Decorators' Business Is Cheap--by Design

Scenes we'll never see:

Ralph decides the Kramden apartment needs "a little class" and asks Alice what she thinks about hiring an interior designer to spruce things up. Alice is thrilled. "Hang the expense," she says blithely. "Let's go for custom Italian tile."

"Well," says Pa Joad, "we can either move to California or hire an interior designer who can do Dust Bowl Chic. A man can only take so much of this Oklahoma Rustic style."

The dirt floor in the lodge has lost its charm for Kicking Bird. He asks Dances With Wolves if he can recommend a good interior designer who can get him a deal on parquet.

Has a pattern begun to emerge? That's right: Interior designers do not, as a rule, work for people who hang out in pool halls, fly standby, save string, vacation at Burger King, drink Schlitz or bet on pro wrestling.

Their actual clients are often professionally tanned, addicted to lunch, communicate only from their cars, speak only in hyperbole, are known only by nicknames (Bunny, Trip, Bootsie) and are perfectly capable of paying as much money for a new set of bathroom fixtures as other people did for their last three cars.

The words interior designer are not generally in the proletarian lexicon. In their place is: "big moving guy who hauls the fridge up the stairs and shoves it against the wall." For the masses, having an interior designer is like having a groom and a footman.

Jody Pedri and Sharon Eklof think this is a pretty rotten deal. The vast middle class, they say, who may not know chintz from chinola, are getting gypped out of the sort of swell surroundings that a trained eye can provide. They'd like their place to look like it ought to be called Chez Melange rather than the House of Mess.

So, Pedri and Eklof are providing the interior design equivalent of Starving Students movers. They call their fledgling business Interior Design Students; not exactly a name from marketing heaven but, for the aesthetically starved householder on a budget, a pretty good idea. (Pedri is studying interior and environmental design at UC Irvine; Eklof is a recent graduate of the same program.)

For Pedri and Eklof, and the approximately 25 other local interior design students who work with them off and on, the basic trade-off is this: design advice in exchange for experience (and a few bucks).

If you've just bought the Crystal Cathedral and want to install curtains, however, you might want to give the students a pass. So far, they've taken on smaller jobs--one or two rooms--that allow them to work with the limited number of contractors and wholesale suppliers that they've cultivated in their young careers. In fact, they say, their average fee--which includes a report describing their ideas for your project and recommendations as to where to buy the materials and services--is about $40.

"No other (professional designers) we know of would touch a job that small," said Pedri.

Also, she said, their services aren't quite as fast as a pro's "because we have to do things other designers already know," such as track down particular suppliers.

Now, the caveat: the students' services may be inexpensive, but the materials and services they may recommend might not be. Quality furniture, carpets, woodwork, curtains, windows, doors and accessories cost money, often (to the middle-class pocketbook) a lot of money.

"People may not have that much money to start with," said Pedri, "and they'll say, 'Oh, I have $200. I'll decorate the living room.' But it's amazing how much quality stuff does cost."

Pedri and Eklof said that they've gasped when they've heard tony designers toss off estimates of several thousand dollars for single room redecorations. That doesn't mean, of course, that you have to stockpile enough ready cash to rebuild Tara. Alternatives are always available, and the students realize that they aren't dealing with the residents of Xanadu just yet. Besides, the money they're saving you is what you'd be paying for advice, not for actual materials.

Still, it seems worth it. Just check out a few of the more intriguing photo layouts in the latest shelter magazines (the ones that feature the interior design equivalent of the Playmate of the Month: beautiful, manufactured, unattainable).

What do you see? Would you ever think, in a million years, of pairing those curtains with those rugs or that wallpaper with that furniture? But it looks OK, right? In fact, it probably looks pretty great. That's right brain work of the type that causes a person to permanently list to starboard. Most people can't see it. Interior designers can.

Eklof said her husband, a UC Irvine math professor, is like that. "He just can't visualize something when I talk about it," she said. "He has to see the end product."

Which makes him sound like my kind of guy. Fortunately, he has a wife who's a right-brainer who knows her moldings and joists and who can match up those disparate design elements and make the whole look harmonious.

Which is also good news for all of us relentlessly middle-class types who have the same eye for design that Saddam Hussein does for military strategy, but who nonetheless aspire to live in a place that might not make it into the pages of House Beautiful but could show up in a back-of-the-book feature in House Not-So-Bad.

Want to run a reality check on your taste while nurturing a budding career? You can reach Interior Design Students at (714) 546-4685.

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