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Southern Accents
"
Interior Makeover"

by Sharon Donovan
Photographs by Jack Thompson, Jr.


 

Interior Makeover

Designer Tom Chandler strips a New Orleans room to bare bones and rebuilds it one piece at a time

by Sharon Donovan Photographs by Jack Thompson, Jr.

Tom Chandler used the hand-carved marble mantel to create an easel

for a gallery of images and textures. The colorful spirit sticks and religious

icons were all rounded up from various corners of the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a secluded palm tree-lined boulevard in an uptown New Orleans neighborhood populated with grand mansions, designer Tom Chandler is about to break some rules,
   Unlike most other designers who require consultations beforehand, Chandler has never set foot inside the home he is about to transform and has never met or conferred with the owners. He knows only that they are a young couple with three children, and like all his clients who sign on for a makeover day, they have agreed to be absent during the eight-hour transformation.
   Chandler, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, intersperses his long-range interior design projects with one-day makeovers like this one for clients throughout the South.
   9 a.m. Arms crossed, head tilted to one side, and chin resting on one hand, Chandler assesses his assignment almost like a portrait artist, picking up clues from the surroundings.  His palette: a house full of 19th-century furniture mixed with contemporary accessories and artwork. He sticks to a self-imposed ground rule on one day makeovers, to use the homeowners' possessions before introducing any new item.
   The canvas is a 20-by-35-foot living room that seems unbalanced, with furnishings placed predominantly against one wall, restricting traffic flow and providing limited conversation areas. The good news: lots of natural light streaming in from 9-foot-tall windows, 12-foot-tall ceilings, and a lyrical sense of symmetry thanks to a fireplace centered at the far end of the room. The bad news (actually, Chandler prefers to call these challenges): five doors leading into adjacent rooms, a billiard room. and an exterior alcove. Like road signs along a highway, Chandler will use them as signposts to establish traffic patterns as he redesigns the room.

 

   10 a.m. The room is literally swept dean of all furniture, art, and acces sories. Everything is piled in adjacent rooms and hallways to give Chandler a blank slate as he puts his theories into practice, rebuilding the room, one item at a time. "This is the beginning of the process, which entails making the furnishings relate to the fixed background—the walls, the windows, the fireplace—the things over which we have no control. Once those are denned, they become a part of the design, and the equation creates a certain peacefulness," he says.
   11 a.m. The emphasis shifts to what Chandler calls the springboard pieces, the largest of which he places first. Instead of the sofa against the long wall, he positions it at the far end of the room facing the fireplace. A 19th-century commode takes center stage against the empty long wall, The trumeau that was once above the commode now is elevated atop the mantel. Chandler rekindles the life within the room, piece by piece. He returns frequently for a reality check at the primary point of reference, the room's main entrance.
   Noon. "With the bones of the room now in place, Chandler turns to the art. "Art is one of the areas where we hone in on the client's personality, within the parameters of the newly restructured room," he says. A contemporary 6-by-10-foot oil painting previously hung above the sofa is not making the cut. "It's not that it's too overpowering, it's just that once the furniture is placed, there is logistically no place left for it," he says. Instead, Chandler picks from among a half-dozen other canvases, careful to mix traditional with modern, balancing the large with the small.
        "I like to mix the best of the old

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In the process:
Chandler and assistant
Steve Leonard review
the details during the
eight-hour makeover.
"Each piece must
relate to the next in
making the puzzle
complete by the end
of the day," he says.
Chandler's crew—Ann-
Marie LeBlanc,
standing, Lydia
Palasota, sitting, and
Cassandra Stanley,
in foreground with
back to camera—
coordinated a list of
items they will have
to hunt down in local
shops to complete
the makeover.
 

Chandler builds a
tableau on the carved
marble mantel using a
variety of textures and
elements, including
leather-bound books
and ornate religious
icons he has found from
a scavenger hunt
around the house.
 
 
 

 


Before (below): This furniture
grouping hampers the traffic flow
through the living room into the
adjacent study. The painting above
the sofa will not make the cut.
After (left): From behind the reposi-
tioned sofa, a new vista extends
the room; the seating areas now
facilitate traffic patterns.

with the best of the new, particularly with this young couple who seem al- ready to identify with that combina- tion. I found that exciting and wanted to intensify it," he says.
   1 p.m. In Chandler's initial survey of the home's furnishings, he found several pieces he now introduces into the living room. A long narrow wood table from an upstairs hall is centered behind the sofa, and an upholstered chair from an upstairs bedroom completes the vignette. Four colorful, exotic spirit sticks, once occupying a corner of the foyer, are now reunited at the mantel. And the mantel, once understated as a surface, now becomes an altar of a variety of icons collected from throughout the house.  A table that was previously skirted and relegated to a corner spot in the den has been unveiled and placed in the center of the room to create a conversation area.
   2 p.m. Chandler turns now to a
myriad of details—the important tran-
 

sitions from one element to the next. The goal for lighting is a variety of sources from shaded table lamps and shaded floor lamps to upward spot lighting, candles, and the all- important fireplace. The lighting serves to emphasize the individual vignettes and yet keep them united, Chandler says.
   For accessories, Chandler looks to a combination of textures to build balance. He pulls thick leather-bound books from the shelves in the adjoin-ing billiard room and stacks them on tables and beside chairs to create warm, casual settings. Occasional tables figure prominently as important punctuation to a Chandler room. "A room achieves a high level of comfort once each prospective guest has access to a flat surface," Chandler theorizes. Small tables—round, square, or irregularly shaped—will fit the bill.
   3 p.m. With a few nooks and cran- nies still unfinished and having ex- hausted the inventory from within the
 

house, Chandler sends his scouts to a variety of shops on Magazine Street. On the shopping list: a high-tech reading lamp, a cane bench, a gilded French Provincial chair to pull up to the round table at the center of the room. And, oh yes, a collection of an- tique magnifying glasses to place atop the open atlas to complete a desktop theme behind the sofa.
   While the troops are out shopping, Chandler fills in with a few items he has brought with him from his own shop, Elements of Design, in Little Rock. A round, ornate wood-framed beveled mirror is raised above the commode; an oversized flambe bowl adds focus to the round table at the center of the room; and an upholstered skirted ottoman slips easily under the round table to add to the potential of an inviting seating area.
   "Some things just fit wherever you put them," Chandler says, noting the versatility of a few good props. "We c
all it hypothetical shopping. These are

 

 

At the end of the day after his work is done, Chandler meets for the first time with homeowner Dathel Georges, who finds the transformation a welcome change of pace.

shapes and items that seem to always work. To me, they are basics, like meat and potatoes."
   4 p.m.
The shoppers are back, having found a cane bench and a simple wood chair—sans the gilt. But it works well enough, and Chandler is satisfied as he moves it into position. He tries to hide his disappointment that his crew was unable to find the antique magnifying glasses, but concedes it is usually a long shot to fill his every request.
   5 p.m. The final touches include a vase bursting with fresh flowers for the commode, a potted palm for one corner, and a potted closet lily to fill the void in the fireplace.  "I never get to this moment without feeling that the room we have re-created is as good as it can possibly be, given the space and the furnishings we have to work with," says an energized Chandler, surveying the revitalized room. "We have created a still life, but one that functions."

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