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Designing Women

Adele Chapin blogs at <a href="http://www.goshgeegolly.com">www.goshgeegolly.com</a>.
Adele Chapin blogs at www.goshgeegolly.com. (Yassine El Mansouri)

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By Adele Chapin
Sunday, May 10, 2009

When the shelter magazine Domino folded earlier this year, I was one of the thousands of disappointed readers. Domino glorified the quirky, artsy house next door. Unlike most glossy shelter magazines, it didn't push $12,000 couches. Instead, the homes in the magazine always looked like a fascinating person lived there, and, more important, the Domino style seemed within reach. In fact, I had the magazine in mind when I signed up for an introductory interior design class through the Corcoran's continuing education program last fall. I wanted to see if I had the chops to create a room that could belong in the pages of Domino.

Our cheerful, 20-something teacher assigned us the task of redoing a room in our house over the course of the semester. Living in a tiny apartment, my options were limited. The living room would have to do, and I snapped a few "before" pictures. But when I got to class the next week and looked at my fellow students' home renovation projects, I realized I might be in over my head. I didn't have a 100-year-old house in Chevy Chase or a killer loft in Northwest. What I did have: roommates from Craigslist and a selection of secondhand furniture, also from Craigslist. A quick glance around the room revealed that no one else had a bicycle parked in the living room.

Then there was the matter of my particular decor ethos: I like bright colors, the brighter the better. I like paper lanterns and shaggy rugs and wall decals, things that more delicate types may deem "tacky." But my fellow classmates were stylish women in their late 20s to 40s, and plastic furniture no longer had a place in their homes. One student asked the class what she should do with an empty space in her formal living room, and I thought about suggesting that a Ping-Pong table would be a nice touch but decided it would be best to hold my tongue.

I began to understand how contestants on "Project Runway" feel when judge Nina Garcia looks at their garments, wrinkles her nose and says, "I just worry about your taste level."

But the weeks went on, and I went to work, dutifully taking measurements and cutting out fabric samples. I decided on the somewhat controversial color scheme of hot pink and orange. Each class, we all listened to design quandaries, such as the student who wanted to know how to install custom shelves or the woman who wanted to find the right shade of red for her curtains. Another student, Johanna, was redecorating her boyfriend's living room and had a tougher challenge: The space was currently painted salmon pink and furnished with questionable leather armchairs and speakers that Must Not Be Touched under any circumstances. We all pitched in with advice, and soon we were becoming a little interior design family, albeit a family that didn't quite know each other's names.

Instead we referred to one another by renovation project.

"Oh, dear, looks like Pottery Display Case isn't going to make it to class today," we'd say.

But we all had something in common -- beyond our expired subscriptions to Domino. We believed that it's worth it to create something beautiful in the ordinary stuff of day-to-day life. Throw pillows don't matter in the grand scheme of things, but there's something compelling about putting your personal stamp on your surroundings. As I looked at my classmates' home projects, I wondered, would that be me one day, picking out fabrics for a reading nook for my child? Or designing the master bedroom in my first home? It was almost like glimpsing the future, via floor plans. I wondered what my life -- and my house -- would look like in years to come. Right now, I'm an orange and hot pink person, but maybe one day I will embrace Zen neutrals. Who knows?

At the end of class, we all presented our visions for our spaces, using mood boards plastered with pictures cut out of catalogues. But Johanna had something else to share: an engagement ring. Soon the salmon pink living room would be hers, and she would repaint it, of course. We all agreed that her fiance must've really been impressed with her interior design skills.

As for me? Thanks to my stint in interior design school, I ended up creating a groovy living room that looks like Austin Powers might drop by at any moment. I'm now the proud owner of an orange couch, as in construction-cone orange. I had to specially order the slipcover, because apparently people don't buy this color much. The salesperson didn't pass excessive judgment on me for buying it, and, surprisingly, my roommates like it. I like it as well. This orange futon might not make it into the living room of my future, but for my current apartment and for the person I am today, it matches perfectly.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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