Building on a dream in spite of the nightmares

Times Staff Writer

Marni Jameson: dizzy, uncertain, overwhelmed ditz?

Don't believe it for a second.

This author and home-design columnist (who also has written for the L.A. Times) is smart, seasoned, savvy and unwilling to settle for anything less than "just right."

Her new book launches with an epiphany and sails through aggravation, turmoil, bargain hunting, major outlays of cash and numerous other ups and downs encountered when a person sets out to create his or her "dream home." Eventually, she comes to a sane and satisfying conclusion.

Is she a schlub like the rest of us? I don't buy it. But it does make for entertaining reading: She hates doing laundry. She weeps upon the discovery that her chosen drapery fabrics have been discontinued. She has dead trees in her frontyard and scratches all over her arms from planting. Her flowers promptly croak.

The adventure begins when her husband decides the family needs a really big change. He quits his corporate job, they sell the house and take their California-home profit to Colorado. There, he has a new job, and they buy a bigger, brand-new house on a nice chunk of land with Rocky Mountain views.

Jameson's design and decorating juices begin flowing in earnest as she industriously works her way through their decorating budget and beyond.

The book takes shape around her first-things-first plan: Put your backgrounds in (the paint, carpet, cabinetry etc.), dress the windows (blinds and drapes), select and place good furniture and top off with accessories.

But within this framework, she hits on numerous topics. Her nuggets of advice run the gamut: how to select the right slab stone for countertops, how to buy the best area rug, how to avoid being gouged on builder upgrades, how to pack for a move, how to choose home- theater equipment, how to create a "tablescape" for your coffee table, and so on.

She has an "I'm not filthy rich" point of view, but she does hire a host of experts to help her make the right decisions -- even if the expense sometimes gives her a migraine.

There was the bill for the designer who sketched out -- long distance -- where to put her furniture in her new home (a plan that didn't work). There was the $200 for an interior designer to help her solve what to put in the gap between the top of her kitchen cabinets and the ceiling (which she said was worth it and resulted in a display that included an oval platter, an old iron dinner gong and ceramic chickens). And she spent $65 an hour to have two women rearrange the furnishings in her house, including beautifying the bookcases. Thankfully, she passes on the basics so readers can profit from her expenditures.

The amount of money spent throughout the book -- be it on great buys and definite improvements or big ol' mistakes -- made me ache. I had to remind myself that the time frame spanned years.

She does know a rip-off, however, when it happens to her and will pursue the righting of a wrong with bulldog tenacity.

She relates the debacle of their patio collapse. It dropped 3 feet, taking the stairs off the kitchen along for the ride. What followed were 15 months of hassle. After much finger pointing, the builder and various workers came to an agreement and the patio was repaired.

It's clear that this book was written by a journalist. And that's good and bad.

Some people may not want the whole story -- her relationship with her husband, anecdotes about her kids, essays that meander a bit, such as when her talk of garages turns to thoughts of her dad.

Readers who just want sound advice could limit their reading to the boxed material, almost like a book within a book. As a reporter and dogged home-design guru, she has gathered some great sources and passes on their wisdom. Little piggy banks mark the money-saving tips.

A small sampling: A gardening expert tells how to manage weeds, a cord-management expert tells how to tame office cords, an art collector tells how to be a smart art buyer.

But that wouldn't be the best way to read the book. You'd miss the big picture -- and the punch lines.

"Most designers agree that a room isn't finished unless it has some greenery in it. Mold doesn't count."

On shelter magazines: "These magazines tease you with photos of gorgeous interiors. The writer interviews the designer and owner (often one and the same), who gush about how easy the project was, how the flow of both inspiration and funds were endless. . . . (Pass the barf bag.)"

On decision making: "For two weeks, I've been lying awake nights playing furniture leapfrog in my head: Put the leather sofa on this wall, the coffee table here, no! . . . If I do fall asleep, I awake in a sweat thinking: We must angle the sofa!"

On small things that make a difference: "Light candles. . . . They help make Aunt May's Jell-O salad look appetizing. . . . But make them unscented. You want to cast a spell, not a smell."

In the end, the true test of a home-design book is whether it propels the reader to action.

Jameson propelled me to stop midway through her book to rearrange my furniture. And I've got plans. Big plans.


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