Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Love Pit- Part 1


It is time for a serious conversation about furniture.

I know, we've been talking about construction for so long that you have despaired of this project ever being remotely finished enough to require furniture.  Trust me, that is completely how we feel! In the twenty two years I have been living in this building, dreaming of someday turning it into my own little castle, I did not fantasize about framing and insulation, much as these things have become exciting in their own right recently.

Ceilings prepped for blow-in soundproofing insulation!

Wine cellar and bathroom got special closed-cell spray-foam insulation, just like on Love It or List It!

Rest of the walls got sound-deadening Rock Wool insulation, no off-gassing,
and can't mold even if it gets wet, can't be too careful in a basement!

But while these are exciting developments from a forward-progress standpoint, in and of themselves they are not what dreams are made of.  I never fantasized about mold-resistance or sound management.  I fantasized about rooms.  Beautiful rooms.  Rooms that had a little actual design to them.  Not design like "curated, matched within an inch of their lives, take a picture but don't sit on the furniture".  Design like things we find and collect and love and pull together with some sort of actual thought and care.

Interior design can be difficult, especially on a tight and small budget.  It is rare that you can afford to do a room completely from scratch. Usually, for most of us, you are redesigning an existing space using some of what you already have, and maybe upgrading one or two pieces, or changing paint color (more on that later this week), or swapping out accessories in hopes of a freshening up.  Ever since I moved into this place, as a 23 year old with my eclectic combination of Mom-and-Dad-me-downs and Salvation Army and flea market finds, my design has been about filling in the gaps with affordable pieces that helped tie together things I had, to hopefully make them make sense together.  And then when my Charming Suitor moved in, it was about letting go of some of what I had to make room for what he had, and working once again to make them all be friends.

This house we are working on will in many ways be no different.  As we go, room by room, we are looking at what we already own and figuring out the puzzle of making it all work together in new and hopefully reasonably cohesive combinations.

Except for one room.

The media room.

There were a few places during the house design phase that we felt were going to be worthwhile indulgences.  CS, as I have written about before, needs a wine cellar most desperately, which will shockingly pay for itself in about three years.  I need an office, so that I can stop using the living room as my primary place of work, and so that I can have a space where the writing lives that isn't in the middle of the rest of our life.  We both wanted an exercise room, because we have made a stronger commitment to our health, and a big obstacle is just getting to the gym, so we wanted to make that as easy as possible.

And then there is the media room.  Or as I call it, the room where the really big TV is going to live.

CS and I do a "guilty pleasure" movie night with another couple every few weeks, and our current living room only accommodates three people on the couch, so whenever we watch a movie, poor CS has to sit on a separate chair.  And forget having people over for Super Bowl or the Oscars or anything else requiring a bunch of folks watching TV together, just can't happen.  So we figured, since we had the space in the basement, why not do a room for just that purpose?

The media room has become one of the most fun design projects we could have imagined.  It is the only room in the house that can be a little bit fun and funky.  It is also pretty much the only room where we were literally starting from scratch.

FROM SCRATCH!  Just taking a whole room and creating a design that does exactly what you need it to do without worrying about incorporating anything you already have is both exhilarating and a little daunting.  Its one thing to work on a puzzle where you have half the pieces and need to connect them, but it is something else to look at a blank room and imagine what it will be.

We needed help.  And we needed a sectional.  Because if you are doing a room entirely devoted to gathering people to watch movies and sporting events, you need as much comfy cozy seating as you can fit.  And a sectional?  That is a big deal.  It is a major purchase, a big decision, probably the single most expensive furniture investment we may ever make, and it needs to be a good one because trust me, you do not want to end up with the wrong one, and you really don't want to have to replace it in five years.  Too stressful.

Our solution?  Walter E. Smithe.

For my Chicago area peeps, you probably don't need to know much more than the name.  Smithe has been a family owned mainstay of the Chicago area furniture scene essentially since just after World War II, and their fun commercials starring the Smithe family members are always hilarious.

Smithe Brothers at work!

But more importantly, they have a lot of easy to get to locations with a full range of product lines, which means you are guaranteed to find what you need in your budget.  And the more important part, they have on-site designers who not only know their inventory like the backs of their hands, they are trained interior designers who can help you address whatever design problem you might have.

CS and I called Smithe and were told that for sectionals, the largest selection of pieces to sit on and explore would be housed at their Oak Brook location.  We were immediately referred to Mary Jo Peters-Madick, one of their designers, and we made an appointment to meet with her.  You don't have to make an appointment, there will always be someone available to assist you if you just show up, but we wanted to be sure to set something up in advance.

We'd never been to this particular Smithe location, usually going to the Lincoln Park store since it is so close, but Oak Brook is amazing.  Really well laid out, two floors of beautifully organized vignettes, with a great center space full of fabric samples to explore.  We got there a little early and just walked around, getting all sorts of ideas, not just for the media room, but for other rooms in the house, causing CS to mutter, "This is a very dangerous place." and "Stop looking at that!" under his breath every forty seconds.  Mary Jo found us fondling a large chaise that I was imagining myself curled up in reading a book in our future bedroom, and steered us to a quiet spot in the store to chat.

Mary Jo, our design guru!

Mary Jo sat down with us and explained how the Smithe process generally works, that she wanted to ask some questions to get a sense of what we were looking to do, and to get to know us a bit.  Then she would take us around to look and play in the showroom, make some decisions. And then, if it was okay with us, she would like to set up a time to come to the house to double check measurements and see the space, just to ensure we were going to be 100% delighted with our choices.  We were thrilled to hear about this level of attention to detail, and said that sounded perfect!  She really listened to what we wanted from our space, and she wanted to hear about our thoughts when it came to design.  She asked us about the house in general, and how we live, and what we wanted the room to do for us.  She asked about our budget range, and our must-haves vs. like-to-haves.  She took a ton of notes, and we gave her the information as we knew it:

We needed a sectional that created a U shape in the room, essentially a big love pit.  We have one curved wall in that room, so we needed to address that as a design challenge.  We wanted to be able to seat at least 8 people comfortably.  We prefer down pillows to foam, although it wasn't a dealbreaker.   No skirt, no foofy design, a classic simple shape, the comfier and cozier the better.

And Mary Jo?  Knocked it out of the park.  No.  Mary Jo knocked the COVER off the ball, broke the bat, and THEN knocked it out of the park.

We ended up picking the FIRST sectional she took us to.  Don't get me wrong, CS and I sat and flopped all over that showroom for the better part of an hour, I think we test drove every sectional in the place, but we came back to that first one that she had recommended, and it was the clear winner.  It had all the pieces we needed, including a curved wedge corner that would make the curved wall a feature instead of a problem.  It had two different depths available, so we could find the one that worked for us both...not an easy challenge since I'm 5'3" and CS is 6'.  It had several options for arm style, and we chose a straight contemporary one.  And there were three types of pillows available, including down.  It had some other customization available, so we would be able to get one piece made six inches longer to better fill the room.  Tons of fabric options, most of them included, some available for an extra charge.  And the basic set up was dead nuts in our budget.  You know how sometimes you go someplace and give them a budget and then they show you something you fall in love with and it turns out to be three times your price point?  Apparently this is just not allowed at Smithe, when you tell them what you want to spend, they stick to that, and if you start to look on your own at things beyond your budget, they will let you know immediately so you can decide if you still want to explore that option and potentially increase your budget, or just move along.

Mary Jo took a zillion notes about the pieces we would need, and their measurements, and then set up a time a few days later to come to the house.

CS and I left the store giddy.  The whole thing, which we thought would be stressful, turned out to be so much fun!  With more fun to come...

Stay tuned, because later this week I will share Mary Jo's visit, and how we came up with the final design of the room, and show you some pictures of samples!

In the meantime, the key takeaways for us from the first part of this adventure, were this:

1:  If you are in the greater Chicagoland area, we cannot recommend Walter E. Smithe enough.  Mary Jo is obviously special to us, but she assures us that while she appreciates our love of her, all of the design team members at all of the locations are just as lovely and easy to work with, and we totally believe her.  Having said that, feel free to ask for her personally, and tell her I sent you!

2:  If you are not in Chicago, see if there is a reputable family owned furniture company that is local to you, the overall experience is just a little more personal than you are likely to get with a larger national chain, and just like with bookstores, it is always nice to support someone independent and local if you can.  If there isn't one available to you, call ahead wherever you are going to shop, and see if you can make an appointment with an actual designer and not just a salesperson, especially if you have any design challenges to deal with.  The whole thing would have been totally overwhelming and not nearly as much fun if we had just gone in cold and tried to do it on our own.

3:  Mary Jo advised us that with a big purchase like a sofa, to pay close attention to the infrastructure of the piece.  You want solid hardwood construction, really good bones, because if you get a piece that has good bones, you can always reupholster it later if it gets outdated or if pets and kids make it look shabby.  You might find cheaper versions, but the frames can crack and sag and wear out, and ultimately you'll have to replace the whole thing instead of just having cushions restuffed or upholstery replaced, or slipcovers made.  She also showed us that there are good quality pieces in almost every price range, so you should be able to find something that will last in your budget.

4:  Measure the crap out of your space, two to three times at least, preferably with different people, especially doors and entrances and stairs.  Does you no good to order the perfect thing and then find out you can't get it in the house.  Ask if feet or backs are removable if you have tight turns or narrow doorways.

5:  This isn't the time for instant gratification.  Take your time, test things out, you'll be happier in the long run if you make the decision really carefully.

Part 2 of the sectional adventure later this week!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

1 comment:

  1. I wish I would've known how important it was to measure doors etc before I bought my first sofa! I knew to get one with good bones, and I went to a local company that made great stuff. But even though I told the sales woman more than once that I lived in a funky little post-war apartment building with an wall 3 ft from the door, she insisted the delivery guys were amazing and could get anything in anywhere. And I fell for it. Needless to say they weren't that magical, and my sofa didn't fit. Measure measure measure!