"Design really has become a hobby," Bates says. "You could draw some connection to the proliferations of all these shelter magazines that are really teaching people how to do it all themselves.

"There's this empowerment of the customer and a demystification of the process. You can do it yourself. As fast-paced and out of control as life can feel, there is this real desire to personalize your environment, make it your own and not look like everyone else."

Few would accuse Carr of being like everyone else. This is the woman, after all, who scheduled an interview to discuss her home for the very day her firstborn was due. "If my water breaks, I'll call," she said with typical irreverence.

That morning, the phone did ring. It was Carr, calling to say that her water, in fact, had broken. "But I'm not really having contractions yet. I can't make our 11 a.m. meeting, but perhaps we can talk this afternoon…. "

Just after little Caroline arrived into this world, Carr couldn't help but quiz her husband on her other delivery: a vintage chest of drawers that Mary Luby, a former roommate who's now an interior designer, had refashioned into a dining room buffet and was scheduled to drop off at the house. Yes, Adam reassured his wife, still in her hospital bed. That other baby was just fine too.

After disclosing that one of her favorite shopping resources is the 3rd Sunday Market in Bloomington, Ill., an antiques and collectibles extravaganza held near where Carr grew up and still has family, the inevitable question arises: Do you ever schedule family visits so they coincide with the 3rd Sunday Market?

"Oh, please, I arranged my wedding to be on a 3rd Sunday," she says, adding that the plan was to have breakfast with Adam, hit the market, then head for the ceremony.

Common sense kicked in and she skipped the shopping, but lest anyone question her devotion to the Bloomington event, Adam is quick to chime in: "She comes off the plane with shopping bags full."

What sets Carr apart isn't just the depth of her passion to rescue and reuse, to surprise herself with what can be done with new paint and fabric. It's also the way in which those money-savers have enabled the couple to develop an art collection started years ago by Adam, a real estate agent and longtime art enthusiast.

The gangsta coffee table and the church-sale armchairs take their place among limited edition Basquiat screen prints — two out of a set of four. Above a lion-shaped piano leg that sits on the floor as objet d'art, the Carrs have hung Ralph Gibson photography that constitute a two-piece portfolio.

Adam, a Gibson fan, got to know the photographer and even traded some of his art for some of Gibson's work. An untitled Gibson portrait hangs by Carr's pottery, and still more Gibson images are displayed in the main hallway, lighted by Murano fixtures that Carr nabbed on EBay.

The baby's humble dresser stands in good company too, beneath a 1964 Jasper Johns paper embossing of alphabet letters.

The true masterpiece, however, is not hung on a wall or set in a display case. It is carried with Carr wherever she goes and is referenced frequently — in showrooms, in antique malls, on sidewalks. It is the Book.

The Book is Carr's journal in which she tapes the business cards of glass cutters, hardware refinishers and other crucial resources, many gleaned from cocktail party chitchat.

"When you're in your 20s, you're talking about boys. When you're in your 30s, you're talking about upholsterers," Carr says. "The party conversation goes from, 'Oh, that boy is cute!' to 'Oh, that couch is cute!' "

Page upon page of the Book contains hand-written sourcing notes as well as detailed dimensions of her house, lest she come upon a mirror or side table for just the right nook. Along with the tape measure she takes everywhere she goes, the Book is her indispensable assistant, which explains why she also started the Backup Book — a duplicate set of decorating references, just in case the first got lost.

When sister Darbie McCollian, who lives near Milwaukee, is asked if there's any way to describe how Carr's personality is reflected in the look of her house, there is a long pause, then a simple response: "Pulled together, but not too tight."

--

HEAR Carr give her running commentary on the decor, and it's clear that many pieces are as much about family and life history as they are about style.

Remember that chair Adam swore would never be allowed in the house? Sure, it had good bones, but Carr mostly wanted the piece because she found it by her old "bachelorette apartment," as she likes to call it. "It was something from my old life," she says, "I was making it something for my new life."