Even to the most assured client, the words must sound a bit jarring: "We're going to begin by dismantling it."
The directive is coming from Judy Alto, an interior designer who, along with colleague Jackie Gallagher, is contemplating the living room in Gerry and Nancy Dunn's Annapolis home. Sunny with pale pink walls and tastefully appointed furniture, the room is attractive but not very inviting.
Alto and Gallagher are about to change all that. But instead of bringing in new furniture, artwork and wallpaper, the two plan to transform the room with things the Dunns already own. While both have backgrounds in interior design, Alto and Gallagher specialize in the placement of furniture and accessories -- which can make a vast difference in the feel of a room.
While most people think of redecorating strictly as an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new process, interior arrangement -- or rearrangement -- has gained popularity as a quicker, often less expensive option.
"Normally, people call me because they can't pinpoint what the problem is," says Alto, who owns Crofton-based One Day Interior Makeovers and often works with Gallagher, owner of Room Smart Re-Designs. Both practice the art of interior arrangement, and Alto's work was recently filmed for a segment on the Home and Garden Television network series "Decorating Cents."
"You've bought the belongings you're most comfortable with," she says. "It's just having us work with it."
Though no one knows exactly how many people are practicing this craft professionally, the four-year-old Interior Arrangement Design Association has about 80 members nationwide. IADA president Lisa Billings said the group -- to which Alto and Gallagher belong -- formed in 1995 to provide, structure, standards and training. (Candidates must complete a training and application process to belong to the IADA.)
"We fill the need of a huge population of people who might be intimidated by a designer," says Billings, who is based in Dallas. They're afraid of buying things that they don't want or that they don't need, or that their home might not reflect their taste."
For the Dunns -- a working couple who moved into their home three years ago -- buying a house full of new furnishings was not an option.
"You get into [a new home] and you want to change some things, but your budget is shot," says Gerry Dunn, a mortgage banker. "Someone had recommended Judy, and she just came in and gave us ideas of what to do with what we had."
Though the living room had a bank of windows with a serene wooded view, the room lacks a focal point and feels formal, Alto says. The Dunns want the room to be more cozy.
"When you first walk in, it's almost too pretty to enter," Alto says.
After a brief conversation with the two designers, the Dunns bundle up their children, 5-month-old Bridghid and 2-year-old Sean, and head out for the morning. Alto and Gallagher prefer to work their magic while the family is gone.
"We're not nervous at all, Judy!" Gerry Dunn calls out, half-jokingly.
The dismantling begins.
With ruthless but careful efficiency, Alto and Gallagher begin gathering the crystal vases, the silver picture frames and other accessories, moving them into the dining room. They remove a blue chair and a striped, pink seat before moving on to the glass-topped coffee table, the nautical artwork and the plush rug. Before long, the tidy living room is a blank canvas.
Just as quickly, the two reassemble things. First, the rug is flipped at an angle, pointing toward a stained glass hanging. They lift the couch, turning it at an angle to face the French doors.
"Now the couch says, 'Come in,' " Alto says.
The blue chair and the pink seat are clustered near the couch, creating an intimate conversation area. A dark, leather recliner is brought from another room and placed in a corner, flanked by a brass lamp. A mirror comes out of the guest room onto the living room wall, where it now reflects the Dunn's wooded backyard.
Impeccably dressed and coiffed, Alto and Gallagher don't appear to break a sweat during a process that involves moving heavy furniture. Both seem assured of their decisions, pausing only to fluff a cushion or contemplate tossing In Style magazine on a table instead of Martha Stewart Living.
Paintings are rehung at eye level instead of what Alto calls "Michael Jordan" height. The glass-topped table reappears in the center, this time with a wooden horse sculpture salvaged from the dining room atop it.
By the time the plants, picture frames and crystal are placed on an antique desk and dresser, the room has been converted into something cozy and comfortable.
For good measure, Alto tosses pillows and a fringed throw over the couch while Gallagher tucks crisp, white napkins into a silver wine bucket. Alto arranges gladiolas and a floating candle in a vase. The entire process has taken less than three hours.
"Look at that, Jackie," Alto says, high-fiving Gallagher as they admire their work. They page the Dunns.
Soon, the family arrives for the moment of truth.
Gerry Dunn: "What happened in here? Wow! Fantastic!"
Nancy Dunn: "God, it really looks different!"
"I think daddy's found a new place to come hide with the paper," Gerry Dunn says as Sean dives into the blue recliner.
Alto says most people can't see the potential of a room because they can't view their things objectively. People are also wedded to rigid rules about furniture placement, such as the unwritten rule that all sofas should be lined up against a wall, Billings says.
That's not to say that everyone should automatically turn things at odd angles. In the Dunns' case, the square shape of their room dictated the need for angles to give the room a sense of focus and intimacy, Alto says.
Alto and Gallagher charge their clients $100 an hour, which usually translates to about 10 percent of the cost of the furniture in a room. Redoing the Dunn's room will work out to about $300, Alto says.
"We guarantee if you don't like it, we'll put everything back," Alto says.
Judging from the Dunn's reaction, that won't be necessary.
"I'm tickled to death," Gerry Dunn says. "I'd like to celebrate."
10 common decorating mistakes and solutions
1. Lining furniture along the walls.
Try pulling pieces out into the room to free up space and create interest.
2. Ignoring architectural features.
Enhance the room's character by placing furniture according to architectural features. Pay attention to odd angles in walls, floors and ceilings.
3. No texture.
Mix textures for visual and tactile interest, such as a nubby wool throw on a smooth, leather sofa.
4. Mirroring the wrong walls.
Hang a mirror where it will reflect a beautiful view or an entrance area.
5. Hanging art too high.
Try hanging art lower, remembering that you usually sit in a room. Art hung from floor to ceiling is OK for a gallery effect.
6. Scattering collections.
Display items together as a group. Spreading collections around only waters down the impact.
7. Splitting up paired objects.
Place objects together. Asymmetrical balance is more visually interesting. Example: Place two candlesticks together on one side of a mantle and balance the other side with something different instead of placing one candlestick on each side.
8. No personality.
Your rooms should reflect your interests. Display your personal treasures and show off family photos, travel mementos and hobbies.
9. Over- or underdoing color.
Color is tricky. Creating pockets of color is more impressive than spreading it around or having none at all. Example: Solid colored sofas, colorful accent pillows, neutral floor covering with a colorful area rug, art work and accessories that pick up accent colors.
10. Low objects on coffee table.
This low, flat space needs vertical interest to come alive. Use candlesticks, sculpture or a floral arrangement. The height adds drama.
Source: Judy Alto, One Day Interior Makeovers