Jena Hall's inspired idea: designing a collection of eclectic, coordinated home furnishings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She doesn't do chintz. She leaves that to Mario Buatta. She prefers relaxed interiors to glamorous formal ones. She doesn't even stick to one style. She'll jump from Swedish to English to Italian and then, surprise! She'll sprinkle in a little Balinese. Jena Hall's inspirations can't be tied to a singular design style.

Her name may not command the instant recognition of Ralph Lauren, but in just five years, under the label "Inspirations," a "total designer look at affordable prices," the designer has more than 4,500 licensed products for the home, with retail sales in excess of $20 million. That's an average of 800 new products a year. Jena Hall products are available at Bloomingdale's, J.C. Penney, Bed Bath and Beyond, the Home Depot and in Spiegel and Horchow catalogs.

"Jena's designs show great versatility," said Ellen Frankel, former editor of 1001 Home Ideas and currently a New York-based consultant on magazine-related projects. "She has a feel for what makes people comfortable in their homes -- mass appeal with a professional approach."

Add to that the impact of unattributed design ideas, which Ms. Hall quietly turned out as a consultant to various manufacturers. The ideas are still showing up in your wall colors, furnishings, fixtures, fabrics and decorative accessories. Clients have included Kohler, American Standard and Eljer (baths); Jenn-Aire (kitchens); Pennsylvania House and Ethan Allen (furniture); Lyon Shaw (outdoor furniture); American Olean (tile): Paul Hanson (lighting); and Sarreid (decorative accessories).

At the same time, Ms. Hall enjoyed a successful interior design practice. When she couldn't find what she needed in the marketplace, she designed it herself. And before she had a piece crafted, she studied the process so she could speak the technical language and practically do it herself.

Ms. Hall's jobs were published in House Beautiful, Better Homes & Gardens, Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook and Women's Day, and she was invited to write a question-and-answer column called "Designer-in-Residence" for New York Newsday. Eventually the column was nationally syndicated.

Readers wondered: How can you update a room without throwing everything out? What kind of coffee table can you team with a traditional love seat? Which styles go together? How can you mix patterns? What does eclectic really mean?

When Ms. Hall left her lucrative design practice in 1988 to develop products for the home under her name, she took to heart the queries and began to design with those consumers in (( mind. The result was "Inspirations," a collection rooted in eclecticism.

"Inspirations is a mix rather than match collection that comes from a high-end interior design approach," said Ms. Hall, "working with color schemes that layer in patterns and textures to a room to give it variety."

Collections are themed, and color and pattern unite them. A particular pattern may cross over from one medium to another, only if the design reads well. One pattern, "Cafe Check," inspired by the mood of a French bistro, features a sprightly floral in bright pastels set off by a racing check. The pattern is every bit as playful and appropriate for a paper plate for Contempo as for a rug produced by Trans Ocean.

Patterns recur

Often collections carry over one design element to the next, even spanning a year or two. A lattice design, for example, was incorporated into Ms. Hall's first furniture collection for Broyhill in 1990. When Ms. Hall debuted her bedding collection for Revman two years later, one pattern, "Good Morning Glory," included a European garden-inspired theme composed again of lattice, through which morning glories and ivy are entwined. A companion pattern adorns pinstriped accessories punctuated with floral bouquets and sprigs of bayberry and forget-me-nots. A room setting featured other licensees: bed and ivy-bedecked desk (Broyhill); Country French chair with a wheat sheath back ++ splat (Casa Bique); terra-cotta lamp and iron chandelier (Paul Hanson).

In her "Bali Fret" iron candle holders for Capella, a division of Montaage, the design is interpreted in a simple fret, a Chinese key pattern made up of parallel and intersecting lines (unlike the contiguous Greek key pattern). The design reads contemporary, spite of its rustic mottled finish.

Even though Ms. Hall's furnishings and accessories collections are designed to coordinate, it's unlikely that any one group will be showcased fully in one department store setting at a time. But that's OK. Purchasing the whole package is not necessary. "Decorating with accent pieces is an easy way to freshen a room without a big dollar commitment," the designer says.

Ms. Hall is fond of offering what she calls design options. That's what she named a fabric collection that teams coordinating cottons from Covington with heavier woven bark cloth (a pebbly textured fabric popular in the '40s and '50s) from Valdese, an industry first. The stripes, florals and lattice (again, the fret) designs were inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, Bali, Thailand, Java and southern China.

The designer has many more ideas up her sleeves -- including her one-stop-shop-dream -- a Jena Hall retail store.

Ms. Hall grew up around retailing; her paternal grandfather ran an antiques business in Dallas/Fort Worth. An architectural interior design major at the University of Texas in Arlington, Ms. -- Hall added a master's degree at the New York School of Interior Design.

Her first job was designing an office for her husband, Stephen, a pedodontist. Through referrals, Ms. Hall quickly acquired a specialty that lasted four years. As a woman, she met plenty of resistance from contractors accustomed to working with male architects, especially in office design.

Besides, during the '60s, interior designers weren't taken seriously, according to Ms. Hall. "If you said you were a designer, people would ask, 'Do you do dresses?' The word 'decorator' was no better. People assumed that you just picked out pretty wallpaper."

But designing offices made it easy to switch to homes. Even early on, her style range was considerable, from reproduction period pieces to contemporary wall systems. Her flair and a touch of whimsy are apparent in mega-scaled upholstered Neoclassical chaises with lion's heads emerging from the lacquered frame's arms (for a private estate, later for Casa Bique).

Her first visit to the furnishings market in High Point, N.C., was in the early '70s. When she spotted one of her custom-designed pieces swiped by a brand-name furniture manufacturer and featured in a national magazine, she decided it was time for her voice to be heard.

Within six months, Ms. Hall teamed up with the now-defunct Gampel Stoll to design a collection of contemporary lacquered furniture that incorporated some of the innovative space-saving features that had distinguished her interiors, such as an island bed with pullout shelves and built-in drawers.

Although her mid-'80s designs were sleek to go with the times, compatible with Italian contemporary leather and lacquer, Ms. Hall turned to a more traditional look when she designed her first "Inspirations" piece.

She believed that European country style was a good place to start building her coordinated home furnishings collection.

rTC A bachelor's chest for Casa Bique, introduced in 1988, was a typical accent piece. Inspired by Swedish King Gustav's love of French court furniture, the chest is decorated with hand-painted wildflowers and a faux marble top. The chairs are Regency adaptations, with slim, reeded legs. The mirror has classical roots. Ms. Hall's ceramic candlesticks were converted to lamps.

Holding prices down

With the exception of Casa Bique, which is her highest-priced line available through designer showrooms, Ms. Hall has tried to keep down costs. Fabrics retail for $15 to $40 a yard; sheet sets from $49.99 to $73.99; decorative pillows, $27; bath towels, $12.99; lamps for $100 to $300; rugs from $200 to $1,200; throws from $36 to $75; upholstery from $1,000 to $1,500.

Ms. Hall believes money is an issue. Coming to department stores in spring is a new moderately priced contemporary furnishings line largely instigated by daughter Jocelyn, who joined Ms. Hall's staff four years ago and now is her executive vice president.

"It's called 'Fun-ishings,' " said Jocelyn. "It's designed for people who have more taste than money and more money than time."

Although many who buy Ms. Hall's products could never have afforded her interior design services, she offers the same attention to needs and details that she gave private clients.

"Designers are like anthropologists," says Ms. Hall. "We track and interpret cultural events, color trends, how people live . . . because ultimately this dictates what they want and can afford. In a way, design is theater, creating an environment for us to play our lives in. Good design is not frivolous; it's logical. And when design is good, it lasts."

DESIGN TIPS

* Relate patterns by keeping them in the same color family. Otherwise, mixing too many patterns can look dated. Keep pastels with pastels and darker jewel tones with related tones, natural with a wide variety of other naturals for a fresh look. The days of the mixed multicolor floral chintz are over.

* Use area rugs to anchor a major conversation area in a room by selecting a size large enough to form an island for a furniture grouping. Half-on, half-off furniture placement is distracting and chops up the room. If you're planning a room from scratch, it's best to select the rug first and build the color scheme and pattern around it. If a rug has a large open pattern, use upholstery with stripes or a smaller, densely packed pattern. If the rug has a geometric pattern, use textures or other geometrics, which will be a better complement than plaids or stripes. If you're crazy about floral upholstery, look for a smaller overall rug pattern.

* Use a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror at the end of a short hall to create an illusion of greater space.

* A few very important large pieces of furniture and oversized wall decor can actually make a small room look larger. The trick -- use related colors and plenty of textures rather than patterns on upholstery. Match the walls and floor to the upholstery.

* The simpler the window treatment the better, like flat Roman shades, wide blade plantation shutters or wooden Venetian blinds. Over-draperies are fine if they are well-tailored and not too fussy.

* Mix family heirlooms such as old photographs, postcards and other cherished mementos with antique-inspired, newly acquired accessories for a more authentic collector's look.

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