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A new design on life

Marlene Bailey Gregg used to live in rural domesticity. Now she rents an inner-city loft and has a career in designing.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Marlene Bailey Gregg, in her warehouse home in the Channelside District, designs interiors for hotels and restaurants. She converted about one-third of her $2,500-a-month loft into a living area and office. She uses the rest to host art shows and store supplies.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002


CHANNEL DISTRICT -- Ten years ago, Marlene Bailey Gregg lived a conventional life in a four-bedroom home overlooking a peaceful lake in Leesburg. Her children went to school. Her husband developed commercial property.

Gregg played the role of a happy homemaker, unaware how a world could change.

Today, her children are grown and her 23-year marriage kaput. She eats, sleeps and works in a former gladiola warehouse, an urban shrine to her refashioned soul and exploding, eclectic tastes.

Her career defines her.

"I tried to be super mom and wonder wife," she said.

"Now I want to be super designer."

Gregg, 51, took up interior design in her mid 30s at the urging of her husband. She dabbled in decorating for a while, but never fully pursued a career until the divorce eight years ago.

These days, her wedding gown hangs on a dressmaker's dummy not far from her bed.

"The divorce pushed me," she said. "Rather than sit home and feel sorry for myself, I wanted a career."

Single and full of creativity, Gregg plunged into hotel and restaurant designing. She got the bug to leave her lifelong home and eventually wound up in St. Petersburg.

Then, in June, the road led to Tampa.

The warehouse lifestyle intrigued her. She knew artists who lived in the Channel District and started inquiring. She liked the notion of working, sleeping and entertaining in a single, rustic space.

"I thought, I'm 50, why do I want to live in a warehouse? But I just did," said Gregg, who celebrated her 51st birthday at a chic Dallas restaurant while on business. "I don't have a traditional family. I don't have the traditional life. I may as well go for it."

photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
The living room in Gregg's warehouse loft is a shrine to her eclectic tastes. She did most of the decorating when she first moved in, but considers the decor a constant work in progress.
Gregg found a 5,000-square-foot warehouse south of Ybor City on 12th Street, ground zero for industrial-style living in Tampa. The area is a haven for artists who bought old buildings and turned them into living-working studios. Neighbors include Richard and Kim Markham, who head the Channel Medical Clinic and edit the Channel District News, and Bill and Genie White, who own Artists Unlimited, a studio for 30 artists.

Gregg converted about one-third of her $2,500-a-month warehouse into a living area and office. She uses the rest to host art shows and store supplies. She loves the spaciousness and versatility.

Gregg has transformed her domestic canvas into a kitschy pad packed with unique artwork, furniture and knickknacks. She did most of the decorating in the first few months, but considers the decor a constant work in progress.

She went to great lengths to make the space both comfy and practical. It had to reflect her extravagant style and accommodate her business, Design Lab.

First it had to be livable. Before Gregg moved in, she and landlord Dominique Martinez, a metal sculptor, closed off the living area, installed heating and air conditioning and spruced up the kitchen and bathroom.

Next came the fun part. Decorating. Gregg covered every inch -- from floor to the 16-foot ceiling -- with whimsical trinkets collected over three decades. The dullest ingredient is a black bedspread, which she vows to dress up with a petticoat.

"I love color," she said. "It makes me happy."

The kitchen took the most ingenuity. It needed cabinets, a bigger sink and more flair.

To start, Gregg colored the floor Pepto-Bismol pink and painted a zebra-skin rug in the center. She brought in a metal trough to serve as a sink and an old hutch to add shelf space. A ceramic, Mexican-style donkey, a zebra tea set and a 1960s stove round out the room.

The living room is her showpiece. Paintings blanket one wall. Another wears a collage of familiar snapshots. To jazz up the plywood floor, she painted it black and white checkerboard.

Gregg treasures every piece, especially those from her children, 26-year-old Ginger Gregg Duggan and 23-year-old Chick Gregg, who applaud her new lifestyle.

"She has always been kind of artsy and eccentric," her daughter said. "This warehouse really suits her well."

Gregg's work takes her all around the world, from the Orient to the Caribbean. Her latest project is in Naples, Fla., where she is designing restaurants in Bayfront, a new, upscale condominium and retail complex on the Gordon River.

When possible, she incorporates the work of local artists. She also involves her children, who inherited their mother's artistic talent. Her daughter, for example, painted some of the artwork for Stoney's Steakhouse in Naples. Her son molds metal.

In November, Gregg held her first show at the warehouse, featuring the work of more than a dozen young artists, including employee Charlie Kelley. In keeping with the Design Lab theme, she served champagne in test tubes and floated candles in petri dishes. About 300 people attended.

Gregg says she hopes to hold shows every six months or so, depending on her work load. She believes strongly in giving aspiring artists exposure.

Living in the warehouse helps make that happen. It also gives her a venue for expressing herself artistically.

"I want to be successful, but more than anything I want to be creative," she said.

"I feel like I have arrived -- and, hopefully, it will keep getting better."

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

Marlene Bailey Gregg

  • Favorite color: Pink
  • Namesake: Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich
  • What she likes about warehouse living: Room for displaying art and entertaining guests, high ceilings.
  • What she doesn't like: Cold in the winter, hot in the summer.
  • Her idea of fun: Hanging out with friends at a restaurant with good design and good wine.
  • What she drives: 1980 red Mercedes G Wagon and a 1972 red Volvo 1800 ES.
  • Weirdest item in her purse: Super Glue, for nail breaks

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