The same thing that's right with most show houses is also what's wrong with them.
They are fantasies: gorgeous, faux-finished rooms crammed with beautiful furnishings. But you can't imagine real people living in them.
"La Ruche," this year's Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House, balances luxury with livability better than most. Partly it's the house. The French country-inspired mansion on North Charles Street, built in the 1920s, has new owners; many of the 34 interior and six exterior designers who took part tried to work with their preferences. As a result, there are real design lessons to be learned -- as well as the usual over-the-top finishes, elaborate window treatments, and extravagant furniture and appointments to be gaped at.
Maybe you wish you felt more comfortable adding color to a room. The bold use of color is one of today's biggest home design trends, but doing it successfully can be difficult. Room after room in this year's show house will help.
Bright color doesn't have to shock. It can soothe, as the master bedroom illustrates. Ludwig Designs decided to turn the room into a lady's boudoir, at least for the duration of the show house.
"I like to push the envelope with color," says the designer, G. Ludwig Hucek, a Maryland native who is based in France.
The room's walls are white, the floor covering is a neutral sisal, and the bed is swathed in a sheer white fabric. But look closely and you'll see the cloth is hand-embroidered with tiny flowers. Their hues are picked up elsewhere in the room. The fresh green curtains have periwinkle blue ties, and the 18th and 19th century furniture is upholstered in a clear yellow and a soft pink. The result is feminine and relaxing.
In the show house's living room, color is used to add warmth and avoid too much formality.
"We drew the colors from the [striated marble] fireplace, the main architectural element remaining in the room," says Katherine Behrens Crosby of GMI Design.
The designers used the fireplace's copper and black throughout the room and added punches of color, like the spring green ottoman. You can also take your inspiration from artwork, as Kimberly Davey of F. Meyer Designs did in the woman's home office. The cheerful pinks and greens of the garden scenes brighten and expand the tiny room.
On the other hand, the designers at Rita St. Clair Associates Inc. decided not to use the colors of the fireplace in furnishing the dining room. They were too dark and forbidding for the sunny room, says Ted Pearson. "Don't become fixated on one item."
The Rita St. Clair designers envisioned the room as "spring centered," best viewed in daylight because of its large bow window. You might not think of orange and blue as spring colors, but in this room they are. Brunschwig & Fils provided the colorful, richly patterned wall-coverings, upholstery and draperies.
"Color has to be used judiciously, but you shouldn't be afraid of it," says Pearson. "People are a little too worried about matching."
This season's hot colors are blue and brown; the combination is also one that the owners of La Ruche like. Susan Obrecht of Morgan Truesdell Interiors picked up the turquoise and chocolate brown in the couch's toile fabric for the family multimedia room. It's a lot of blue and brown, but the results are striking.
Color isn't the only trend you'll see at this year's decorators' show house. In modern homes, laundry rooms are no longer located inconveniently in the basement; consumers are also demanding that they be multi-purpose rooms. When the symphony took over La Ruche, the new owners asked that the old kitchen be converted into a laundry room, while the former breakfast room and butler's pantry became a new, larger kitchen. D.A.R.E. Designs has created a whimsical, colorful room where kids can play while Mom is folding clothes.
Some people think eclectic design means that you can put any period and any style together in a room. But that doesn't mean they work together. To see how very disparate elements do work, stop by Joy Owens Interiors' small guest bedroom, which contains a reproduction Louis XV armchair, an antique marble and walnut bureau, a small contemporary Lucite table and a leopard rug. They all seem very comfortable together, and the result is a cozy, very personal room.
Designer show houses are worth visiting if you pick up only one trick of the trade. There are many in this year's show house, but one of the most engaging is the chandelier in the grand gallery and reception area. The wrought iron, painted-white fixture didn't have much pop, but the owners wanted to keep it. Designer Steven Sutor of Chambers decided to redo it himself with bronze acrylic paint and antique gold highlights. He then added sparkle by draping it with crystals from Wilson Lighting.
"It gives the chandelier a presence for next to nothing," Sutor says.
What: The 2005 Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House
Where: 5901 N. Charles St., Homeland. (Parking and shuttle service are available at the north lot of the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.)
Hours: Open Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. through May 22.
Tickets: $15; $20 at door.
Call: 410-783-8000 or go to www.baltimoresymphony. org / showhouse. Advance tickets also sold at Graul's, Super Fresh, other local businesses. Proceeds benefit educational activities of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.