For interior designer Bebe Winkler, the little touches make big statements about her line of home accessories

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Designing women always have been a fixture of the fashion industry, from Coco Chanel to Donna Karan, but in the world of interiors, female names have not exactly been household words.

It was in this environment that interior designer Bebe Winkler successfully but quietly plied her trade for nearly 25 years. Since she began decorating rooms in 1969, she has gathered a sophisticated, moneyed, international clientele and accolades for excellence in her profession. She has been widely published in home fashion magazines, including the prestigious Architectural Digest, as early as 1979, when just a handful of women had been featured.

But four years ago, when Ms. Winkler trotted out a collection of table and bed linens that she wanted to license under her name, she reached a point of exasperation when her pitch to manufacturers kept falling on deaf ears. Where a number of male colleagues had succeeded in getting their designs man

ufactured, Ms. Winkler couldn't get to first base. "Come on, give a lady a chance!" she implored.

She finally made it happen by manufacturing the collection herself, and her first collection was launched in 1988. Today Audrey Linens is her manufacturer, and despite the priciness of the line, with a typical range of $20 to $60 per place mat, for example, it's selling well.

With her line, Ms. Winkler has taken glamour mainstream, using her interior design philosophy as a springboard. She provides the decorative touches her clients have sought for years. Embodying the glamour is the ornamental look that has been her signature: tassels, braids and fringes. Also included are unorthodox shapes, such as a truncated fringed runner that becomes a place mat or, as Ms. Winkler calls it, a palette, because, like an artist's portable catch-all for brushes and colors, it's big enough to hold all the parts of a place setting -- even a couple of wine glasses.

Still it took four years of market exposure for the tables to turn and for manufacturers to begin knocking on her door. Now Ms. Winkler is being courted by manufacturers to create collections for them. Her most recent collaboration is with Vogue Patterns, which is packaging her ideas for decorative table linens and assorted home furnishing items selling at $9.95 and $10.95.

The same elegance that characterizes Ms. Winkler's interiors and product line has been translated to the patterns. The collection features window swags and jabots; bed coverlets (an alternative to duvet covers) that sometimes spill over the bed skirt as they do in Europe; festive table runners; generous-sized napkins (24 and 26 inches); reversible fringed throws that can be worn as shawls; a range of decorated cushions for sofas, chairs or beds; and even a holiday package, which includes directions for ornaments, stockings and outrageously giant bows for front doors.

Ms. Winkler sees the whole licensing involvement as just the beginning, and she is setting her sights on designing fabrics in her own blend of color and pattern, lamps and lamp shades, an intimate collection of furniture, more or less like her male counterparts -- Mario Buatta, Mark Hampton, John Saladino and Vincente Wolf -- who have made home couture accessible with licensed furnishings collections in the last five years.

Although some of those designers are associated with a particular look, Ms. Winkler has no design buzzword. Her design credo has been, "The more styles and textures you put side by side, the more interesting, intimate and unusual the space is certain to become."

What distinguishes Ms. Winkler's work as an interior designer and now a product designer is meticulous attention to detail: carefully chosen trims on cushions, window treatments, bed and table linens. She is not afraid of grand scale or color. But it's the finishing touches, the accessories, that embody the elegant look for which she has become noted. It's also the juxtaposition of her client's small personal belongings, treasured but ordinary, that she has brought out of the closet, deftly blended with carefully selected antiques or art objects.

There is more than a hint of opulence in Winkler interiors. In a time when the pendulum appears to be swinging from ornamental to more pared-down interiors, the idea of fringed swags or fussed-up pillows may seem to be passe.

But Ms. Winkler isn't ready to abandon her trims. "Of course I feel that we're streamlining our interiors. But we're not going a full 360 degrees, as we did in the early '70s. In the late '80s, we all went a little crazy with layering, how much we could pile on. Today, I'm not using as much tassel. I'm lightening up on braids. But trims serve as a frame. They can make a pillow a piece of art. You simply have to know how to edit."

While some of Ms. Winkler's ideas certainly are icing on the cake

-- fancy cording that follows the contours of a swag drapery or the trimmed shades she favors for chandeliers and sconces -- she doesn't feel they're empty calories. In fact, some designs are actually pragmatic.

The 'perfect pouch'

Her "perfect pouch," a little bag with a drawstring originally fashioned as a gift item to hold everything from potpourri to chocolate, is also a stylish casing for silverware and napkins.

Perhaps the fastidious dressmaker finishes date to Ms. Winkler's life before interior design.

One of three children, she grew up in a modest home on Long Island. Her father was involved in the garment trade; her mother was an office worker. Both of her grandmothers had designed women's apparel; one designed beaded flapper dresses in the '30s, the other designed hats.

But it was her mother's innate style that profoundly influenced Ms. Winkler. "She was very detail-oriented," said Ms. Winkler. "She always had a fine eye for proportion and scale and color. I remember '40s greens running throughout our house, overscaled floral wallpaper with cabbage roses, a master bedroom with matching chintz on a chaise."

Ms. Winkler flirted with a fashion career before settling into her interior design niche. She became a Seventh Avenue mannequin, and although primarily a runway model, she also was a fitting model to fashion designers like Liz Claiborne and Anne Klein.

She began to study interiors, while still maintaining her fashion job. "Learning was not that difficult," said Ms. Winkler. "A lot of it seemed to be common sense. I go by what feels good to me, by instinct. And I always have listened very well."

After two years she made the break from clothing to home design. Two years later, in 1971, she launched her own business, a move she still characterizes as "gutsy."

One of Ms. Winkler's first jobs was a plum: a three-year project in Pennsylvania, in which she designed the interior of a sprawling 5,000-square-foot contemporary home. Her work was celebrated in an eight-page spread in House Beautiful.

"I don't like creating environments that jump out at you. I don't like decor to shout, 'Look at me. I'm so dramatic.' My kind of drama is very quiet, very understated."

That philosophy has not changed over time, although some of Ms. Winkler's design tenets have evolved. While she always has loved color, she uses it differently today.

"I used to do color wrapping -- using the tonalities of the same color on walls, floors and ceilings. That approach, which even extended to using the same color fabric on sofas and chairs, doesn't seem right today."

A recent job in a '20s town house involved the use of 25 different fabrics chosen from a palette of persimmon, French blue and beige, drawing out the tones of an antique Oriental rug. "It's a lush space, with a gentle mix of antiques, such as a Regency table, and reproduction pieces, such as chairs upholstered in persimmon silk and rayon. The fabrics all work beautifully together and seem to have been there a long time."

Impeccable detailing, colors that you might enjoy wearing as well as living in -- personal touches, in short, making a home comfortable, are ultimately Ms. Winkler's design goals, whether she's designing for interiors, her product line or Vogue Patterns.

Design challenges

She feels the '90s offer more design challenges. "Home is very important to all of us," says Ms. Winkler. "But we should be able to afford style. When our interiors are attractive and inviting, our rooms smile when we walk into them."

Bebe Winkler has enjoyed the luxury of big budgets, but she believes that good interior design can be achieved at affordable prices, without compromising quality.

Her easy patterns for Vogue can inject a little style into rooms that haven't been spruced up for a while. Ms. Winkler has plenty of ideas for instant panache:

* Window treatments can make a vast difference. Simple slatted blinds, vertical blinds or bare windows might feel comfortable, but a top treatment such as a swag or jabot with hanging panels makes the window look more finished.

* A 54-inch-square game/bridge/dining table cover could double as a decorative sofa shawl. Drape it over the side of an overscaled upholstered lounge chair for a new welcoming touch.

* Try draping an overscaled reversible fringed shawl over the top of your piano. A grouping of framed family photos will look more personal resting on fabric instead of wood.

* Try chair cushions on those folding chairs we all have in the back of a closet. Those hard seats are suddenly more comfy, and now your luncheon or dinner guests won't complain they didn't get to sit in your only set of upholstered dining chairs.

* For holiday decorations, use 3-inch or smaller Styrofoam balls. The addition of cording and trim will increase the weight and also the size, by about one inch.

* Don't think of cord rope garland as only a tree treasure. Coordinate the cords to your room setting. Drape on all four walls at the ceiling level, creating your own decorative border.

* A decorative bow (overscale, of course) for your entry door is not only meant for the holiday season. Try working three pastel fabrics into one bow for a spring party, or red, white and blue for the Fourth of July. Use the seasons for inspiration.

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