Making Space for Guests

By Patricia Dane Rogers
Washington Post Staff Writer

Until her octogenarian mother-in-law announced that she'd prefer to lie on top of the folded sleep sofa instead of opening it, the hostess hadn't realized the problem her guest room presented.

When the bed was pulled out, the guest confessed, she was trapped. To open the door, she had to fold it back into the sofa.

It was worse for another host, whose guest rose one midnight, groping for a light. It wasn't on the side table, where he knocked over the water glass, so he continued his search, feeling his way along the wall. When he finally found the light switch, he discovered that the "water glass" was an ink bottle and he had planted handprints across the wall.

Could this happen to your house guests?

As the holidays arrive, bringing friends and relatives with them, prospects of overnight guests can engender feelings of dread -- not because they aren't welcome, but because of worries about where they will sleep.

On the convertible sofa in the den? On the cot that rolls out to the living room? In one of the kids' rooms -- alongside the stuffed animals and football gear?

"Guest rooms are different from other kinds of rooms because ...they're created for others to use," New York design guru Mark Hampton says in his book "On Decorating."

"Therefore," he notes, "you cannot say about your guest room, 'I like it so the hell with it.' "

What's the secret to a good guest room? Over the years, etiquette mavens such as Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt have listed a variety of "essentials," from down pillows to scented soaps. In 1955, Post included cigarettes and an ashtray. Hampton writes of "the seductive luxuries of Porthault linens, the coffee tray brought by the maid who comes to open the shutters ... the view of ... acres and acres of rolling ... farmland," and a writing desk.

Dream on, you say? The pampering of guests is not so simple in most contemporary households. Lifestyles are busier, less formal, and practically no one -- including interior designers -- has palatial space to offer. Even Hampton.

For instance, he has two guest rooms at his country place inSouthampton but none in his Manhattan apartment. One of the rooms is "much too small" for a writing desk, and "alas, there is no maid to bring the breakfast tray upstairs. I wish there were," he reports.

Washington designer John Peters Irelan says, "Most of my clients have a heck of a lot more space for guests than you or I."

But even when designers are confronted with space problems, they are likely to have an edge when it comes to solving them.

Irelan, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a turn-of-the-century building on upper Connecticut Avenue, has created a guest retreat out of the 10-foot-by-8-foot space at the end of his living room. Fortunately, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, the architect, had remodeled the apartment for a previous client, leaving pocket doors to close off the alcove from the rest of the room. It is furnished in the same beige and white fabrics as the living room, and when the doors are open the two rooms seem of a piece.

Other designers have also tackled guest spaces with aplomb. Allan Reyes created his canopied extravaganza in a Crystal City high-rise. Ronn and Marlene Jaffe's guest room has a Monet theme. Marilyn Poling's is a luxurious retreat. Lee Feuerstein squeezed two beds into her seven-foot-wide room, and Jock Davis has both sound equipment and a sleep sofa in his dual-purpose guest room.

Irelan's alcove was originally a servant's quarters.

"It's a teeny room with no closet and an awful view," he says. "It's perfect because no one ever stays too long."

Irelan provides for his company's comfort but he doesn't stand on ceremony. "The house rules are pretty relaxed here," he says. "My guests are usually here on business and don't need to be entertained every minute." They have the run of the kitchen and the living room, he says, and "sometimes, if we're both free, we'll have dinner together."

In addition to a daybed (a single, extra-long model with a tailored linen coverlet) the room has an antique dresser (with empty drawers), a phone, a down-filled club chair and hassock, a good reading light and an antique Sevres clock that works. On a side table, Irelan keeps a carafe of brandy. White matchstick shades camouflage the view and a blackout shade pulled down behind them lets visitors sleep late. There are loads of drawers and dressing space in the adjacent white-tiled bathroom and a hook on the back of the door that's strong enough to hold a suit-filled hanging bag.

Opening the medicine cabinet for inspection, he says, "I stock emergency stuff -- the kinds of things I need if I am visiting" -- mouthwash, a sewing kit, Band-Aids, Tylenol, shaving lotion, emery boards, an extra toothbrush and toothpaste. "And airline slippers and shower caps I've snitched from hotels. Believe me, they get used."

The sound of music -- loud music -- is coming from the guest room of Jock Davis's sixth-floor apartment, a two-bedroom condo in a complex near Mount Vernon. The guest room -- a small, bottle-green den with a convertible sofa -- doubles as Davis's recording studio.

A principal in Living Well, etc., a design firm with offices in Washington and East Hampton, N.Y., Davis is also a rock composer and musician.

That's him singing and strumming "Tell Me" on the tape that's playing -- the soundtrack from "Metropolitan," the Whit Stillman film of manners about New York debs and their beaux. Davis and two friends composed the score and recorded it here last year, in his home studio.

"Welcome to my rock-and-roll Edwardian guest room," he says. "I painted it dark to hide the wires."

Only close, close friends are invited to stay with Davis and his wife, Denise. "To pull the bed out, we have to carry the coffee table into the hall," he announces cheerfully. "And they have to walk carefully around the sofa unless they want their ankles amputated."

The status of the closet could be another reason for a paucity of guests. Its doors have been removed and the space inside is occupied by an electric guitar and a bank of synthesizers. Bedside, there are speakers and more recording equipment including a keyboard.

This is not a room where you would want to fiddle with the dials, but thoughtful touches abound. A Chinese lacquered trunk becomes a luggage rack; there is a TV, telephone and stereo. The sheets are Ralph Lauren and the private bathroom holds yellow monogrammed towels. From the windows, visitors are treated to a postcard-perfect view of herons and egrets in Dyke Marsh.

In Potomac, guests of Marlene and Ronn Jaffe, who are both Washington designers, have pleasant dreams, they say. Done up in blues and greens with murals of waterlilies, the Jaffes' guest room is dedicated to Claude Monet.

An upholstered sleigh bed is hand-painted with Monet-like irises; pillow shams have flowers a` la Monet; painted irises rise from the mural on the wall behind the bed and fresh irises are put in a French deco vase.

"We visited the Marmottan Museum in Paris in 1985," says Marlene Jaffe. "Beautiful. There we were in this huge gallery surrounded by nothing but Monet."

When they returned, she says, they redid the all-white room. "We wanted guests to feel that they were sleeping in the middle of a Monet painting."

The mural, designed by her husband, fills all four walls as well as the ceiling. The motif continues on the rose carpet with its pattern of raised green lily pads and with flowers on the bed and spread.

"If you come here," says his wife, "it should be an experience. Anyone can go to a hotel room."

The guest bath has a watery, impressionist motif, but it is not inspired by Monet. The gilded faucets are dolphin-shaped, and the walls are painted with exotic fish, coral and waves. "We call it the Neptune Room," Ronn Jaffe adds.

"A good designer always knows when it's time to stop."

"I believe in good old Southern comfort," says Lee Feuerstein, an interior designer in Old Town Alexandria. She shares a narrow, two-bedroom, 18th-century town house with her husband, John, and their pets, a Great Dane and two cats. One of the cats -- Oliver -- is a regular in the cozy room they offer to guests.

"We didn't even have a guest room until four years ago when my daughter went off to college and took her posters and her tchotchkes with her," her mother says. "I converted it the moment she left."

Feuerstein's room is 12 feet long and only 7 feet wide. Its ceiling slopes from 7 feet above the door to 5 1/2 feet above the beds. "It can be tricky when a tall man stays here," she says. How did she manage to pack two beds into this room? It's a professional secret she's glad to share: "I had them custom made. They're only 30 inches wide," she says, "six inches narrower than a standard twin."

Feuerstein dressed the room with quilted coverlets, antique pillows and flowered chintz skirts for the bed and jabots adorned with fringes and rosettes for the windows. Dresser drawers are lined with scented paper. There's also a Victorian coat rack and closets, whose doors are hand-painted with flowers like the ones in the chintz.

"There's nothing to make guests feel more unwelcome than finding that there isn't room for their things in the closet," she says.

When guests are in residence, the Feuersteins give up the upstairs bathroom to their guests. They have another full bath downstairs off the kitchen.

As soon as their children were grown and gone, interior designer Marilyn Poling and her husband, Don, moved from Potomac to a town house in Kalorama. Setting up a proper guest room was a priority, the Bethesda decorator says.

"After all these years without it's really nice to have a welcoming room for friends. It's a luxury. When our three kids were growing up we didn't have a guest room. We just uprooted one of them when someone came."

The Polings also offer the use of their upstairs den to overnight visitors. It has a desk and television set and it's next to the guest room. "The way it's set up they can have a private suite with the den, the bedroom and a nice big bathroom where I put my fluffy white towels and nice soaps," says the designer. "Also terry cloth robes."

The bedroom, which has a large closet, is furnished with a steel four-poster, a comfortable chair, a skirted table with a good reading light and a mirrored armoire for stowing luggage.

"When guests come, I bring out my Italian bed linens and wonderful pillows," Poling says.

The piece de resistance is the little bronze statue on the lingerie chest. It's a winged Mercury with arms outstretched.

"It's just the place to hang a necktie or necklace," she says.

Perhaps the ultimate designer guest room belongs to Allan Reyes in Crystal City. The larger of his two bedrooms lacks the Washington Monument view, but Reyes has compensated with what appears to be a marble floor, a gilded folding screen and a canopy bed dripping in silk hangings.

"When I first moved in, in March, I had it set up as a sitting room," says Reyes, "but I never sat in it so I decided to make it into a guest room."

He pulled up the wall-to-wall carpet and painted the concrete floor beneath to look like marble.

Then, inspired by the work of British designer David Hicks, he created a "faux four-poster" bed.

"The valances and hangings are attached to the ceiling." The fabric? A leftover from a room he did last spring for the Alexandria show house. Four foam mattresses -- each six inches thick -- piled one on top of the other are another cost-cutting trick from Hicks. Reyes also has his own sheets made. He uses the same fabric as Porthault.

A guest in the bed looks up into sky-blue silk. The closet -- dead ahead -- is curtained in the same blue silk.

"It had ugly doors," he says. "I thought a curtain would look better."

A particularly inventive curtain also covers the door between the guest room and the living room. Actually, it's a Roman shade.

Just the fact that he has a deluxe guest room doesn't mean Reyes wants all of his visitors to know it.

"If I want them to know there's room for them in there," he says, "I just raise the shade."

2001 The Washington Post Company