Calling Design 911

By staff October 1, 2008

I was desperate, totally desperate, or I never would have done what I did. I got off the elevator in our building, saw the most prominent designer in town coming out of her office, ran over and blurted, “Anne—help—I’m having a design emergency!”

“Design emergency” was an understatement. I was mired in a renovation that had turned into such a nightmare that our friends had tactfully stopped asking about our progress, and my daughter kept threatening to send a video of our house to Extreme Makeover Home Edition. All George and I had wanted was to add a second story with a bedroom and bath and redo the kitchen cabinets in our little 1950s cottage, but what should have taken nine months, tops, had stretched into four years, as the clean-cut contractor with a cheery smile had turned into a slippery phantom, occasionally appearing to make grand promises and then leaving us (our money firmly in his hands) without a worker on the job for months. Finally, after hundreds of pleading e-mails and three attorneys, we’d fired him and were finishing the house ourselves.

Now I, someone who can’t even read a blueprint, was the official contractor; and George and I were in way over our heads. (How the editor of a magazine that is constantly advising readers about interior design and home renovation could have gone so wrong is an embarrassment and a mystery, and if I had a penny left after this experience, I’d enter years of analysis to figure it out.)

Our biggest problem: the old pine floors, which we loved and had planned to restore. But an array of floor experts agreed we couldn’t save them because the contractor had poured the cement for the new entry downstairs too high to seamlessly connect with the existing pine floor. The more people I asked for advice, the more confused I got. I was told we needed all-new engineered floors, that whatever we did we must not get engineered floors, that dark wood was the answer, that light wood was the only way to go. A trip to a showroom intensified my panic as I flipped through hundreds of little sample boards on a rack, trying to envision how each one would look on my floor.

And then I went back to work and saw Anne Folsom Smith in the hall.

You may not know Anne, but you’ve probably heard her name. She’s designed more Longboat penthouses and waterfront mansions than anyone else in town. She’s made our list of Sarasota’s 100 Most Powerful People, twice; and she’s tall and striking, with perfect posture—and impeccably dressed to boot. I knew her, a little, and had thought once or twice about approaching her, but I was hesitant to impose. Let’s be honest: This is a woman who works on multimillion-dollar mansions for clients with ultra-deep pockets, totally out of my league in every way.

I felt ridiculous even asking her to help me—but like I said, I was desperate.

“Maybe you have an assistant or somebody who wouldn’t mind coming out to take a look,” I faltered.

“No, no, no,” she said, waving her hands impatiently. “You need the big gun. Let’s do it on Friday.”

When she got to the house, she strode in and took a searching look all around.

“The contractor messed up and made the cement foundation too high,” I started to explain. “They say we can’t save the pine floors.”

“Who cares what they say?” this icon of elegance replied. “They don’t know s--t!”

George and I stared at her with our mouths open as she burst into peals of laughter, then rattled off the solution: Jackhammer the concrete down to the right height—she’d put her construction manager, Craig, on it tomorrow, and she knew just the guy to make those old floors look like new. “And by the way,” she said, looking around our kitchen, “when you put in new cabinets and counters, have you thought about building a banquette? You need somewhere for everybody to eat when the kids come home.”

With one hand she scooped up our old cat, Tom, who cuddled into her and started purring like a lawnmower, and with the other, she gestured towards the kitchen cabinets, on top of which I’d piled all sorts of kitchenware to keep things out of the way of the workers.  “And as long as you’re putting new cabinets in, what about some over-cabinet lighting? It will help show off your gorgeous accessories,” she said with a wink, “like that salad spinner up there, for instance.”

Anne Folsom Smith, we realized, was as down-to-earth and funny as she was famous. And unlike me, dithering in the face of infinite design choices, this woman could make a decision. Take the time a neighbor’s tomcat strolled into her yard and impregnated one of the feral cats she feeds and cares for. Furious that he was getting to the young females who hadn’t been spayed yet, she put him into a carrier and took him to the vet to get “snipped,” bringing him back that same afternoon to race home and yowl out his horror story to his uncomprehending owners.

She took care of us just as swiftly, putting her army of experts at our disposal and guiding me through a world of decisions, always with an eagle eye on our budget. Now, two months later, our house looks wonderful, and I’ve learned more about remodeling than I ever imagined—though I hope I never have to use any of that knowledge again.

I’ve also learned a few other lessons. A good designer not only can make your home a thousand times better, she can even save you money—we would have spent way more on new floors than it cost to rescue the old ones. I’ve also learned it’s OK to ask for a favor—and that favor just might lead to a friendship. As desperate as I was to be helped, Anne was equally happy to help me. She’s a natural-born caretaker, whether of feral cats or hapless clients, and I think she got a kick out of seeing Ms. Erudite Magazine Editor tremble before a pile of granite samples. “I’d be as bad if I had to edit a story,” she assured me; we decided that if we could somehow join our disparate brains together, we could rule the world.

I’d tell you more, but I have to run—my daughter, a young schoolteacher, has managed to scrape together enough money to buy her very first home, a tiny place in a working-class neighborhood, and she wants to get some paint and redo the walls herself. Guess who just volunteered to go over with me and help her pick out the colors? Sarasota’s most famous designer, of course, Anne Folsom Smith herself.

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