, which she placed over a store-bought table skirt for an inexpensive layered look. She added a rocking chair and throw to the room. And she bought several super-size baskets to hold her extra pillows. Using these, "She could fill up space quickly without spending a lot of money," says Ms. Fine.
Down the hall, the bedroom is a good example of style at economy price, says the interior designer. They started with Ms. Betz's balloon-style curtains and multicolored, flower-spray patterned comforter. Adding blue and white striped wallpaper on only one wall in the bedroom set the scene. "You don't have to paper the whole room to get the effect," Ms. Betz says. The paper is continued in the adjoining bathroom. She used Acropolis, a wallpapering contractor in the design center, for the papering. To save money, she painted the white walls. A white rattan mirror and night stand and family photographs finish off the look.
"It's so exciting because it's my first house and everything I've bought is a reflection of the style I'm developing," says Ms. Betz. "I walk in and feel it's 100 percent me."
What Ms. Betz's condo and the Baltimore Design Center most have in common is what decorators call "potential."
Ms. Betz is typical of the type of residential client the Baltimore Design Center hopes to attract. Naturally, there are the commercial accounts and very large private homes needing design, says Joyce Griffith, vice president and one of the center's three partners. But in today's economy, many individuals who crave stylish surroundings can make only a few improvements at a time. They need to find alternatives at every price level.
Providing these options is one goal of the design center, which Ms. Griffith calls "a co-op of creative knowledge." Others have called it an interior design mini-mall, a one-stop-shopping center for design services and products. Behind the renovated brick facade on Howard Street lies a variety of small businesses and their bright showrooms and workrooms. They are linked by hallways dressed with neon lights and art displays.
From a window off one hall, visitors can watch Richard Crafton and his crew at Francis Wade Custom Carpets sculpt elaborate designs from yards of carpet -- fish, flowers, Asian symbols, geometrics. Following patterns drawn from customers' one-of-a-kind requests, they insert the designs into room-size carpets.
In Designer Drapery Manufacturers, the zip of shears slicing lengths of fabric and the hum of sewing machines seem constant.
Soon, visitors will also see art on the walls. Shows featuring works by Maryland painters, sculptors and photographers will be organized by another tenant, Artshowcase, an art consultant whose slide library will represent up to 100 artists.
In the huge second-floor showroom called Design Resource Gallery, attractive room settings of display furniture offer shoppers design ideas. Fabric samples representing the top-of-the-line, $100-per-yard brands and many of their less expensive counterparts hang neatly on racks, organized by color.
There's a growing library of sample books and catalogs for floor coverings, wall treatments, lighting, carpets and other furnishings. ("We're going to be the Enoch Pratt Library of interior design resources," says design center partner and president K. E. "Gus" Diakoulas.)
On the third floor, still a shell, is his dream space: room for up to 40 independent interior designers, architects and others. He calls this the "incubator" space, where theoretically, creative professionals will network, brainstorm new projects and meet clients visiting the design center.
And of course, Acropolis wallpapering and painting services, the parent that started it all, has its headquarters in the building, along with its first child, Papier Interiors and Design Group. John and Gus Diakoulas started Acropolis in 1976. Under brother John's direction, it still provides commercial contract services throughout the region. Gus Diakoulas and his business partner Ms. Griffith created Papier in July 1978 as a spinoff to capture design business they encountered through Acropolis.
They noted that many professionals they knew spent a great proportion of time tracking down subcontractors and running around town to find resources for clients. And they noted that many one-person businesses can't afford to maintain the
showrooms that help them serve consumers. "They can only afford it collectively," says Gus Diakoulas. Now, after five years of planning and renovations and more than $2 million in investments and financing, the trio has launched that collective venture. It officially opened in April with the launch of its Design Resource Gallery and its search for other tenants.
For the consumer, the design center is a place where the paint chips and chintz samples are across the room from each another instead of across town, Gus Diakoulas says. Shoppers can walk down the hall to match their upholstery fabric to the shades available from another design center tenant.
And the public doesn't need an interior designer or a pass to gain entrance. This is the main feature that sets Baltimore Design Center apart from the to-the-trade-only centers across the country. Realistically, some shoppers may find they want help from a designer once they've brought in their ideas. But others will know exactly what they need, Ms. Griffith says. They'll be able to use the resources first hand in a setting usually closed to them.
Ultimately, the center's appeal to consumers may be the variety of its offerings. Shoppers usually have a gut feeling about what they want in their homes, she says, but they need a place to go where "You can look until you see it."
Design Center tenants
Papier Interiors and Design Group (residential and commercial interior design services).
Design Resource Gallery (showroom for fabrics, furniture and accessories with library of sample books and sources for faux finishers and other artisans).
Francis Wade Custom Carpets (designs crafted on the premises).
Designer Drapery Manufacturers (custom design and manufacturing on the premises).
Art Showcase (sales of works by Maryland artists and framing services).
Acropolis (wallpapering and painting contractor).
Century Upholstery (upholstery services).
Vertical Visions (blinds, shades and other hard window treatments).
Potomac Lighting Co. (imported lighting fixtures).
Hobelmann International (import-export).
Image Factory (advertising agency).
Plans for the center include the addition of a cabinetmaker and an Oriental rug dealer, as well as work space for independent interior designers and architects.