Friday, October 3, 2003

In Christopher Lowell's book "Small Spaces," Lowell pens suggestions right onto the 'before' pictures (above), with the result (inset).

Our places, our selves

TV's Christopher Lowell
says successful design
is all about self-perception

Sure, that living room setting you saw in the furniture store with fine crystal vases and opulent drapery looks fabulously fit for the pages of Metropolitan Home ... but is it you?

"There's no need to live in a house that looks like someone else lives there," according to TV decorating guru Christopher Lowell.

For Lowell, decorating is about relating one's environment to one's sense of self, and if the popularity of his Discovery Channel shows are any indication, he's relating all right, whether it's with the audience or tapping into the psychology behind home decor choices.

Most people decorate with their ego, he said.

"How your home makes you feel is far more spiritual. Sometimes people look around and say 'Where did all this stuff come from? This home doesn't look like me. How do I get it to look like me?'"

Lowell encourages people to decorate with their heart, surround themselves with the things they love, displayed in an attractive way.

"If we can't be unabashedly sentimental and ceremonious in our home, where can we be?" he said. "No one else is going to give you permission to do that."

Conversation with Lowell is lively, sprinkled with "we" and "our" instead of "I" and "my."

"I don't say 'I' very much," he said by phone from Los Angeles where the shows are based. "I'm always encouraging others; we work together" -- as any faithful fan of his show would know by now.

His own home is "nicely decorated," thank you very much.

"It suits me," he said, and that is as much as he'll ever say about that subject. Revealing anything more would risk "putting him into a niche," thus separating him from those he wants to help.

"People might say, 'Well, his home is in Traditional, or French Country, or Contemporary, and my home's not, therefore he doesn't understand me.'"

Lowell, who will be at HomeWorld Beretania tomorrow and at the Pearlridge store Sunday to sign copies of his latest book, "Small Spaces," attributes the popularity of his shows, "The Christopher Lowell Show" and "It's Christopher Lowell," to the simple fact that his audience knows he feels their pain.

Make the most of a small space by using every inch. This guest bedroom incorporates a daybed base built to each wall's end, using the exposed wood as end tables.

"We were one of the first home shows and probably the longest on air to date. The first week we were on the air, we were in the top 10, and I'm sure it's because those people who were watching realized, 'Oh, my God, he's talking about me.'"

Although decorating is the central theme of his shows, he manages to connect with his audience on many levels. On a recent episode, he signed off suggesting that viewers who are short on cash "get dressed up in your fancy clothes, go to a nice cafe, sit at a table outside and just order a cup of coffee and relax ... We don't need a lot of money to make ourselves feel good."

Lowell believes the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks spurred the recent crop of home design programs across cable networks.

"Ever since Sept. 11, people have been more inwardly focused, therefore more focused on the home," he said. "They don't want to wait until something happens; they want to make a positive change now."

Part of his shows' success results from providing information relevant to most people.

"We're not like those other shows you see now, you know like, 'While You Were in a Coma' or what have you," that just refurbish interiors, then pack up and leave, he said, "We teach something applicable, we show them why it works and we also make it entertaining."

His energetic and flamboyant style is to the show what color is to a room, and for those who've not yet tuned in, his rule for color is: Use a lot of it and don't be afraid. At the same time, Lowell's managed to brand himself into a multimillion dollar empire with a furniture and accessory line that might rival pre-scandal Martha Stewart's.

"We had no idea that my personality was going to be the crux of the show. It just turned out that way," he said.

Other draws are projects of the quick, doable variety, involving staples, nails or glue, yielding impressive results.

"Most people can't afford to buy that beautiful ottoman or armoire right now, and we say, 'Fine, then for now, do this,'" Lowell said. "We don't say it's going to last forever, but it will work for now, until you can afford that ottoman."

Lowell said he doesn't pretend the audience can learn anything in eight minutes: "We have to keep our concept simple enough to where you'll turn on the television show and feel good."

There are books for those who want to continue further, he said. He's penned "Small Spaces," "If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It!" and "Seven Layers of Design."

Central to his decorating theory is his philosophy of using the home as a form of therapy and gauge of self-esteem. It should be a safe haven for individuals to challenge their sense of self, he said.

"It's not about finding your style, it's about finding yourself."

Two lucky Hawaii homeowners will see Lowell's home decor therapy put into practice. They'll be the subjects of a "Design Doctors" episode in which he will provide prescriptions on how to improve their surroundings.

It was easy to decide to make the trip as Hawaii is home to some of the show's highest ratings.

"We have a huge following there," Lowell said.

The homeowners -- Col. William and Nora Stephens of Hickam and a Honolulu couple -- will have six weeks to complete the steps outlined in Lowell's prescription. They'll "have a lifeline to the show for six weeks" to monitor their progress and see how their lives have transformed.

"We really are how we live, and self-esteem is a necessary component to home improvement," he said. "When we do our physical interiors, we're trying to make them match our mental interior."

Most won't do what it takes because they're afraid of failure or change, so he suggests working slowly: "Do the rooms that nurture you the most and take your time."

He often recommends starting with the bedroom, because that is usually considered to be a sanctuary, then work out to the public areas.

"By then, you'll be more confident about who you are, and your style."

Tune in to Christopher Lowell at 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., Monday through Friday, on OceanicTime Warner Cable channel 54, digital 333.

Where to start

Tips from Christopher Lowell

>> Putting four or five big things in a small space makes the room seem larger. People often put small things in a small space thinking it will make it seem more expansive when it has the opposite effect because you tower over everything.

>> Paint the ceiling. If you leave the ceiling white, people automatically look up because it's the only thing that looks unfinished. If the ceiling is lower than 9 feet, which most ceilings are, go a few shades lighter than the wall color. If it's a vaulted, go a few shades darker.

>> If you're undecided about how you want a room to look, get rid of all the clutter ("dandruff") you haven't used in years, for clarity.

Only $500 to spend?

Lowell suggests the following:

>> Paint. Don't be afraid of color. "Somehow putting it on our walls freaks us out."

>> Go through the house and get rid of clutter.

>> Completing the first two steps will give you a sense of accomplishment and some confidence. Then go to the flea market for some accessories.

>> Add end tables and some nice fabric.

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