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SPECIAL ISSUE: SPRING HOME & GARDEN GUIDE : Inside Jobs : Interior Design Firms Finally Come of Age in Orange County

Times Staff Writer

Lorna and Howard Hitchcock wanted a change. Their Fullerton home was dated, and they were looking for a new place at the beach. After months of house-hunting, they gave up, realizing they would never find the perfect property--one that needed no work and approximated their nearly 1-acre yard. But they still weren’t happy with a home that hadn’t been redecorated in nearly two decades.

Then there was the Corona del Mar couple with the antique-filled, 5-story, ocean-view house. They had built it themselves and lived there for more than a decade. As traffic in Orange County worsened during that time, they found themselves entertaining more at home instead of going out. And the house needed a face lift.

And there was the young professional woman with a new condominium in the northern part of the county whose friend had arranged the bargain of the century: several thousand dollars worth of pricey floral fabric for a fraction of the regular price. The cloth became drapes, and the drapes took over the room.

Three families, three problems, one solution: They all hired a designer and will soon be living tastefully ever after.

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It is probably a good thing that these calamities didn’t strike sooner. While the Orange County interior design field is considered fully matured today, it was still suffering through adolescence as recently as 5 years ago, local design experts say.

“Four to 5 years ago, there was nothing here,” said Scott L. Brown, who operates J.S. Brown Design in Corona del Mar with his mother, June D. Brown. “We had to travel to Los Angeles, Dallas, New York for furniture, fabrics, antiques and art.”

While it still sometimes pays to travel to the far reaches to find that perfect accessory, most interior designers say there really is little reason to leave the confines of the county. Today, nearly everything a designer could desire is here.

The credit for the county’s swift design growth goes in part to Design Center South, a 240,000-square-foot complex in Laguna Niguel. The 4-year-old design center houses 70 showrooms, which include such large fabric lines as Brunschwig, Et Fils, Stroheim and Schumacher.

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It is home to furniture from around the world, carpeting and rug showrooms and lighting displays. Designers can also get antiques and accessories at the center, which does not sell to the general public. And an 80,000-square-foot addition is in the works. Local designers can also find supplies at the South Coast Design Center in Costa Mesa, which has 22 showrooms.

“I would definitely say that there’s no need to go to Los Angeles anymore,” said designer Abby Menhenett, also of Corona del Mar. Whatever is available there can be found here, she said.

Including clients. Orange County’s rapid growth and enduring affluence--the 1988 median family income was $45,000, well above the national figure of $29,000--has swelled the ranks of interior designers. In the early 1960s, there were only a few here; today, the county boasts more than 300 members of the American Society of Interior Designers.

(ASID membership is a safeguard for consumers because it means the designer has passed an examination and served a 5-year apprenticeship.)

Orange County clients range from young, first-time condominium owners with very fixed budgets all the way to the wealthy. Menhenett said she considers them “real sophisticated”: well-traveled, well-educated, well-informed.

“They definitely want quality,” she said of her customers. “They’re defining their own sense of what their nest should look like.”

Not surprisingly, designers contend that residents can’t do it alone, and that everyone needs their services. To a certain extent, they are right.

Dorian Hunter, a designer who has practiced in Fullerton for nearly 30 years, saw evidence of this need as recently as 3 weeks ago--it was Hunter who got the call of the colorful curtains.

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The floral drapes in question might have been a bargain, Hunter said, but they quickly turned into a quandary for their owner. Until the young client was left with yards and yards of powerful pattern dominating her small space, she hadn’t really thought about whether she was even fond of flowers.

What is she going to do? Hunter is working on that problem now. What she should have done was call for help first and decide to buy later, Hunter said. The designer compares her work to that of the accountant who fills out your tax forms: The accountant knows the rules and how to solve the problems; so does the designer.

And that saves customers money and time. For while designers’ fees here range from $50 to $100 per hour--above and beyond furniture and supplies--one of their main tasks is to keep clients from making costly errors.

“People just starting out need a direction and a plan,” Brown said. “They can take a 5- or 10-year plan and put it into effect as they are able to afford it. And people who are filthy rich need someone to curb their spending habits” so they don’t over-decorate.

So what’s a plan and how much does one cost?

A basic design plan can range from a quick sketch of a single room all the way up to a fully detailed drawing of every surface of every room in the home.

Most are somewhere in-between. What a designer often will do is meet with clients, see their home and discover their desires and budget first. Then comes a furniture inventory, an assessment of what will be kept and what will be chucked.

Next come the drawings: a floor plan to place furniture new and old, and detailed drawings of walls, wall coverings, windows and window treatments. Color schemes and fabric swatches can also be an integral part of the plan.

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According to a nationwide 1988 ASID survey, the average cost of a residential redecorating project--including renovation of the kitchen, bathroom, living and dining rooms--is $68,200. That also includes a detailed plan that could range, Brown said, from $5,000 to $25,000, depending on its complexity.

But design doesn’t have to be that expensive. A family with a tight budget can get a workable--though less complete--plan for $500 to $2,500, local designers say, and use it to steer their renovations over several years.

Jason Titus, a Fullerton designer, considers $5,000 to be a small but possible design budget.

“I don’t turn down anyone,” Titus said. “I have clients with $1,000, and we do it. I don’t mind working that way.”

The key in such a project, Hunter said, is continued contact with an interior designer, which is an additional expense not reflected in the cost of the plan. Many people think they can come to a designer and get a color scheme and drawing and do it themselves, she said. But it’s not that easy, especially since most furniture and fabric sources are closed to the general public.

“You really should keep in contact with the designer, utilize the designer’s skills over a long period of time,” she said. “You have to remember that you spend as much on the inside of your house as you do on the outside, over time.”

And time is what it takes for a successful redesign project.

When Claire Robinson, described by her colleagues as the doyenne of designers in Orange County, first descended on the 5-story antique-filled Corona del Mar house, it was 1987. Two years later, she is just getting to the finishing touches.

The design problem facing Robinson and associate Christine Hallen-Berg was how to make a sophisticated antique collection reflecting years of travel fit in an architecturally contemporary home.

Hallen-Berg said her clients, who declined to be named, wanted their home to have a “palatial” feeling.

Robinson and Hallen-Berg achieved that look in the living room by designing custom furniture to complement the couple’s extensive art collection. Two sofas of soft blue-green hue were matched with a similar color fabric for the walls.

The room is set off by a limestone floor and ceiling fresco of clouds and angels rendered by a local artist. Two grand pianos grace a raised alcove off the room. The result is traditional and timeless, Robinson said.

The adjoining dining room and kitchen posed a particular problem, because the floor, ceiling and kitchen cabinets were dark teak. Although a wall of windows overlooks the ocean, the area was still gloomy, Robinson said. Her answer was to bleach the wood to a light gray-green. The full effect is airy, bright and sophisticated, she said.

Several floors down, Robinson designed a Southwest-flavored audio-visual room, with a built-in bed and bar, animal-hide rugs, desert colors and a wall studded with televisions--five small ones plus one large screen.

While local design experts say that much of Orange County design has a traditional flair like this Robinson-designed home, another strong thread in local style is the airy California look: full of sunlight, bright colors and space.

That’s the look Scott Brown created in Lorna and Howard Hitchcock’s one-story Fullerton home--a far cry from its original 1960s navy and lime-green interior.

“He was very creative,” Lorna Hitchcock said. “We have a very contemporary look.”

Brown had the patio area enclosed with glass to create an 11-by-28-foot solarium, which the Hitchcocks use for family gatherings and entertaining. At the center of the solarium is a coffee table made simply of stacked slabs of Arizona sandstone in subtle salmon shades. Clustered around the coffee table are over-sized chairs covered in a heavy, hand-woven fabric of salmon and beige. Brown had a sand-colored banquette built, and accented it with painted canvas pillows in soft desert colors. He also added a granite bar with high-legged, low-backed chairs.

Designer Lisa Dunlevie is achieving a similar California look in a Newport Beach home she and partner Abby Menhenett are gradually renovating over a period of years. The one-story home, spacious and airy and designed for casual entertaining, exemplifies the American return to the home as the center of family life.

“The house represents a current California design trend with Orange County at the pinnacle,” Menhenett said. With lots of windows, and French doors in the dining room providing a view of the garden and swimming pool, “it is open, connected with the outdoors,” she added.

Dunlevie, the project’s primary designer, stressed natural materials and colors, bright accents, custom furniture and quality contemporary art. For the dining room, Dunlevie created a 600-pound limestone table with chairs upholstered in shrunken buffalo hide. A handcrafted pewter mirror graces the entryway.

This California look, while out of place nearly everywhere else, is a real problem-solver for Orange County residents. Its airy quality fits the county’s sun-drenched environment, and it is versatile enough to suit life styles from the laid-back to the sophisticated.


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