NEW YORK -- Interior designer Christopher Coleman has made it big here by thinking small. The 36-year-old Lutherville native has taken minuscule rooms in some of the country's best-known decorator showhouses, turned them into whimsical showpieces and received national attention for his designs.
His inventive solutions in his own small (375 square feet) studio apartment earned him a spread in last November's House Beautiful and the magazine's nomination as one of 14 "future hall of famers" in the decorating world.
For someone who made his reputation with his ability to deal with cramped spaces, Coleman strikes a visitor to his New York office as a mighty tall 6-foot-2. Dressed in black from head to toe, he has the flamboyant look you might expect of a trendy New York designer, with his expensively cut red hair, pale skin and slim build. But beneath the skintight jersey beats a practical heart.
His practicality comes in the form of transformed flea market finds and creative making-do, because the corollary of being a master of small spaces is that your clients tend to be young couples who are decorating with an eye on their pocketbooks.
"My idea of design is to work within the means and taste of my clients and the things they presently own," says Coleman, "but elevating them to a new level through educating them."
Coleman has no qualms about using budget-friendly furnishings from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel or, when his clients get nervous about the cost of redecorating, having their dressers repainted and the hardware replaced instead of buying new pieces.
As for his own apartment, Coleman says, "I wanted to design it like a little hotel suite. Every inch has to work."
He recycled the first curtains he ever owned, sewn from painter's cloth. "They shrank," he says, "so for my apartment windows I sewed wide strips of chocolate-brown velvet on the bottom."
Because he couldn't afford artwork for his walls, he painted broad brown horizontal bands on the walls for a graphic statement. They also serve to lengthen the room visually.
Coleman's own furniture is a mix of the custom-made, like an extra-long day bed, and reupholstered flea market salvage. There's a lampshade from Woolworth's. He added a deep fringe and hung the lamp from an antique pulley.
He took the sliding doors off a walk-in closet and covered it with curtains made from more of the chocolate velvet, bought at a theatrical supply house for $12 a yard. The curtains suggest that there's more space behind them than there actually is, says Peggy Kennedy, House Beautiful editor.
"That's the kind of inventiveness we love to see young designers have. He's got a lot of imagination -- he's not trying to copy anyone."
Marian McEvoy, editor of Elle Decor, first saw his work in 1997 in the influential French Designer Showhouse in New York.
"He's one of the bright, shining new stars," she says. "I can't wait to see how he develops. Love his sense of color. Love his verve, his spirit. I think he's the perfect candidate to become the next big thing."
That imagination was at work even when Coleman was a boy growing up in Lutherville, according to his father, Robert Coleman.
"Even at an early age, he was always interested in artistic things. His papers and projects were always done with style. His teachers were sometimes swayed just by their looks."
He recalls that as one of six children, Christopher had to share a bedroom with a brother. At an age when most boys' interest in interior design extends only so far as locating the TV remote, Chris had bigger ideas.
"In his teens he got a swag lamp with colored glass from somewhere, and he put up a chair hung from a spring," says Robert Coleman, who lives in Lutherville. "He always had to have something special."
After graduating from Towson Senior High, Christopher spent two years in the York Academy of Arts and then enrolled in the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He graduated in 1984 and worked in Washington for a couple of years before he set his sights on the Big Apple.
"I had a friend in D.C. who had a friend in New York I could stay with," Coleman says. "I took a chance and hit the street with my school portfolio. I had circled a couple of people's work I liked in magazines, and I just went knocking on doors."
And he landed a job, which says something about the quality of his portfolio. He was hired as an assistant at Lloyd Bell Associates, one of the firms whose work he had admired. Later he moved on to Macy's corporate store design department. "It taught me how to handle several jobs at once," says Coleman, "But I got antsy. I thought I'd give residential design a try."
In 1989 he left Macy's to work for Renny B. Saltzman, a well-known New York designer whose clients included Candice Bergen and Joel Grey. Coleman struck out on his own in 1993.
Building up a client list isn't easy for an interior designer starting his own business. Coleman decided to show off his talents by decorating showhouse rooms. So far he's done five in the New York area, about one a year. His strategy has paid off, generating both clients and publicity. (He's even thinking about participating in a decorator showhouse in the Baltimore area.)
As a new designer, Coleman was given the smallest rooms in showhouses -- attics and maid's quarters. He was first noticed when he designed a children's playroom with a chalkboard floor and furniture covered in terry cloth for the Rogers Memorial Library Designer Showhouse in Southampton.
"I had to be whimsical," he says. "I couldn't afford to do a serious room."
The results were published in a few design magazines, and he was featured on CNN's "Style with Elsa Klensch."
In 1997 Coleman was invited to participate in the country's most prestigious showhouse, Kips Bay in Manhattan, along with the likes of Mario Buatta and Mark Hampton. "Again, I had the top floor, the worst room in the house," laughs Coleman. "But I can't complain."
His retro "bachelorette pad," a feminine room accented with hot pinks and fire-engine reds, got lots of attention. (Most notably, he had the desk and cabinet spray-painted red at an auto-body shop.)
From Kips Bay came Coleman's first job designing a house, a four-story Victorian townhouse in Brooklyn. No, he doesn't do small spaces exclusively. The finished home was featured in the New York Times last December.
Currently, he has just com-pleted the East Hampton home of Susie Rieland, president of Jones New York casual design.
"He's the best," she says. "He's very open to working with each individual's tastes."
Admired for his work with color and pattern, Coleman's first master plan for Rieland's house was turned down flat. Although it was predominantly neutral, as she had asked, he had added touches of color and a few prints.
"All I do is look at fabric, color and pattern all day," the client says. "I wanted my house completely neutral. I said, 'Oh, no, I mean neutral.'"
Coleman went back to the drawing board and ended up designing her house in sand, khaki and creams, using texture for visual interest and accented the rooms with antique black and white photographs.
Rieland, who interviewed several designers before she settled on him, feels Coleman is unusual because he's open to his clients' lifestyles. Too many established designers, she says, have their own ideas about how to do things and won't be flexible.
"That's what makes my business exciting," Coleman says. "Every client is different."
Ten decorating ideas from Christopher Coleman to save space or money (or both):
* To create the illusion of more space, keep furniture low to accentuate the height of the ceiling.
* Use different shades of the same color.
* Limit yourself to one pattern per room.
* Look for furnishings that can play dual roles, such as ottomans that can be a seat or a coffee table.
* Folding screens are great for dividing a room into smaller spaces. Coleman made one of roof flashing applied in a basketweave to hollow-core doors from Home Depot.
* Second-hand seating can be revitalized with interesting new legs as well as new upholstery.
* If you can't find the right armoire or butcher block table, have it made. In the long run, it will be worth the cost.
* Wall-mounted lamps with small shades take up less room.
* When you see beautiful towels for sale, buy them. They can be made into wonderful pillows.
* Create inexpensive artwork with photos from flea markets, wide mats and ready-made frames.