Sight Lines

Design: Specialists give your room a new life by looking at it a new way. You don't have to buy new furniture. You don't even have to be there.

February 21, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,Sun Staff

Even to the most assured client, the words must sound a bit jarring: "We're going to begin by dismantling it."

The directive is coming from Judy Alto, an interior designer who, along with colleague Jackie Gallagher, is contemplating the living room in Gerry and Nancy Dunn's Annapolis home. Sunny with pale pink walls and tastefully appointed furniture, the room is attractive but not very inviting.

Alto and Gallagher are about to change all that. But instead of bringing in new furniture, artwork and wallpaper, the two plan to transform the room with things the Dunns already own. While both have backgrounds in interior design, Alto and Gallagher specialize in the placement of furniture and accessories -- which can make a vast difference in the feel of a room.

While most people think of redecorating strictly as an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new process, interior arrangement -- or rearrangement -- has gained popularity as a quicker, often less expensive option.

"Normally, people call me because they can't pinpoint what the problem is," says Alto, who owns Crofton-based One Day Interior Makeovers and often works with Gallagher, owner of Room Smart Re-Designs. Both practice the art of interior arrangement, and Alto's work was recently filmed for a segment on the Home and Garden Television network series "Decorating Cents."

"You've bought the belongings you're most comfortable with," she says. "It's just having us work with it."

Though no one knows exactly how many people are practicing this craft professionally, the four-year-old Interior Arrangement Design Association has about 80 members nationwide. IADA president Lisa Billings said the group -- to which Alto and Gallagher belong -- formed in 1995 to provide, structure, standards and training. (Candidates must complete a training and application process to belong to the IADA.)

"We fill the need of a huge population of people who might be intimidated by a designer," says Billings, who is based in Dallas. They're afraid of buying things that they don't want or that they don't need, or that their home might not reflect their taste."

For the Dunns -- a working couple who moved into their home three years ago -- buying a house full of new furnishings was not an option.

"You get into [a new home] and you want to change some things, but your budget is shot," says Gerry Dunn, a mortgage banker. "Someone had recommended Judy, and she just came in and gave us ideas of what to do with what we had."

Though the living room had a bank of windows with a serene wooded view, the room lacks a focal point and feels formal, Alto says. The Dunns want the room to be more cozy.

"When you first walk in, it's almost too pretty to enter," Alto says.

After a brief conversation with the two designers, the Dunns bundle up their children, 5-month-old Bridghid and 2-year-old Sean, and head out for the morning. Alto and Gallagher prefer to work their magic while the family is gone.

"We're not nervous at all, Judy!" Gerry Dunn calls out, half-jokingly.

The dismantling begins.

With ruthless but careful efficiency, Alto and Gallagher begin gathering the crystal vases, the silver picture frames and other accessories, moving them into the dining room. They remove a blue chair and a striped, pink seat before moving on to the glass-topped coffee table, the nautical artwork and the plush rug. Before long, the tidy living room is a blank canvas.

Just as quickly, the two reassemble things. First, the rug is flipped at an angle, pointing toward a stained glass hanging. They lift the couch, turning it at an angle to face the French doors.

"Now the couch says, 'Come in,' " Alto says.

The blue chair and the pink seat are clustered near the couch, creating an intimate conversation area. A dark, leather recliner is brought from another room and placed in a corner, flanked by a brass lamp. A mirror comes out of the guest room onto the living room wall, where it now reflects the Dunn's wooded backyard.

Impeccably dressed and coiffed, Alto and Gallagher don't appear to break a sweat during a process that involves moving heavy furniture. Both seem assured of their decisions, pausing only to fluff a cushion or contemplate tossing In Style magazine on a table instead of Martha Stewart Living.

Paintings are rehung at eye level instead of what Alto calls "Michael Jordan" height. The glass-topped table reappears in the center, this time with a wooden horse sculpture salvaged from the dining room atop it.

By the time the plants, picture frames and crystal are placed on an antique desk and dresser, the room has been converted into something cozy and comfortable.

For good measure, Alto tosses pillows and a fringed throw over the couch while Gallagher tucks crisp, white napkins into a silver wine bucket. Alto arranges gladiolas and a floating candle in a vase. The entire process has taken less than three hours.

"Look at that, Jackie," Alto says, high-fiving Gallagher as they admire their work. They page the Dunns.

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