The Fact Checker turns his skills to contemporary design

September 27, 2013

Not long ago, a Washington area homeowner looking for the airiness of a Noguchi lamp or the clean lines of European-style cabinetry would be forced to journey between the handful of modern furnishing stores scattered across the metropolitan region — or head to New York City. In what our children still regard as the summer from hell, my wife, Cindy, and I once spent weekend after weekend fruitlessly in search of new front doors that would bring a contemporary edge to our 1960s-era split-level home in McLean.

Now, thanks to the Internet, time-strapped contemporary lovers who feel trapped in the staid and traditional homes of the DMV can outfit their homes without ever leaving their couches.

Cindy and I stumbled into this discovery more out of desperation than design. But once we realized the vast array of goods available with a click of a mouse — including custom-made doors, flooring, lights and even fancy toilets, often at deep discounts — we were able to obtain a large chunk of the materials we needed for a recent expansion of our house.

The expansion would allow us to enlarge the tiny, 1960s bathrooms, add a study, increase the size of the master bedroom, install three walk-in closets, elevate the ceiling and even add a second-floor balcony off the bedroom.

We wanted a clean and contemporary look, to match the modern spaces we had created in the entrance and living room. And at first, we had no intention of designing the expansion, much less sourcing the materials ourselves. (Source list.) We thought our lives were much too busy and wanted someone to guide us. But after the well-known build-design firm we had hired came to do precise measurements, the owner suddenly announced there was no way he could do the renovation for the cost of his initial bid and pulled out of the project.

It turned out to be a stroke of luck. We went with Saba Construction & Design, whose owner, Bahram Saba, had done work for neighbors. Saba did not know much about contemporary design, but he was willing to learn and was very flexible, as long as he could squeeze out a reasonable profit. We were on our own — but now we could pursue our own course.

For design ideas, we had started looking at magazines such as Dwell and Architectural Digest. Then, we turned to the Web site Houzz, which has more than 1.5 million photographs featuring every type of style. With so many possibilities, who needed an architect or interior designer?

Of course, we made some rookie mistakes. Cindy had a vision of a master bathroom with natural light from wrap-around windows (with rain glass for any areas below the chest). When we proudly showed our plans to Jim Bartak at Union Hardware, however, he astutely asked how the water supply for the rain shower would get past the wrap-around windows. (We ended up adding a shower column, which had the added benefit of giving us an option of a regular shower head.)

Once the plans were set, we still needed fixtures and furnishings. But between our jobs and our children, we didn’t have enough time to go trudging across the metropolitan area. Instead, with rare exceptions, we found what we needed on the Web.

We had had luck with the Internet before; we had finally replaced our front doors after I discovered a company in California called Neoporte that made stainless steel doors with contemporary glass enclosures. Once we had crossed that Rubicon—ordering our front doors without ever seeing them in person— we were ready to try anything.

Cindy, for instance, saw a door with an unusual design on Houzz that she thought would work well as a sliding door to the walk-in closet. That door had frosted glass, which was too heavy for our purposes, but then I located a company called Cherry Tree Design in Bozeman, Mont. They were willing to custom-make the same design, in cherry wood, with a Shoji screen.

We had also been looking for a pair of 8-foot-tall doors for the master bathroom, which we had designed to hang on exposed barn door hardware, so they could slide open. Cherry Tree recreated the same design as the closet door in wood, with a special modification for the barn door hardware. The hardware itself came from a small company in Oregon, and the stainless steel handles came from a third supplier.

We became adept at triangulating among Internet suppliers, grabbing the lowest possible price for a particular item. Of course, we did not just order willy-nilly from any Internet store. We always made sure to double-check Better Business Bureau ratings, blog posts and other sources of information about reliability.

With rare exceptions, we ordered only from places that offered free shipping. The quality of the service was generally excellent, with items in stock as promised, well-packed and swiftly delivered.

The beauty of buying on the Web is that your imagination is not limited by what’s in a store. Googling around one night, I found wall panels offered by B&N Industries, a company located near San Francisco. We had searched in vain for a contemporary headboard, but these panels — normally used in retail stores — offered a perfect solution. They could be attached to the wall, adding an architectural element and avoiding the need for the headboard.

Web firms also can be accommodating. We designed the color scheme of our bedroom to match a large painting by the abstract artist Deolinda Fonseca that we had purchased while on a vacation in Europe. ModernRugs.com persuaded Spanish rug designer Nani Marquina to knit one of her rugs in a custom color that matched the blue in the painting.

It probably helped that we were confident in our taste and judgment, allowing us to gamble on buying things we had never seen in person. (We placed more than 50 orders on the Web and never sent anything back.) But one hard lesson we learned was to always check the merchandise when it arrives. Months after we had received it, we finally unpacked the expensive Toto toilet we had ordered during a flash sale on HomeClick.com — and discovered the bowl was cracked. It was the sort of damage that has to be reported within days for a full refund. Our home insurance wound up covering the cost of the original purchase, minus the deductible. But the problem could have been avoided with a simple peek at what we had bought. (More tips.)

I was surprised to learn you can buy flooring on the Web, and few purchases were as satisfying. The price at 1AFlooring.com couldn’t be beat, and the firm shipped the order within hours of my purchase. Two days later, a semi-trailer showed up with more than 560 square feet of Nova Scotia maple flooring.

Not everything could be easily purchased at discount on the Web. We searched everywhere for contemporary windows and had located Dynamic Architectural Windows & Doors of Canada. But their quote was three times higher than the Marvin Windows we could buy in downtown McLean. (To Dynamic’s credit, they raved about Marvin’s quality.)

And sometimes we were willing to pay more for salespeople’s expertise. The sinks in the master bathroom were manufactured from a single sheet of glass, custom made to fit our cabinets and faucets; that combination was ordered from Union Hardware. We got our bathroom tile and the vanities in the other bathrooms at Porcelanosa, a Spanish firm with a showroom in Bethesda, during its annual 40-percent off sale.

But the Internet taught us not to be chumps. So, when we need a railing for our balcony, and local stores either had nothing contemporary or nothing on display — and all said it would take weeks for delivery — I went back to the Web. I found Inline Design of Seattle, which had exactly what we wanted — a stainless steel rail design — and could ship it to us within three days.

We couldn’t have done this without Saba’s willingness to put up with our somewhat un­or­tho­dox methods and exacting standards. (He credited us with the allowances he had assumed for materials.) In the end, the expansion was so much more satisfying — and personal —because we did so much ourselves. We also could afford high-end furnishings such as Vitraform glass sinks because of all the money we had saved elsewhere.

Indeed, whenever Cindy and I see an ad for the big-name build-design firm, we turn to each other and say: “Thank goodness he dropped us.”

Glenn Kessler writes “The Fact Checker” column for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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