- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Want to give your home a fresh look? Most of us do at one time or another, but trying to extrapolate how your new room will look from a paint strip can be a bit daunting. That's what makes today's new housing developments so useful. Even if you have no intention of buying a new home, a day spent traipsing through the various models can be time well spent.

For one thing, you'll get to see how a color theme actually looks on the walls.
"A lot of people go through models as a form of entertainment," says Bill Carroll of Model Home Interiors, an interior-design firm based in Beltsville. "It's a Sunday-afternoon outing for a lot of people."
Walk around a model home, and you'll get a notion of what's current in color. It's a fair bet you won't see much mauve, that mainstay of '80s decorating. The glossy chintzes of 10 years ago are long gone, too. What you will see are muted greens and creams, subtle reds and blues with accents of vibrant color — a broader array of color than ever before. You'll also get a few ideas about light, texture and the use of space.
"We go to six major design markets a year," says Mr. Carroll, whose design teams furnish homes built by some of the area's top builders, including Winchester Homes, Pulte Homes and Mitchell & Best. "It gives us a good canvass of what people are responding to and lets us keep our own looks fresh."
Note this, though: Builders, whether they use an in-house designer or an outside firm such as Model Home Interiors, organize their colors and arrange their furniture to fulfill one basic need. They want to sell houses.
Some builders have their designers work to ensure that their homes mirror their architectural style and feel. Models can have the classic "Mitchell & Best look," a mixture of traditional and contemporary elements, or the luxurious fabrics and textures associated with a Renaissance home design.
Tom Moran of Craftmark Homes notes that builders also try to have their designers reflect the tastes of their potential buyers.
"Every model is done differently to fit the specific market," he says. "We look at the demographics and then try to market our homes to their tastes."
For example, model homes in a golf-course community such as River Creek in Leesburg, Va., use golfing motifs as well as those special touches that denote a degree of affluence.
At one time, a model home in Leesburg would have been furnished very differently from a similar model in Rockville or Silver Spring. That has changed as the area has become more mobile.
"Northern Virginia has become a lot more open to variations in design in the last 10 years," Mr. Carroll says. "A lot of that is thanks to new buyers with dot-com money. And most of them, thanks to the shelter magazines, are pretty well-versed in design trends."
The new buyers are younger, too, especially in Northern Virginia. They don't want to feel as if they are living with their grandmother.
"Ten years ago, we would have furnished a Northern Virginia home with Queen Anne furniture, wing chairs and Chippendale sofas," Mr. Carroll says. "Now the matched-furniture-throughout-the-house look is gone."
To update a home for today's lifestyle, look for the things that will make you comfortable.
"People want to come home from their high-stress jobs to a place they can relax in," Mr. Carroll says. "They are interested in things other than furniture, like the media center or home theater."
So how do builders put together a home to meet the demands of today's market?
The top builders turn to the best in the business, whose design expertise can turn heads while turning space into a showcase.
Many turn to Model Home Interiors, whose Beltsville warehouse is filled with furniture and all the trimmings. "We take an imagined buyer and create a lifestyle for them," Mr. Carroll says.
That means filling a model home with a lot more than just furniture. In addition to case furniture in a variety of styles from dozens of companies, the rooms are filled with flowers, kitchen accessories, books, toys and games. There's even a basketball hoop for the builder who wants to focus on an active family lifestyle, and a rack filled with tiny rain slickers.
There also are a lot of decorative pillows. "Animal skins are hot right now," Mr. Carroll says. "We use them as accents."
Even with all those accessories at their fingertips, at a model home you will rarely, if ever, see a window completely covered by a curtain.
Of course, that can be a good thing. Just about any home would benefit from letting in a little more light.
"You can always use sheers if you need more privacy," says Julia Pratt, design director of Renaissance. "You can still keep the idea of side panels and a valence."
It's all about showcasing the space.
"The design of the homes themselves have changed a lot," Mr. Carroll says. "The living room has shrunk in size, and the family room has become more dominant. That calls for a different use of furniture."
Michael Harris homes, for example, are known for certain dramatic architectural elements, such as sweeping walls of glass, that catch the eye as soon as one walks through the home. The Harris designer uses interiors to spotlight this feature.
"A lot of what we do in design is to bring the outdoors in," says Harris Schwalb, who runs the company with his brother Michael, "but we always try to be original."
Often, designers use particular objects as memory points that a prospective buyer can recall and make reference to. Mr. Schwalb recalls one Michael Harris house with a blood-red sink.
"We like to have some unique pieces," he says, "but it all starts with architecture and good design."
More light. More space. The need to showcase the space, however, means that furniture can be arranged in some unexpected ways.
"You might try not putting a sofa against the long wall, where people expect it to be." Mr. Carroll says. "You have to look at it analytically and place the furniture to make the home as spacious as possible."
In an upstairs bedroom at the Monet model built by Renaissance for the new Beacon Hill community in Leesburg, two twin beds are pushed against two walls, forming a 90-degree angle. Around them on the walls are broad horizontal stripes of red and white.
"It makes things roomier," Mrs. Pratt says, "and the stripes reinforce the arrangement of the beds."
The room, which like most children's bedrooms isn't particularly large, seems spacious indeed, with room for a play table and chairs in the middle. It's cozy rather than cramped, scaled down for the needs of an active pair of youngsters.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about what could be an unprepossessing room, however, are the figures that cavort on the walls. The large cutouts are a fixture of designer Lita Dirks' work, Mrs. Pratt says, and the idea could be duplicated easily to dress up an existing child's room.
Downstairs at the Monet, distinctive ceiling fans turn lazily in a room filled with muted greens and reds.
Of course, not everyone can afford a $1.5 million Renaissance home. In the end, though, whether you own a $200,000 town house or a $2 million estate, the key is comfort and a little bit of drama.
"Don't be afraid of color," Mr. Carroll says. "You can always paint over."
"Focus on distinctive elements, whether architectural or decorative," Mr. Schwalb says.
"Don't be afraid to go slow," Mrs. Pratt says. "You don't have to buy everything at once."
Buy what you like, too, not what the market demands.
"You want your house to be dramatic and exciting," Mr. Carroll says, "but you also want a home you can live in. Buy what you love because you'll love it forever."

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