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The art of designing a model home

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Chicago Tribune (MCT) - Model homes can look worlds apart but broadcast the same message: You're comfortable here _ you're home.

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By Susan Diesenhouse
McClatchy Newspapers (
4/27/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Home & Food

Take for instance, the model of a suburban house where the master suite, framed in silk curtains, has a soft velour sofa facing a plasma TV and coffee bar with a nearby skylit spa shower. It invites you to make it your own haven.

Meanwhile, a downtown loft with an orange lacquer media center, sleek white mock leather chair and earthy accents says you can go clubbing all night then come home to your Zen refuge.

These meticulously detailed models sit on opposite ends of the interiors spectrum but it's by design that they project the same sense of hearth and home to their different niche markets.

After all, their decorators and developers spend lots of time and money to set up spaces that will stir the irresistible urge in a would-be buyer to say, "I belong here."

"Models are marketing tools," explained Ryan McNaughton, vice president of James McNaughton Builders of Hinsdale, Ill., who has long used them. "It lets people see, touch and feel what we're all about."

"But we're only as good as our interior designer," he added. "She helps us walk that fine line between broad mass appeal and reaching our target niche with the right decisions about colors, furniture and accessories."

Indeed, the right color, chair or window treatment can move a consumer to plunge into the biggest investment of their life, said Rohit Deshpande, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.

"A color can change their thinking from 'Oh my God, what a huge mortgage' to 'This house is so comfortable, I feel like I already live here,' " he said. "That's why a good seller tries to target all five senses to envelop the customer with the message." After all, buying a house is more than toting up the sum of its rooms. It's an emotional decision. "A house is an extension of the person and their family," Deshpande said. "It's their identity."

The right model can conjure the emotions and mental pictures that help a builder tap into a buyer's needs, wants and dreams.

That's why for six months, Sherry Theos and Rich Cannavino pored over plans, fabrics, paint colors, furnishings and fixtures for a model with a "please-let-me-hide-away" master suite.

Theos is a decorator with FCA Design Center in Naperville, Ill., while Cannavino is chief executive of Naperville-based St. Thomas Homes, developer of Stewart Ridge in Plainfield, Ill.

In January, they sat down with blueprints for the 5,800-square-foot, $799,000 house aimed at couples 25 to 50 years old, with children and perhaps a parent in residence. Theos suggested that the builder add windows in the family room for more natural light and extra space in the master suite for the sitting area. In February, she ordered the furniture; in March the lighting, and a month later, appliances and granite for countertops. By late May, with painting complete and flooring laid, the furniture arrived, from sofas to color-coordinated hand towels and a pink iPod for the daughter's room.

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With fingerprint-forgiving shades of darker paint and already scuffed hardwood floors, "We set it up so the buyer would think they could move right in and stay until their children were grown," Theos said of the interior that cost about $87,000.

The media center in the family room is alluring to adults and children. A parent cooking in the kitchen can see the computer screen to make sure their child is doing homework, not surfing the Web. Meanwhile, the DVD captivates children.

"We have it playing Animal Planet," Theos said. "The kids get locked into it."

They're also drawn into the beach fantasy that is the children's rooms. The daughter's bed has a grass skirt as dust ruffle, beach towel bedspread and a good-for-any-fantasy rhinestone tiara on the yellow desk.

The kitchen can kindle romance for the grown-ups.

Glittery tile on the swoop above the stove and dim lighting under the cabinets give off a warm ambience.

"Buyers can imagine cooking, kissing, enjoying life," said Theos. In the master suite, she added, "The owners can hide away for days."

They can also feel socially responsible as they look around at their recycled carpet, glass tiles and roofing. The appliances, lighting and windows meet federal energy efficiency guidelines, while the geothermal heating and cooling system saves 30 to 50 percent on energy bills. Meanwhile, low-flow faucets and landscaping that features native plants cuts water use, according to St. Thomas Homes.

At Stonebridge Woods in Homer Glen, Ill, the 2,900-square-foot, townhouses, which are priced at about $465,000, target empty-nesters, retirees and single-parent families.

"They're people of substance who already have furniture," said decorator Darlene Kadar of Darvin Furniture in Orland Park, Ill.

"We want them to realize they can use it here; just think outside the box."

To illustrate that, she put a big sofa, which most people have, in the living room and a large mirror rather than a TV over the fireplace. In the master suite, she chose a king rather than the queensize bed often used to make rooms appear bigger. "Nine out of 10 people have kings and we want to meet their needs," Kadar explained.

While she went for a transitional style not tied to any time period, Kadar strove to make the model memorable with details like an oval cocktail table that once was a clock for the office. "It's a fun, unique piece that excites the senses so people will remember what they've seen," she said.

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The 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom model for McNaughton's Greenleaf subdivision in Westmont, Ill., is geared for the empty-nester from Hinsdale or Clarendon Hills. It says, "OK, you're sizing down but you'll have all the room you need for guests and entertaining," explained decorator Nancy Plzak of Plzak Interiors in Indian Head Park, Ill.

Mirrors in the entry and living room bring in more light that accentuates the volume ceilings. In the small den, she saves space by using a semi-circular hunt desk, graduated shelves that provide storage and plantation shutters.

A totally different scene is set in the model by Kappan Shipman of Habitar Design at the Opera Lofts in Old Town Chicago. Once the Lyric Opera's warehouse and design center, the old building is being renovated by LOACQ LLC into 93 loft condominiums with brick walls, exposed ducts and 13- to 30-foot concrete ceilings. It sits near elevated train tracks, the Stevenson Expressway, factories and the half-empty Harold Ickes public housing project.

Against the industrial cool of the structure, Shipman contrasts an organically warm but modern decor for the $429,000 two-bedroom, two-bath duplex model with a den. Furnishings in "a cool palette of gray are accentuated by a pop of pumpkin grounded by chocolate-stained wood floors and tables," she said. Softly textured accessories, such as shag wool rugs, chenille bedspreads, silky throw pillows, are ensconced with starfish, stones and branches that recall land and sea.

"This unit speaks to the urban pioneer who wants to try something different," she said. "It's playful yet sophisticated."

But for all the edginess, Shipman explained, it carries the most traditional marketing message: "This is a peaceful place for you to come home to."


© 2009, Chicago Tribune.

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