Lights, Camera, New Basement!

Ellicott City couple's downstairs makeover stars on 'Designers' Challenge'

Focus On Home Design

July 11, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Ellie Litman is exhausted, but she's game.

She walks down the stairs to her newly decorated basement and says -- once more, with feeling -- "Annlynn, I love what you've done with this area down here. It is really nice."

She said the same thing three hours ago when the Home and Garden Television crew first starting shooting the final segment of the Designers' Challenge that will air here on Wednesday at 8 p.m. It's beginning to sound pretty natural.

The designer, Annlynn Best of Dramatic Comfort Interiors in Baltimore, looks just as modestly pleased as she probably did the first time her client said it.

Designers' Challenge is one of HGTV's most popular series. The weekly half-hour show follows real people as they select one of three designers to decorate a room, then gives highlights of the renovation. A year ago last March, Ellie's husband, Del, submitted the aboveground basement of their Ellicott City home as a possible do-over. (The show places the house in a "Baltimore neighborhood," which will come as a surprise to Ellicott City residents.)

When you apply to be on Designers' Challenge, you give the production company, Pie Town Productions, a budget figure. Del set it high, at $60,000, hoping his project would be more likely to be chosen.

The aboveground basement was a blank canvas: a huge room -- 2,000 square feet -- with off-white walls and off-white carpeting. The Litmans wanted it transformed into a comfortable living space where they could entertain large numbers of people.

There were four givens. Each designer's plan must include a pinball machine, a pool table, a bar and a home theater. At the same time, the space had to function as a stylish living room where they could bring guests.

"The most challenging part was making it work for large groups of people, but also for them to be able to use it on a daily basis," says Best.

Once HGTV accepted the Litmans' project, the show's producer, Eric Mathis, got a list of local American Society of In-terior Designers members and started making phone calls. Besides Annlynn Best, he selected Linda Everett and Monica Meade of LMI Design Studio in Bethesda and James "Jay" Dillinger, senior designer at Louis Mazor Inc. in Baltimore to make the three presentations.

"Each designer had something we really liked," says Ellie, "something really different."

The Litmans were given a week to choose; they decided on Best just before the deadline. It was mid-June, and the designer was told filming of the finished project would take place the first week in October. When she said she didn't think she could get the furniture in so short a time (manufacturers shut down for a couple of weeks in July) -- let alone finish the project -- the producer responded, "Annlynn, I have all the faith in the world in you."

The room was completed three days before filming was to begin, with Best working 20-hour days. Meanwhile, trips to select furnishings and the pinball machine were filmed as part of the show. Although there was no script, the shopping trips turned into long days with many takes.

The Litmans -- Del, 61, is an aluminum broker; Ellie, 57, doesn't work outside the home -- are very traditional in their decorating tastes, but they wanted something a bit more relaxed in the new space. For continuity, Best used the jewel tones -- burgundy, gold, sapphire blue and deep green -- that she found in the rooms upstairs.

She commissioned artist Mary Viega to paint a mural of the Litmans' summer home in South Carolina, giving her samples of the 16 colors she would be using in the room's interior design and even their percentages. The Litmans have three sons and a new grandson, so the artist painted a boy swinging from a tree in the foreground. The mural adds warmth and personality to the mirrored bar.

The focal point of the renovated basement is a living-room-like seating area: two sofas and two chairs-and-a-half centered around a square coffee table. The furniture and accessories come from Shofer's in Federal Hill.

The home theater area, with a huge television, two leather recliners and two love seats, is separated from the rest of the basement by the staircase, but also by the deep raspberry color of the walls. The pinball machine is nestled next to the stairs. The room's incidental furniture includes high pub tables and stools near the pool table where guests can watch the players and a game table in a small nook.

The result is several cozy spaces that can be opened up to accommodate 30 or 40 guests comfortably. But mostly the renovated basement is used as the Litmans' living area.

"When the family's all here," says Del, "then they're down here."

The room created for Designers' Challenge is just what the Litmans wanted, but would they do it again? Nobody's saying, but Ellie is cautiously positive about the experience of filming for TV.

"They made it fun," she says. "Otherwise, it would have been boring."

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