INTERIORS
Decorating With Jennifer Thompson

A new breed of design consultant works on an hourly basis to help homeowners home in on their true taste

Jane Meredith Adams
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Before they hired design consultant Jennifer Thompson, Cathy Allen and Brooke Aird traveled unchaperoned into bathroom tile showrooms, an experience that provoked nearly existential despair: Why are the clerks ignoring us? Why are we just this minute finding out that our favorite tile comes exclusively in 18 inches by 18 inches? Why didn't anyone tell us wall tiles are smaller than floor tiles?

"I was so depressed," says Allen, recalling her fruitless expeditions. "I called Jennifer at that point and said, 'We need help.' " Thompson, an energetic, silver-haired creative force, swooped in. She quickly eliminated tiles that were the wrong size or the wrong price and narrowed their choices to three: expensive, medium priced and budget. "Within a half an hour, we found a tile," recalls Allen. "I just wanted to kiss her."

The desire for full-on nesting runs high in the Bay Area. We love our exorbitantly priced homes, or we'd like to love them, if we could just figure out paint color, light fixtures and where to put the recycle bin. Daunted by the vast array of choices -- Stainless or brushed nickel? Pumpkin chiffon or Montgomery white? -- many flummoxed or busy or simply inexperienced remodelers are hiring design consultants like Thompson, who are paid by the hour.

In an ideal world, you'd have a friend like Thompson, someone who's easy to be around, happens to know a great shoji screen maker, and finds it fun to phone toilet stores to see if something less than 25 inches long is in stock. She is not of the designer-as-dictator school of thought. "I'm not for everybody," she says. "Some people really want to be told, 'You have to have this with that.' I like a collaboration."

Once the choices are narrowed, a lot homeowners do have an idea of what they want. "I have people tell me all the time 'I don't know what I like. I have no taste,' " says Thompson, 60, who works out of her home in Berkeley. "It's not true, but you need someone to help you focus."

For 25 years, Thompson lived in New York as an art school student, faux finisher, furniture restorer, interior designer, waitress and single mother to her daughter, Megan, who's now an art teacher in Brookline, Mass. She moved west and for nine years owned and lived in a shop called Thompson Design in Inverness Park, near Point Reyes, where her rotating inventory of furnishings was always for sale. A huge fan of textiles, she sold rugs from Afghanistan and older textiles from Africa and Europe. She salvaged furniture, repaired it, remodeled it and put it up for sale.

She closed the shop in January 2003, but not before Heddy Riss and Gerard Roland, a French couple who live in Oakland, bought two rugs and decided they simply had to have her take charge of their new house. "I really was impressed by her," recalls Riss. "You could see she was sophisticated."

Thompson declined the job. She had a shop to run, she told them, and when the shop closed, she was off to London and Paris for six months to work for a textile collector.

"She gave me the name of someone else," recalls Heddy. "The problem is they have big egos."

A year passed before Thompson finally agreed to help them with their house. Built after the 1991 firestorm, the four-bedroom, three-bath, vertical Mediterranean-style house in the hills was bought by Roland without his wife seeing it. He loved the soaring 25-foot ceiling downstairs and the views of the bay and the Golden Gate. Riss loathed its bland white walls, shiny brass bathroom fixtures and undefined open spaces.

"The house was a contractor's house," says Riss. "I wanted some Craftsman. I was completely depressed."

One issue was the kitchen, where clunky oak cabinets stopped a foot from the ceiling and the prepping island was too close to the stove. The dining room, squeezed into a dark, smallish room off the kitchen, was also problematic. An inexpensive wood railing on an upstairs walkway looked heavy and uninteresting. New paint colors and lighting fixtures needed to be selected with an eye to warming up and defining spaces. The front door was inexpensive dark oak and blocked the view.

Striking a balance between open and closed spaces, they came up with a plan to install sliding Japanese shoji screens that could close off the kitchen and the former dining room, which is now a den. Thompson recommended East Bay craftsman Jay Van Arsdale, an expert in Japanese woodworking, to do the job. "The guy who did the shoji is a genius," says Riss. "How would I find this guy?"

When the couple was away for the summer of 2004, Thompson served as project manager, overseeing the installation of custom stainless steel countertops by Walter Mork Co. in Berkeley and supervising the Carrara marble resurfacing of the now-relocated kitchen island. To save money, the couple chose clean-looking Ikea cabinets that reach the ceiling.

The front doors of the house were replaced by 8-foot glass French doors to let in the view and the light. To replace the wood railing that nobody liked, Melissa MacDonald of Berkeley built a sleek metal railing. One of the showstoppers of the downstairs is now a 3-foot-square, 4-foot-high handmade paper lamp by Helen Holt of Helly Welly Lamps in Berkeley. Big blocks of soft burnt orange, butter yellow and green-blue paint define and separate the living and dining areas.

Their chic home makes Riss and Roland happy. "It has really changed my life," says Riss. "I am at home now. I was never at home before and I didn't know why."

Thompson's project of the moment is Allen and Aird's El Cerrito home, which has been gutted. On a recent Wednesday morning, Thompson takes her clients on a shopping excursion to Jack London Square Bath Gallery in Oakland. The first sink that they like, a fairly large rectangle, is, of course, expensive. "Do we want to spend $500 on a sink?" asks Allen.

"I don't think so," says Aird.

Thompson, who had been deep in conversation with a sales clerk, approaches holding a catalog and pointing to a sink.

"The price is fabulous -- it's the cheapest one," she says. "It's also in stock, which we like." In an hour, they've narrowed the candidates to two toilets and three sinks and have a lead on drawer pulls. The next step is to show the specifications to their contractor.

Pleased, they retreat for lunch. "She's a mediator of tension," says Aird of Thompson. "There are people who break up about this stuff."

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