Los Angeles Times

Nov 11, 2007

Ann Tancio


A crowded field for best in show house


Wired magazine is the latest to jump into the showcase fray. It’s a place where design, advertising and revenue streams are roommates.

BEFORE the Wired LivingHome show house opened last week, with its 007-inspired techie gear and a 6-foot-long remote-controlled toy airplane tethered to the ceiling, there was the rotating living room at Hollywood Life magazine’s Young Hollywood Home.

And the suspended swing in the master suite of the Beverly Hills Garden & Design Showcase at Greystone Mansion.

And the putting green balcony at Esquire North in Manhattan, the bedroom designed for a French bulldog at Metropolitan Home’s showplace in the Hollywood Hills, even the solar-paneled, bamboo-floored Project 7ten green home co-sponsored by The Times and open for touring last month in Venice.

For better or worse, designer show houses have proliferated across the country — and particularly here in Southern California.

“It’s like a repeat of the 1950s,” says Beatriz Colomina, a professor of architecture at Princeton University who has written about the importance of these “idea homes” as places for design experimentation.

“Museum model homes and case study homes were immensely popular back then, and they have always been an integral part of forwarding design discourse. The fact that they’re coming back is a good thing.”

Living vicariously, she says, is certainly part of the appeal.

“The one thing we can all relate to is a home,” Colomina says. “Getting a glimpse of how others might live exercises an incredible fascination in all of us.”

Unlike some of the more established productions such as the 44-year-old Pasadena Showcase House of Design and the 35-year-old Kips Bay Decorator Show House in Manhattan, these new show houses are no longer only for show.

“The velvet-rope concept of ‘look but don’t touch’ is giving way to a more interactive approach,” says Stephen Jacoby, associate publisher of Esquire, one of the magazines outside of the shelter category that has jumped into the show-house fray.

“The idea is to create an experiential environment where guests can really be a part of what’s going on,” he says. “They can sit on the Armani Casa sofa, feel the sheets on the Calvin Klein bed. And that’s really what advertisers want to help seduce someone to buy their product.”

Product, indeed, is key. New show houses are often unabashed vehicles for brand marketing and image building. As the number of such projects grows, sponsors and designers are clearly upping the innovation ante.

The Wired project, open on select days through Nov. 18, is a recently constructed, 4,000-square-foot prefab home in Brentwood designed by Ray Kappe for Living Homes. A team of resourceful interior designers was given a hypothetical owner — a tech-loving geek — and challenged with making him look good.

Consider, for starters, the issue of where to conceal the cavalcade of video games. And let’s not forget the overflow of comic books. Most perplexing of all? Where to park that giant toy airplane.

“A lot of that cool techie stuff can be really ugly,” admits Bob Parks, the editorial consultant behind the Wired home, a first for the magazine. He asked interior designers Joe Lucas and Parrish Chilcoat to integrate not only the airplane, but also a remote-controlled helicopter, a power-generating bicycle and a beyond-bizarre medieval catapult into their elegant, eco-friendly design.

But when Parks asked for a collection of Manga dolls to be displayed, Lucas finally put his foot down. He says he had to give the bachelor of the house — imaginary or not — some chance of getting lucky.

WHAT’S driving the show-house phenomenon? It’s not always a growing appreciation for good design.

“Our showcase home is by far the magazine’s single largest revenue generator and fundraiser,” says Jacoby of Esquire, which opens up a different property each year to invitation-only parties sponsored by advertisers.

Last year’s Esquire house, a 17,000-square-foot bachelor pad in the Beverly Hills area, earned $2.9 million for charities such as Oxfam America — and a spike in magazine ad sales

The formula has worked so well for Esquire that the magazine’s publisher, Hearst Corp., just debuted Designer Visions, the first collaboration between four of its titles. Country Living, House Beautiful, O at Home and Veranda worked with interior designers to decorate units in the same residential building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

There, designers and home furnishings manufacturers get exposure in a high-end setting, Hearst gets a commitment from advertisers and the building gets potential buyers parading through.

Esquire’s first home in Los Angeles, a Mediterranean-style estate owned by former football star Keyshawn Johnson, was snapped up by Greek shipping heir Paris Latsis, who came to one of the parties in 2004 and later bought the tricked-out castle for a reported $10 million to $12 million.

SO what’s in it for the average design enthusiast? Have these show homes, once testing grounds for innovation, been reduced to 3-D advertising pages for the media sponsor? Or a perfectly staged open house for real estate agents and developers trying to unload a spec project?

“Sometimes I wonder how editorially driven these places really are,” says Parks, the techie behind the Wired house, which is to be sold. “Lots of them seem like they’re just there to drive ad pages.”

The Esquire home, for instance, makes no bones about its tight advertising ties. The magazine allows advertisers to furnish individual rooms using their own products, furniture and accessories. When it opens up the property for its charity galas, about 5,000 affluent consumers drift through the rooms and eye the goods.

The Project 7ten house in Venice is a bit different. As a platinum-certified LEED project (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the house was intended to have an educational mission as well, introducing green building elements to the public. Developers say a majority of the proceeds from the sale of the house will go to charity.

With all these showcases setting up residence, competition for designers, sponsors and visitors is rising.

“I’m sure there are people out there wondering, ‘Are we just going to be looking at the same old designers doing the same old thing?’ ” the Wired home’s Lucas says.

It’s a concern Los Angeles Magazine is taking seriously. After four years of hosting show houses around town, publisher Amy Saralegui plans to take the concept in a different direction for 2008. Instead of a bricks-and-mortar showcase, next year’s house will be a printed compendium of local designers’ favorite rooms. Because the spaces will be projects that already have been completed, designers theoretically won’t have to worry about pleasing advertisers, and the readers truly will be privy to the best design.

“The showcase model has been successful for a lot of people, including us,” Saralegui says. “But everyone’s doing that now.”

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