The Next Big Thing

Design: Lutherville native Christopher Coleman made his reputation as a designer by turning small rooms into showplaces.

January 31, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- Interior designer Christopher Coleman has made it big here by thinking small. The 36-year-old Lutherville native has taken minuscule rooms in some of the country's best-known decorator showhouses, turned them into whimsical showpieces and received national attention for his designs.

His inventive solutions in his own small (375 square feet) studio apartment earned him a spread in last November's House Beautiful and the magazine's nomination as one of 14 "future hall of famers" in the decorating world.

For someone who made his reputation with his ability to deal with cramped spaces, Coleman strikes a visitor to his New York office as a mighty tall 6-foot-2. Dressed in black from head to toe, he has the flamboyant look you might expect of a trendy New York designer, with his expensively cut red hair, pale skin and slim build. But beneath the skintight jersey beats a practical heart.

FOR THE RECORD - In today's article on Christopher Coleman in the Home & Family section, the room shown on Page 5M is misidentified. Pictured is a room Coleman designed for the 1997 French Designer Show-house in New York. The Sun regrets the error.

His practicality comes in the form of transformed flea market finds and creative making-do, because the corollary of being a master of small spaces is that your clients tend to be young couples who are decorating with an eye on their pocketbooks.

"My idea of design is to work within the means and taste of my clients and the things they presently own," says Coleman, "but elevating them to a new level through educating them."

Coleman has no qualms about using budget-friendly furnishings from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel or, when his clients get nervous about the cost of redecorating, having their dressers repainted and the hardware replaced instead of buying new pieces.

As for his own apartment, Coleman says, "I wanted to design it like a little hotel suite. Every inch has to work."

He recycled the first curtains he ever owned, sewn from painter's cloth. "They shrank," he says, "so for my apartment windows I sewed wide strips of chocolate-brown velvet on the bottom."

Because he couldn't afford artwork for his walls, he painted broad brown horizontal bands on the walls for a graphic statement. They also serve to lengthen the room visually.

Coleman's own furniture is a mix of the custom-made, like an extra-long day bed, and reupholstered flea market salvage. There's a lampshade from Woolworth's. He added a deep fringe and hung the lamp from an antique pulley.

He took the sliding doors off a walk-in closet and covered it with curtains made from more of the chocolate velvet, bought at a theatrical supply house for $12 a yard. The curtains suggest that there's more space behind them than there actually is, says Peggy Kennedy, House Beautiful editor.

"That's the kind of inventiveness we love to see young designers have. He's got a lot of imagination -- he's not trying to copy anyone."

Marian McEvoy, editor of Elle Decor, first saw his work in 1997 in the influential French Designer Showhouse in New York.

"He's one of the bright, shining new stars," she says. "I can't wait to see how he develops. Love his sense of color. Love his verve, his spirit. I think he's the perfect candidate to become the next big thing."

That imagination was at work even when Coleman was a boy growing up in Lutherville, according to his father, Robert Coleman.

"Even at an early age, he was always interested in artistic things. His papers and projects were always done with style. His teachers were sometimes swayed just by their looks."

He recalls that as one of six children, Christopher had to share a bedroom with a brother. At an age when most boys' interest in interior design extends only so far as locating the TV remote, Chris had bigger ideas.

"In his teens he got a swag lamp with colored glass from somewhere, and he put up a chair hung from a spring," says Robert Coleman, who lives in Lutherville. "He always had to have something special."

After graduating from Towson Senior High, Christopher spent two years in the York Academy of Arts and then enrolled in the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He graduated in 1984 and worked in Washington for a couple of years before he set his sights on the Big Apple.

"I had a friend in D.C. who had a friend in New York I could stay with," Coleman says. "I took a chance and hit the street with my school portfolio. I had circled a couple of people's work I liked in magazines, and I just went knocking on doors."

And he landed a job, which says something about the quality of his portfolio. He was hired as an assistant at Lloyd Bell Associates, one of the firms whose work he had admired. Later he moved on to Macy's corporate store design department. "It taught me how to handle several jobs at once," says Coleman, "But I got antsy. I thought I'd give residential design a try."

In 1989 he left Macy's to work for Renny B. Saltzman, a well-known New York designer whose clients included Candice Bergen and Joel Grey. Coleman struck out on his own in 1993.

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