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The closet set

The Baltimore Sun

When Jodi and Clark Lare were renovating and enlarging their Stevenson home, Jodi made a request:

"I always dreamed of having my own dressing room."

She got it - a 15-by-17-foot cream-hued room with a shoe wall and broad cabinets where her sister and friends can sit and assess an outfit she tries on by the angled dressing-room-style mirrors, where good light shows the true colors of the hanging clothing, where the accessories organization is efficiently built into drawers and where conveniences are hidden. Everything has its place, and everything is in one place.

Big, stylish walk-in closets like this one are hot. They're being fueled by big wardrobes, big homes, downsizers making the most of smaller condo space, empty nesters sick of unused home gyms (instead of hanging shirts on handlebars), the trend toward streamlining the bedroom within a master suite - and seeing movie and television walk-ins.

Outfitting closets is now a $3 billion-a-year industry, excluding do-it-yourselfers and custom cabinetmakers, said Helen Kuhl, editorial director of Closet, a five-year-old trade publication. Homeowners envision a master suite with a bedroom devoid of stored clothing even as they shop for more, Kuhl said.

"People don't want dressers anymore," she said.

Early in the recent movie Sex and the City, as Carrie and Mr. Big decide to wed, he asks Carrie if he should get her a diamond.

"No. Just get me a really big closet," Carrie says.

Danny Black, sales director for Chesapeake Closets, said his wife told him the line resonated with the mostly female audience. "She told me Carrie said what they've all been thinking,"

When Carrie opens the new closet, they gasp. It is a sleek and chic space of white, with glass and tall doors, with angled racks for all her Manolos, a space larger than the average Manhattan walk-up.

But more women have closets that more closely resemble Carrie's in the TV series - chaotic. It took a New York minute for Sex and the City to inspire closet envy, some closet specialists say.

"Starting the next day, the calls started," Black said, with potential clients saying they wish they had the big space and Mr. Big's bucks for Carrie's closet.

Reminiscent of her closet are the wood-framed glass doors and bright, open look that are stylish now, he said. "They don't want it to look like Grandpa's study," Black said.

Five years ago, Oprah's closet, an expansive walk-in, had TV viewers' attention.

"Women called and said I want Oprah's closet. For more than a year, they called asking for it," said Pam Hillebrand, who with her husband, Gary, owns the Closet Factory in Baltimore.

Jodi Lare wanted her closet to be fun and functional. She installed leopard-print carpeting underfoot, feminine capiz shell chandeliers overhead and delicate ecru drapery panels on huge windows. It's where she plops down on a settee in between part-time work at her family's pharmacy and running after her two small children.

It is, she said, a personalized and stress-busting blend of utilitarian space and sanctuary, from telescoping valet rods for preparing the next morning's clothing to the mini-fridge that holds beers and midnight-feeding baby bottles.

"I love the way it looks, but it's really functional," Lare said, noting that it helps her to start her day organized. "You just don't have that sense of calm when things are in disarray. It definitely does make life easier - you know where everything is, you see something, you can grab it."

It also can be peaceful: "Sometimes I just kind of chill out, shut the doors and relax up there."

And it's fun with friends: "You buy something, you bring it home, you try it on with different things. Does it look flattering with this jacket? Does it match this? And your girlfriends there can say, uh, you might not want to keep it."

And, with mirrors, a television and DVD player, it's a space to entertain a baby while dressing: "I can play SpongeBob at any time."

Patrick Sutton of Patrick Sutton Associates, an architecture and design firm in Baltimore, which counts Lare's among its walk-in decors, says couple dynamics typically have men butting out of the intricacies of a woman's dressing room.

"This is where she goes to transform herself into the princess she wants to be," Sutton said.

Cabinetmaker Gary Harvey, president of Henry Harvey & Sons Inc. in Baltimore, designed and built the closet last year based on Lare's requirements when her home was being expanded by Design Alternatives Inc. of Hunt Valley.

Lare has a three-mirror cove with separate recessed lighting. In front of two stationary stacks of shoe cubbies and boot stalls is a third stack, a slider with 27 shoe cubbies "so you can make use of the space," Harvey said.

There's more than 25 feet of rods for hangers. Two levels of rods maximize space for hanging jackets, skirts and shirts on one wall. But elsewhere, two sections have one rod, allowing dresses and slacks uncrushed length. T-shirts and sweaters get tucked into cabinets and drawers, where Lare said, nobody will see if they are not folded with precision. One drawer is outfitted with plush jewelry pockets. The couple's collectible luggage stack adds architectural interest.

Many elements go into creating a closet that looks great and functions well, designers say.

First, said interior designer Edward R. Stough of Stevenson, the closet needs to match the client's lifestyle to the available space and allow for shopping. "If he has 50 feet of hanging clothes, you give him 75," he said.

Lighter woods and halogen lights let clothes stand out. How bright should lights be? Enough to distinguish black from navy blue, he said.

"Mirrors are really important in dressing areas because [clients] need a full view," Stough said.

Popular features: hidden document and jewelry safes, hideaway hampers, valet rods, electronics-charging stations, sinks, islands.

Glass fronts for drawers and cabinets can be clear, textured, etched or frosted, or have embedded features, such as reeds and leaves. Obviously, the more visible the contents, the harder to hide a mess.

Susan and Reid Fitzgerald put waffle glass in their cabinets when the Closet Factory turned a room into a closet to create a master suite that includes a bathroom in their Fells Point townhouse.

The walk-in solved two situations. The builder did not include as standard a large master bedroom closet. And the room gives each of them a place to dress without disturbing the other, valuable given Reid Fitzgerald's offbeat hours as an emergency physician.

They chose medium cherry-look veneers. Black granite tops a dresserlike island. Wall-to-wall and ceiling-high on opposite sides of the island are his-and-hers units, with angled shoe racks, multilevel hanging space and center cabinets. She's got purse shelves. He's got a pullout tie rack - men can be demanding, too, closet designers say.

A chandelier illuminates the center of the room, with American art deco sconces on a wall. Oriental rugs top the wood floors.

Below the windows, which have draperies and swags, cedar-lined cabinets store off-season clothing.

"We are closet-spoiled," said Reid Fitzgerald.

10 steps to a great walk-in

*Be honest with yourself. How many feet of hanging space do you need? How many purses do you have? Admit it: You're not going to throw out shoes, your skinny jeans and costume-party garb.

* Be honest with your designer. Expect the designer to count those pairs of shoes and boots or ask you to. Prefer angled shoe racks to cubbies? Expect to dress in the room? Unwind there? Say so. The designer needs to make an accurate assessment. And what's the look you're going for?

*Know your price. A professionally designed, fully built-out walk-in closet can cost as much as building out the room for other uses. Prices range from $1,000 for a fairly basic small closet to more than $25,000 for an upper-end room installation. For less costly DIY solutions, start browsing such places as the Container Store or Ikea.

*Plan the lighting. The truest whites, such as halogens, show the truest clothing colors. Locate fixtures toward the center of the space. Illuminate shelves. A chandelier adds elegance.

*Use full-length mirrors. Just like in the store dressing room, three angles of mirrors give you a 360-degree view of yourself. Need to save space? Make the two wing mirrors closet door exteriors.

*Accessorize. Locked jewelry drawers? A safe? Pullout ironing board? Motorized tie, belt or scarf rack? Luggage storage?

*Relax. If you prefer to sit while dressing or donning shoes, or take a while to ponder your clothing choice, or if others will join you there, consider seating. Ideas: an upholstered bench, a plush chair, a chaise longue, a settee.

*Add a countertop. Islands and peninsulas provide a surface for folding, packing or just putting down items, while adding storage below; seating or a step can be included. The surface? Anything that won't snag fibers.

*Flooring counts. This should be one you can easily keep clean. Carpeting and wood are the most popular.

*Treat the windows. Natural light is a bonus, but the sun streaming through windows can damage clothing; besides, don't give your neighbors a cheap thrill. Add drapes, curtains, shutters or shades.

[Andrea F. Siegel]

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