From The Ground Up

A Baltimore County couple built the home of their dreams, as a designer held their hands for every step.

January 26, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

When Denise and Harvey Schonwald hired David Reiersen to help with their new home, the newlyweds got more than an interior designer. For nine months, he was their architectural consultant, therapist, handyman, personal shopper, marriage counselor (choosing furniture can put stress on a relationship), florist, mediator with trades people and general fixer.

He spray-painted lamps bought at thrift shops and worked out flaws in the floor plans. He found them an architect, Stan Ryder Jr., and a builder, Mark Koski, to create the home of their dreams -- people he had worked with successfully on other projects.

Reiersen, 48, is one of a new breed of designers who get involved in the total process of building a home long before the first shovelful of dirt is turned. Don't even bother with the word "interior." Designers are helping select everything from roofing materials to outdoor plants.

"Today's home buyers are more sophisticated, and they're demanding it," says Michelle Snyder of the American Society of Interior Designers, based in Washington, D.C. "When a designer is part of the creative team from the beginning, it can help with the space planning and avoid costly mistakes."

Reiersen learned about construction growing up in Baltimore. His father was an electrical wireman with General Electric and built his own home. His brother is an engineer and has built a couple of his homes as a hobby.

"I know what goes into construction," says the designer. "I can make physical decisions as well as esthetic ones."

Some interior designers work for an hourly fee. Others make their money on furnishings they buy wholesale or labor, marking them up 100 percent or more. Or they do a combination of both. Reiersen, who works alone and out of his Perry Hall home, has an unusual arrangement with his clients: He charges a monthly retainer of $3,000, a hefty sum to most of us; but nothing he buys -- from plumbing fixtures to armoires -- is marked up. The Schonwalds estimate he saved them $100,000.

Smoothing conflicts

Perhaps even more important, the couple say, is the fact that there was very little aggravation involved in the process. Their stone-and-brick Worthington Valley home with five bedrooms, five baths and two half baths was completed two months ahead of schedule.

"The only conflict came between my husband and me," says Denise, 38, who favors traditional while her husband likes contemporary.

When Denise wanted to keep an old-fashioned chair inherited from her grandfather, her husband protested. "That ugly blue thing isn't coming into the house."

Reiersen stepped in. "The chair means a lot to her, Harvey. We'll upholster it." Harvey, 53, was the one who picked the fabric (a multicolored but subdued abstract pattern) from several samples Reiersen suggested. The result is a stunner.

"We got married and a month later started building. And we're still married," Denise says with a smile. The couple knew what they wanted in a new home. They just didn't know how to make it happen. They knew what they liked when they saw it. They just didn't want to spend the time tracking it down.

They talked to interior designers, who brought portfolios and charged $50 an hour to be interviewed. But no one clicked.

Finally, someone recommended David Reiersen, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"They told us, 'He's a little on the flamboyant side and he likes bright colors,'" says Harvey. "But that didn't bother us as long as he did what we wanted. He didn't bring a portfolio, he just came and talked to us. We just hit it off."

The Schonwalds didn't realize how much they would need to hit it off. For almost a year, Reiersen would be with them more than some of their closest friends were.

"It's important to watch everything about a family," he says.

Starting out

He started by spending time with the couple in the Sykesville home they were renting and with each of Denise's three children by a former marriage. He found out what they liked, what their hobbies were, how they used their living spaces, and what they wanted in their new rooms.

"David said, 'Why don't you consider letting the kids do their rooms themselves?' But I almost reneged when Lauren [their 9-year-old] insisted on bright green and yellow," Denise says. Kevin, 6, loves bugs and wanted a room decorated with insect motifs and animals. Traci, 11, asked for clowns.

Reiersen suggested they use paint and inexpensive furnishings from Ikea and thrift shops, things they wouldn't mind getting rid of in a few years when the children's tastes changed. But for the more permanent elements of the house's interior -- tiles, countertops and cabinets, wall-to-wall carpets -- he urged them to choose neutral colors and classic styles, giving the house a broader appeal if they decide to sell later. At the same time, there are no "safe" off-white walls. Denise doesn't like them. The overall color scheme includes soft grays, taupes and bronzes.

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