Tall custom shelves in a Corinne La Flamme-designed living room.
Photograph by: Handout photo , National Post
At first glance, it's tempting to dismiss the condo-in-a-box decorating trend as a serious case of laziness or an unhealthy need for instant gratification. For many of us, our homes and how we decorate them are outward expressions of who we are, or wish we were. Hiring a stranger to do it all seems impersonal and appears to miss the point of home-as-self-expression.
But the meaning of home is changing. In the past, hearth and home was the centre of family life, a comfortable embrace we occasionally shrugged for a special dinner out, a movie or rare holiday. Now, for many, daily life is lived somewhere else and home has become a touchstone, a place to crash or occasionally entertain. And it's not necessarily an expression of our inner selves so much as a statement about our worth - financial and otherwise - like flaunting a designer label. All of that considered, buying the kit and hiring a pro makes perfect sense.
With a focus on condos and small houses, Corinne La Flamme, owner of Corinne La Flamme Design, thinks it's a smart choice for the image-conscious, design-or time-challenged.
"Yes, there is an element of wanting instant gratification, but this is the way more and more of us are approaching all aspects of our lives; we hire experts for everything now. We don't go home and dump our troubles on our friends and family, we hire a therapist."
"Especially in the condo market," Ms. La Flamme adds, "it's super important to make the most of the limited square footage."
And knowing how to make the most of a small space is not only a unique skillset, it's a matter of knowing the right subcontractors, and bespoke carpenters and furniture makers.
To wit: a 400-square-foot starter condo at Bathurst and King. "Here, it was all about multi-functionality. I installed a Murphy bed, sourced a chair that pulled out into a bed and an adjustable dining table that morphed into a desk. Everything I did was highly customized to that space." And according to owner Chinyere Eni, customized to the way she wanted to live. "I gave her my vision - colours, styles - and told her I wanted to learn to live efficiently and with less."
Not only was every inch maximized, when it came time to sell, Ms. Eni was able to sell the unit fully furnished, thus recouping the investment she made with the designer.
That's how Ms. La Flamme sees it - an investment - not only in the resale value, but in the homeowner's instant enjoyment of it. "My total design package is for people who can afford to make the investment and who want a place that's perfect from Day 1." Pricing varies; for example, a walk-in-ready, 600-sq.-ft. condo might run $20,000.
But what of the scary spectre of cookie-cutter interiors or of feeling like a stranger in a designer showroom? Ms. La Flamme gets to know her clients, their lifestyle, needs and wants, and she doesn't put her imprint on every square inch. "I always leave room in the design for my clients to include impulse buys, such as paintings or objects, that's the stuff that gives a home its character, its personality."
Husband-and-wife team Jordana Leventhal and Jeff Vermaat - she designs, he makes furniture - founded Leventhal-Vermaat Design in 2011. They tout themselves as a "one-stop shop" for interior design and custom furniture, and offer custom packages from their Design Menu: The Design Foundation Package, from $499, Designing your Look and Style Package, from $699 and the Transformation Package, from $1,299.
Ms. Leventhal cautions: "Designers can cost $90 to $150 per hour, which quickly adds up." She believes her packages are more economical without personal attention suffering; Ms. Leventhal will spend about two weeks with a client for the Foundation package and up to six months on a Transformation.
The Design Foundation package is her most popular. "We see a lot of first time condo buyers, 30-somethings who have nothing, don't know where to start, and they've just spent their life savings on the unit. We give them a Design Direction Board tailored to the space and off they go."
But she's worked with older, well-established homeowners, too. "We just completed a Toronto condo - did everything, working from a floor plan - for a Colorado couple who purchased a unit, pre-construction. They wanted it totally ready for them to walk into when they arrived."
The downsizing Baby Boomer is a growing demographic that makes up a large part of Ms. LaFlamme's business, too. They're selling the empty nest in the 'burbs and heading to where the action is, and they're not dragging all that stuffy old furniture with them. A fulfilling second adolescence calls for a fresh and stylin' start.
Also driving the trend are the magazines and shows that take us inside some of the most fabulously beautiful homes; keeping up with the Joneses has been replaced by keeping up with the Kardashians, and who among us is immune? It's easy to get caught up in it, to think that we should all live like this, that it's normal to have it all and have it now, then hand over the credit card.
Ms. Leventhal would add that we've become quite critical and judgmental. "Oh yeah, people are always checking each other's houses out. Checking to see what kind of stuff you have, so first-timers feel the pressure to get it right!"
With operations in New York and Toronto, Kelly Fallis, founder of RemoteStylist.com, says her four-year-old online company hinges on three principles: guidance, selection and the best pricing possible.
"We're a different sort of design company, a combination of personal shopper and designer and what we offer is what I think we all want, third-party validation. Think of us as your gay friend with great taste!"
Ms. Fallis has relationships with more than 1,000 manufacturers - that's about 500,000 products in her Style Files - and with no overhead, she claims her prices are 10% to 20% lower than the best retail prices; once you've created an account on the website, all live chat-, email-or Skype-consulting is free.
Working with one of Ms. Fallis's stylists is an option for an out-of-town pied-à-terre. Scott Pasquale, a 36-year-old director of operations, had a 1,300-sq.-ft. condo in New Jersey to decorate, but says "I didn't have the time to research style, colours, patterns, fabrics. I tend to be very analytical, so the art side of me is not very dominant."
Starting with a rug he liked, Mr. Pasquale says, "The design team was able to take the characteristics from the rug and provide furniture options that complemented it and brought the entire place together. The time and frustration I saved myself by seeking their help was the key for me."
Committing to major purchases and decisions online is a gamble some are not willing to take. "I was a little skeptical about how they would deal with my questions around fabrics or intricate patterns, which may not come across well online. But, they sent me swatches, free of charge, which I was able to touch, feel and put in the room in all types of light. The whole process was very user friendly."