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Three Design Teams Face the 'Hall of Fame' of Showhouses

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The completed Carrier and Company room. Photos of finished rooms by Will Femia.

In 1987, the New York Times described being chosen for the Kips Bay Decorator Show House as the equivalent of "Harvard Medical School, the Pulitzer Prize, the Baseball Hall of Fame and the New York State Lottery rolled into one." Former Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Paige Rense compared the experience—an exhibition of interior designers' work that draws an estimated 15,000 people each year—to "doing your first show on Broadway." Thanks to digital coverage, the showhouse is the most visible one in the country, says designer, author, and past Kips Bay participant Charlotte Moss. For a young designer, it is, genuinely, an honor—and a guarantee of some career cred—just to be invited. But those who find themselves designing rooms next to the best in the profession—Kips Bay, in its 41 years, has shown off the work of people like Jeffrey Bilhuber, Mario Buatta, Jamie Drake, Thom Filicia, Albert Hadley, Victoria Hagan, Alexa Hampton, and Celerie Kemble—also have much to prove.

And the process isn't an easy one. Unlike an ordinary design project, where decor comes together over a period of months—if not years—the showhouse must be completed within weeks. Designers with wildly different styles end up with rooms next to each other and without clients setting the direction of their work. Young designers—who are chosen after a committee reviews photographs of their work—must "know what they're doing" when it comes to design. "We want to see that they understand scale," says Bunny Williams, a decorator and chair of the showhouse. And then they must be able to face the practicalities of showhouse work: being assigned the tiniest, least glamorous rooms that may cost them tens of thousands of dollars to put together.


[Completed rooms by Young Huh, left, and Villalobos Desio, right.]

As this year's designers prepared their rooms in the Mansion on Madison, where the Kips Bay Show House opened this morning, Curbed followed three teams of showhouse first-timers—Carrier and Company, Young Huh, and Villalobos Desio—from concept to finished product.


[Among this year's designers new to Kips Bay are Alberto Villalobos and Mercedes Desio, left, Jesse Carrier and Mara Miller, top right, and Young Huh, bottom right.]

Making a House a Showhouse

While the designers prepared their portfolios, the showhouse committee scoured Manhattan for a property with enough rooms for them to design. The hunt for the next year's showhouse begins the day the previous year's house closes—a showhouse committee's work is never done—and can sometimes last for months. "It would be ideal if we got a house in January, and it was signed and delivered and [the designers] had all the way to April," says Williams. But "it has never happened that way. It's a nightmare. We look and look and look, but there are fewer houses empty. It's hard for the designers—they don't have a lot of time." The clock began ticking for this year's design class in March, when the Kips Bay committee secured the Mansion on Madison, an 1884 property designed by McKim, Mead & White. Originally called the Villard House for its first owner, Northern Pacific Railway President Henry Villard, the mansion was first conceived as six connected residences—fitting for a property that is now playing host to 22 designers.

Showhouse in Session

Among those 22 designers are 13 freshmen. Though they are all new to Kips Bay, some, like Carrier and Company, have prior showhouse experience. Jesse Carrier and Mara Miller, the husband and wife team behind the firm, have participated in Traditional Home Hampton Designer Show House (2009), ELLE DECOR Modern Life Concept House (2011), and Hearst Designer Visions, representing Town & Country (2011)—and their breakout project was a trifecta of the Vogue lobby, Anna Wintour's office, and Wintour's Hamptons summer home. "We'd taken two years off from doing a show house, so we were thrilled be invited to do this year's Show House," says Miller.

Their past experience helped them when it came to the showhouse's first hurdle: room assignments. Miller and Carrier ended up with a small but grand room with a balcony overlooking the courtyard of the mansion. The space had a French door onto the balcony, which the designers chose to take as a focal point. The initial spark for the design was a large-scaled, gilt marbleized wallpaper they'd wanted to use in a project. Their goal? To create a space that would complement their existing portfolio. "[A showhouse] is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves, 'What work have we been doing lately?'" says Miller, who also notes it's a great time for a firm to try out a trend, like the geo-inspired wallpaper they used in the space.


[Installing the wallpaper in Young Huh's room.]

Young Huh, who has run her own firm for seven years, arrived at Kips Bay with one showhouse under her belt, the 2013 Ronald McDonald House of Long Island's Project Design. Her projects, which have been featured in House Beautiful and Westchester Cottages and Gardens, tend to have a classical point of view. She sent in her portfolio to Kips Bay on the advice of her mentors. "I am star struck," she says of her inclusion amongst the other designers, "I'm amazed that I am even in the group." Her room assignment was a tougher one than Carrier and Company's: an industrial-looking, narrow passageway off Tony Ingrao's giant salon. The space also had two extremely unappealing bathrooms at the far end. But Huh had big plans for the small space: she wanted to "make a statement about what interior design is today...My concept is to showcase traditional design in a sexy edgy way." Her mentor, decorator Matthew Patrick Smyth, offered her advice that she tried to keep in mind. "He told me, 'Don't look to the left, don't look to the right, always look straight ahead. Always follow your vision,'" says Huh.

For Alberto Villalobos and Mercedes Desio, the showhouse comes at a moment when their design firm is about to break out. In fact, the promotion of the design side of their business is so new that the firm did not have a functioning website as of this writing. "[It's like] being in the cool clique in high school," says Desio of their inclusion at Kips Bay. The firm's founders are friends who met while studying at the New York School of Interior Design. After finishing school, the two opened a home design store, Etos, and also began taking on interior design clients. Alberto, who is Colombian, and Mercedes, who is Italian, wanted to "combine the eclectic and international sense of aesthetic acquired from their diverse cultural backgrounds, travels, and education."


[The original conditions of the Villalobos Desio space.]

The portfolio they showed to the committee was full of unpublished projects that they hope to see in print in the next year. Though the committee was clearly impressed, Villalobos and Desio, as often happens to showhouse newbies, ended up with one of the home's most challenging rooms: it was a windowless 11' x 9' spot with two doors eating up much of the usable wall space, and a large electrical box in one corner. The firm's goal for the glorified closet was to create a space—albeit a small one—that truly embodied their style. "When we thought about this room, we decide to call it a 'studiolo.' It's a gentleman's room, and a place where the person could have a cabinet of curiosities." Villalobos and Desio say that their design came together very quickly, and they were pleasantly surprised by how supportive and giving their vendors were when they approached them about the project. They also tried their best to remain nimble and flexible with their first showhouse design, says Villalobos. "This is a project that although you have a design, it is a design that is always adjusting, considering the items you find that you love that you are able to use."


[Creating a bathroom wall in Young Huh's room.]

Time and Money

With their design concept established, the designers begin what will be an almost daily pursuit of furniture and accessories to fill their room. Showhouse rooms are put together with a combination of loaned antiques, discounted goods and services, and money from the decorators' pockets (and sometimes pieces from their own homes). Designers must sweet-talk antique dealers and shop owners into loaning them pieces for the duration of the showhouse, which isn't always easy: a dealer gets a bit of press if his piece is in the house, but it also means he can't sell that particular item for an extended period of time. For materials like wallpaper, fabric, flooring, and the like, designers will likely have to pay for everything they use (though they may get a discounted rate from a vendor they work with often). The designers also need to make sure they can get everything in time, and labor is one area where they are unlikely to find any discounts. For example, while a plaster contractor may be happy to make time to help a firm he knows well, he can't exactly ask his crew to go without pay. In addition to labor, shipping and trucking costs must be paid for every item that is brought into the room (so, while that vintage dresser on loan from a friendly antiques dealer may be "free," it still may cost a designer hundreds in shipping costs). It's not unusual for such a project to run into five-figures; in fact, one veteran Kips Bay designer noted that a past design cost nearly $30,000. In the past, young designers have hosted cocktail parties with entry fees to fund the creation of their rooms or raised funds online.


[The final Carrier and Company room.]

The Showhouse Must Go On

"Gracious" is one of the first words that comes to mind walking into Carrier and Company's sitting room. The space is luxurious, but not overtly so—you can imagine yourself living in the space (if only you had a larger budget to invest in your living room!). The room's paneling was finished with a chic strié glaze that gives it slightly distressed texture. The Calico Wallpaper pattern that inspired the rest of the design has been fitted into each of the panels in the room, and the nook opposite the Juliet balcony contains a paneled mirror, as Miller and Carrier suspect it must have originally done. The pair opted for a mix of vintage and contemporary furnishings, which evolved as they discovered what was available. For example, the first coffee table they chose, a brass model, was nixed when another brass piece became available. They also had a last-minute addition of a French Restoration period cabinet from David Duncan Antiques. "We usually use more art in our designs, but when we looked at the room, we realized we needed more furniture," says Miller of the swap. "Not only was [the cabinet] the perfect proportions, but the wood and leather added warmth and detail to the room while still creating a composition for that wall (in place of artwork)."


[Young Huh's room.]

"I think it's important to have fun," says Huh of her finished design—and looking at the space, it is clear Huh has, in fact, had some fun. "This is a little outside of our normal scope, but it's definitely reflective of what we do," she says. The firm's classical viewpoint is clear, but a modern edge runs through the design. The walls are covered on top with Lee Jofa's signature document print, 'Hollyhock,' and below with black patent leather in lieu of wainscoting—it is an unusual but inspired choice. The design is feminine, but not overtly so. Metallic accents are spread throughout, including a subdued metallic paper on the ceiling, a gold chandelier and a gold mirror. The once institutional bathrooms have been transformed with elaborate AKDO Turkish tiles, which will be the envy of any house visitors who need to powder their noses.


[The two bathrooms in Young Huh's room.]

A study in chiaroscuro, Villalobos Desio's finished design is a dark, intimate space with flashes of brightness. Their solution for their small "studiolo" involved several interior architectural upgrades that improved the bones of the space: One door was sealed off and fitted with a custom bookcase and the stairs and electrical panels were hidden in a nook at the back of the room that gives the illusion of space beyond. Gold-flecked paper on the ceiling, leather herringbone-patterned flooring underfoot, and silk wall coverings add interest. "We wanted to create a luxurious gentleman's cabinet," says Villalobos of the many personal objét that accent the room. Some hail from their store and others straight from their own apartments. Their lighting scheme changed at the last minute, when they realized their original design highlighted the ceiling's very uneven nature. All in all, the team is satisfied with the results, but as soon as the room was finished, they realized there was one key detail they had forgotten. "We've never done a show house before, so we did not realize it was customary to hang a sign thanking our vendors," says Desio, who notes that the firm was getting one made in time for the opening.


[Villalobos Desio's final design.]

After the chaos of the last seven weeks, the designers finally have a chance to step back and appreciate the work they have done. However, their work isn't quite over. During the month the showhouse is open, the firms will try to staff their rooms for as much of the time as they can: this is, after all, a chance to meet new clients.

The 2014 Kips Bay Decorator Show House, located at 457 Madison Avenue, New York, NY,  is open Thursday, May 1 to Thursday, May 29, 2014. The Show House open to the public Monday to Saturday from 11am to 5pm, Tuesday & Thursday until 8pm, and  Sunday from 12pm to 5pm. Tickets to tour the Show House are $35.

· Official site: Carrier and Company [carrierandcompany.com]
· Official site: Young Huh [younghuh.com]
· Inside the 2014 Kips Bay Decorator Show House [Curbed National]
· Kips Bay Decorator Show House archive [Curbed National]