House & Garden June ’05, "Pittsburgh Patrician"
pages 101-109 by Mayer Rus
The fast track is no place for novice decorators. Even with experienced professionals behind the wheel, high-speed projects can crash and burn in the rush to the finish line, derailed by contractor problems, manufacturer delays, and all manner of dark forces that conspire against tight deadlines. Artistry alone cannot guarantee smooth passage through design's obstacle course.
Joe Nahem knows a thing or two about decorating in the fast lane. More than two decades of experience have taught him that getting it fast and getting it right need not be mutually exclusive. The Pittsburgh home he renovated for long time clients Bill and Debbie Demchak–a project completed in six months–is a persuasive case study in the art of on-time delivery.
Successful navigation of design's obstacle course, according to Nahem, depends first on the relationship between decorator and client. "It may sound trite," he says, "but clients have to trust their decorator's taste and professionalism so that they can feel secure about the options they are offered and the decisions they make. Indecision is the enemy of deadline."
The trust between Nahem and the Demchaks was cultivated during two previous design projects–a house in Southampton and a Manhattan apartment, both with Nahem and his late partner, Tom Fox. The Demchaks relocated from New York to Pittsburg in 2002. The couple and their three young children moved into a rented house while Nahem attended to the renovation of their newly acquired home: a 1924 limestone mansion in the Squirrel Hill section of town. The project deadline was fixed by the year-end expiration of the family's rental. Nahem had his work cut out: his clients were coming home for the holidays, ready or not.
Because the house was in excellent condition–and because its original details (wood paneling, hardware, fireplaces, etc.) were not only intact but also well worth preserving–Nahem's work was mostly limited to decoration. Of course, in the world of high-end decorating, even cosmetic surgery requires significant time, particularly when it is performed on a house of this scale. This is where experience pays off for Nahem, in the form of guidelines for achieving success on the quick.
Rule one: early on, order products that have long lead times. "Unfortunately, it's hard to find antique rugs that are perfectly proportioned for specific rooms," Nahem says. "Good custom carpets usually take four to five months to make, so they have to be ordered first. The same logic applies to furniture from showrooms that cater to the trade–order things immediately so you have a cushion of time for unexpected delays."
Rule two: rely on vintage pieces and custom furniture from reliable workshops. "Almost all of the upholstered pieces in this house were made by the upholsterer I've worked with for years, so I don't have to sweat about quality," Nahem says. "Antiques and vintage items are obviously not subject to long lead times. Because this was my third time around with the Demchaks, I understand what they like. I can expedite the process by bring in lots of pieces on approval."
Rule three: take advantage of online shopping. "The Internet has opened up a whole new world of high-quality sources for antiques around the globe," Nahem says. "Fifty percent of the vintage pieces in the house were purchased on the Internet. Online shopping doesn't have to a roll of the dice. You can avoid problems by asking detailed questions about the product so there are no surprises when it arrives."
Rule four: show your clients only the fabrics you know are in stock and ready to ship. "You should always check with the showroom," Nahem advises. "You don't want your client to fall in love with something that will compromise the project deadline, no matter how perfect and beautiful it may be."
Rule five: don't make promises that you (or your contractors and vendors) may not be able to keep. "If a decorator says, 'I may very well be able to do this in three months,' some clients will think, great, it's getting done in three months," Nahem says. "You have to deal in reality, which is a revolutionary approach for some decorators.
"Working from this unofficial playbook, Nahem was able to deliver the Demchaks' house on schedule. As the photographs attest, it looks neither rushed nor unfinished. In fact, if he and his clients had kept mum about the time line, we'd probably be none the wiser. The house has all the hallmarks of Fox-Nahem's best work: chic but unpretentious, lively in pattern and color, and tailored perfectly to reflect the spirit and way of life of these particular clients.