Call it a smorgasbord -- a multicourse feast of color, style and general cleverness. Call it a holiday, an escape from humdrum chores and pesky problems that could keep you glued to the vacuum or the electric drill on an otherwise glorious afternoon. Or call it an education -- a graduate-level course in turning house spaces into home.
Or, give it a more prosaic name: You can call it a house tour.
"People have an opportunity to get into private homes that they wouldn't otherwise get into," says Kit Tubman, a member of the central committee for the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage, a house tour that every year encompasses a variety of areas across the state. "You get to see all the different kinds of ideas people have about decorating and architecture. I think a lot of young people get ideas for decorating their own property" from houses on the tour.
Spring and early summer are prime time for these events, and the holiday atmosphere is the visible result of a huge amount of behind-the-scenes organization and physical labor. It may be a show house, miraculously transformed by an army of decorators into a place of breathtaking beauty and charm, or it may be a historic neighborhood, where several homeowners have opened
their own personally touched and renovated properties to the public.
This year, as always, folks in the Baltimore area are blessed with a bounty of open houses from which to glean ideas. There is the stately Seven Oaks, the 1902 mansion that is this year's Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House. And the diminutive Robert Young house, a largely untouched 1700s gem in Fells Point, part of the Society for the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill's annual house tour. And Bon Air, believed to have been built by a Revolutionary War general, a solid and charming country home in Harford County, one of eight houses in the county on the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage. (See accompany story for tour details.)
For designers, show houses are a golden opportunity to show off their skills, to make a personal statement about design without the constraints of a budget or the filter of a client's taste.
For everybody else, it's a chance to "shop" for decorating ideas -- without pressure or price tags. Whether your taste is classic or trendy, there's plenty to see.
"People want to see what's new in design and fashion," says Faith Dodge, this year's show house chairman. "They want to see what designers are doing, they want to get ideas. Everybody is always doing something to their houses," and the show house offers a catalog of designers and services as well as models for projects people can undertake on their own.
The savvy show-house/house-tour tourist will carry a small notebook, to jot down ideas that seem promising or nice touches that simply appeal.
At Seven Oaks, for instance, a few trends are clear immediately:
*Color -- It's going in two directions. One way is cool, pale and pristine. In the soaring entry hall, a creamy, dreamy forest-jungle mural painted by artisans of Valley Craftsmen is accented by a large Chinoiserie china cabinet and black lacquered Chippendale chairs, in British-in-India "raj"-style furniture by designer Catherine Bitters.
"In the whole room there basically isn't going to be any more color introduced." Ms. Bitter says. "When Sam [Robinson, of Valley Craftsmen] and I talked about doing this room, he was interested in doing some kind of mural, maybe tropical foliage, . . . but in a soft tone-on-tone look that would be different but also would be appropriate to the house. We wanted to keep the space very simple."
The cool colors continue into the reception area, done in sponged and stenciled classical motifs by Justine Sancho of Bethesda, and into the "Gothic Revival" sitting room by Terry Knisely, of York, Pa. Mr. Knisely, who nearly stole the show at last year's show house with his linen and painted-furniture dining room, uses a creamy-white carpet, white upholstered furniture, white slip-covered Gothic chairs (with peek-a-boo tops so the design of the chairs shows), white muslin shades and a massive, white, antique, painted Gothic china cabinet to create a serene but intricate space. The cool palette is spiked with touches of magenta and green in a sparingly used floral fabric from Duralee, designed by Mr. Knisely.
At the other end of the value scale is the dark green Ladies' Dressing Room by Janet Plitt of Morgan Truesdale Interiors of Brooklandville. The room is accented with red, and in an adjoining bath, white tile is spiced with red wallpapered walls.
The cool entry colors also give way to warmer, darker tones on the second floor, where east and west hallways are faux-finished cobalt and terra cotta, respectively.