All the Home’s a Stage

Residences for sale benefit from a professionally styled ‘lived-in’ look

Photography by Taylor Sherrill

Music sounds throughout the house; a stockpot, potholder, and pasta cookbook sit on the kitchen counter; and reading glasses and The Poetry of Zen rest on a nightstand. There are plenty of fresh flowers, a full wine chiller, dog treats in a glass canister in the laundry room, and framed photos from a recent vacation in the den.

But there are no homeowners — yet. Designers Kathy Schwendimann and Shanna Clannin carefully created the illusion that people live in the Alcala model homes at Escena in Palm Springs. They and their staff at Meridian Interiors of Irvine heighten the sense of realism to model homes they stage for builders.

“We want to show the home in the best light and sell it, while making a style point and merchandising the builder’s custom options,” Schwendimann says. They use plenty of regular accessories, such as candlesticks, hurricane lamps, and decorative boxes, but go beyond that to include lifestyle accessories, such as monogrammed napkins, luxury toiletries, or a throw folded over a chair.

This seems to fly in the face of advice from real estate agents, who constantly tell home sellers to remove their personal items.

“We are putting them back,” Schwendimann says. “We want [prospective buyers] to feel comfortable. The look is still going to be sophisticated and clean, but we also want it warm and inviting.”

Welcome to the world of home staging, where designers team with builders, real estate agents, and homeowners to recast their interiors in a fresh, dramatic, personal — and sellable — light. As the housing market grows more competitive, sellers are turning to interior designers and consultants to give their properties an edge.

There are more than a dozen Coachella Valley staging specialists listed on various Web sites and many more who don’t advertise. Staging may be as simple as editing and rearranging a homeowner’s existing furniture or as complex as hauling everything out, performing minor renovations and repainting, and bringing in new furniture and accessories.

Lee Thomas, owner of @HOM, a staging firm in Cathedral City, specializes in complete staging. A furnished home always shows better than an empty one, he says; and creating a warm, emotional environment with furnishings and accessories shows best of all. Thomas has been staging new and resale homes for six years. For a 1973-built house in Palm Springs with a long, narrow living room that lacked definition, he brought in a zippy orange sectional and large area rug.

For a 1959-built house, he added well-designed, midcentury furniture and intriguing artwork. According to Realtor Tony Marchese, 35 people went through the house during Modernism weekend in February. “Lee uses new furniture and creates a style and a little more glamour than someone would normally have,” Marchese says. “And unlike stagers who have a storage unit and use the same accessories over and over, he’ll buy new stuff so it looks fresh.”

Thomas says that one reason he can do that is because after a house sells, he can sell the furnishings in his retail store, Furniture Exchange, in Cathedral City. 

Even the most luxurious houses use the talents of stagers. Kathy Blackbird of Blackbird Interiors in Solana Beach has staged three homes at Bighorn Golf Club: a new house listed for just under $7 million and two multimillion-dollar resales. The quality of furnishings, artwork, and accessories clearly matches the asking prices.

Blackbird transformed a den into a bedroom, and replaced dark slate floors throughout the house with creamy travertine. Black slate replaced granite on a fireplace, and cabinets that were too yellow were darkened and refinished. In the other resale, a wall was torn down to enlarge the dining room, and carpeting in the master bath was replaced with stone.

“Staging can make a huge difference,” Blackbird says. “We can take something very outdated, such as a tired Southwestern look, and give it a more metropolitan feel. It’s a fresh look, and the difference is night and day.”

Escena’s four Alcala models are designed to fit specific marketing profiles. Theme and color sheets are given to the project’s marketing coordinators, and furnishings and accessories are ordered to create a unified style in each model. So it is not random that the music of Jack Johnson is playing in one house and country music is playing in another. All details, down to French-milled soaps and stacks of luxurious towels, are chosen to support the theme.

In one of the model homes, glossy black and red accent pieces help elicit an Oriental influence. In the den, framed pictures give the impression that the homeowners visited Asia. Schwendimann describes the fictional duo who live there as a well-traveled Boomer couple that appreciates the Pacific Rim.

Another model home is geared to a couple that loves to entertain and wants high drama and glamour in their brown-and-teal dining and living room furnishings. A second-floor room in that model features a pool table surrounded by vintage photographs of celebrities who partied in Palm Springs from the 1940s to ’60s.

Meridian's Orange County projects have become known for their art. At one project in Crystal Cove, south of Newport Beach, Meridian staged an art walk in the model homes, giving prospective buyers a written guide to the pieces, many from local artists.

The company’s staff hunts down posters or scans images from antique books and custom mats and frames 60 to 70 artworks for each house. Live plants, placed in anything from glazed pottery pots to antique Chinese rice scoops, are another Meridian hallmark.

Schwendimann says her firm also pays particular attention to bedding, using only down-filled throw pillows and often ordering custom headboards and comforters. “The bed linens say it all. We want people to think, ‘I could dive into this bed,’” she says.

“The home-buying people really relate to what we do. They don’t necessarily see the good insulation or the fact that the door handles feel really heavy in your hand. But they respond to our details.”

One advantage is that most of the builders Meridian works with sell the model homes furnished, which means Schwendimann and Clannin can buy furniture that people really want, instead of “display” items.

Although most of the details in the models are authentic, Schwendimann admits to a few instances of smoke and mirrors. Beds are usually not real. There’s an entire industry that supplies fake beds for model homes, she says. Meridian usually “crowns” or plumps up the mattresses with upholstery batting to make them appear thicker.

And the wine bottles in the wine stewards and chillers? “We order sealed empty wine bottles from a winery,” Schwendimann reveals. “We had to search and search for a winery that could supply them.”

Staging for the Next Scene

Showcase of secrets for successful home selling.

All The Home's A Stage
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