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Behind the Scenes of Designer Showcases

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

I’ll soon be heading to San Francisco to tour its 42nd annual Designer Showcase. This year, it's being held in a mansion called "Le Petite Trianon" located in Presidio Heights. In fact, just around the corner from my old apartment. It's a national and San Francisco historic landmark built in the image of its namesake at Versailles. More about this later, when I report back from my tour.

In the meantime, since I, myself, have participated in seven showcases, in San Francisco, Marin, and the Napa Valley, I thought I’d give you an idea of what happens behind the scenes. If you’re not familiar with it, a designer showcase is a house where each room or area is renovated and/or revamped by an interior designer or artisan. The house is then opened to the public for a month and ticket sales are donated to a pre-determined organization. But before any of this happens, a committee of volunteers has been working year-round.

The committee’s first goal is to find a suitable and vacant house. It must have enough historic or architectural interest to attract the public and be large enough to make the tour worthwhile. A showcase typically has about 25 rooms and 25 designers.

Once found, the committee then sends invitations to designers to preview. There is a set day for this walk-through and, for anyone interested in designing a particular room, a subsequent day to submit a story board (a design concept). The concept generally follows an outline that the committee has previously agreed upon. This could be inspired by the architectural style of the house, its location, or a specific era. The purpose is to have a unified theme. The closer the designers follow the guidelines, the more cohesive and successful the showcase will be.

The committee chooses a designer for each room based on his or her story board. Sidenote: back in the day, these story boards were physical foam core boards with photos, drawings and samples of materials impeccably glued to the foam core in an artful, 3-D arrangement. Oh, how many fingers were victimized by sharp box-cutting razors blades!. Today, these presentations are done using various software packages.

Once in a while, designers aren’t chosen for the rooms they wanted but are asked to design different rooms. I don’t know of anyone who has rejected this proposal as it’s not only an honor to be a part of a showcase, but it’s an exceptionally thrilling and liberating experience. "Liberating" in the sense that designers can create virtually anything their imagination can conceive (within the general guidelines). They are their own clients. There are no limitations, explanations, or compromises.

Showcases are full-throttle design and meant to both entertain the public and offer great ideas to adapt in their own homes. Some outcomes are a matter of economics. One year, my design partner and I had a third-story, round dining room with a twenty-foot turreted ceiling in need of major repair. To bypass significant construction costs, we opted to create a ten-foot tent by upholstering the walls, and gathering it at the ceiling, with dusty-blue silk. We installed a giant crystal chandelier and crystal sconces which reflected ethereal and magical sparkles off the silk. It reminded us of the inside of a plush jewelry box. We knew it was not a practical idea for homeowners but it did catch the idea of a HGTV producer who later featured it on a show!

Designers have about three months to conceive, create, implement, and complete their rooms. They fund their own projects although showrooms may loan a few furnishings and tradespeople may donate labor. These three months are a time of excitement, hustle, bustle, and camaraderie among designers and their crews into all hours of the night. The week before the house is open to the public, there is a Press Day and a Gala evening – where all involved celebrate and then collapse from exhaustion. #peak #behindthescene

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