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Talk about really working a room

An interior refiner works with what's there, and tucked away, to create a whole new look.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 14, 2003

You love your stuff. You hate your living space. Well, maybe you don't hate it exactly; it's just not the room of your dreams. Too prim, too plain, too perfectly peach. For some reason, it just doesn't look right. New stuff won't exactly cure your decorating dilemmas, so why not save money and work with what you have?

Enter Roma Starkey. She's a cucumber-cool Texas panhandle kind of girl who's kept her twang and steely-sweet toughness long enough to seriously rearrange some really bad rooms.

Big rooms, small rooms, rooms that nobody ever noticed before.

Rooms her clients hated but didn't want anyone to touch.

Rooms that were so, uh, how can a nice girl from the South put this delicately, "unattractive" that they hindered the sale of a house.

Rooms where furniture arrangements were so far from cozy, the sofas and chairs were actually within screaming distance.

"It's all about placement and scale," explains Starkey, a professional interior "arranger" who comes into a client's home and moves around sofas, chairs, ottomans, beds, tables, dressers, pianos, buffets, mirrors, art and anything that might be lurking in attics and garages.

You've seen it done a dozen times on Oprah. Design-challenged viewers allow professional room arrangers to spend a few hours reconfiguring their family rooms, and voila, a fresh new look emerges with all the stuff they shoved into the guest-room closet the last time company came over.

"I have found gorgeous things in cabinets, drawers and closets," Starkey said. The hunt takes her into attics and garages. When she's done -- usually three to four hours later for one room -- the result is usually drop-dead decorating magazine gorgeous.

There's just one rule:

"The homeowner has to leave," Starkey says.

On this subject she minces no words.

Julie Johnson left immediately.

The Bayshore Beautiful client didn't have the money to spend on new furniture or a professional decorator for her two-story, traditional Tampa home. But she wanted a decor that incorporated a subtle blend of family heirlooms, antiques, tropical knickknacks, and elegant but eclectic furnishings she had carried with her into adulthood.

The small living room to the right of the front door had essentially been a repository for toys and wayward household stuff for years. Johnson, who is raising a 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, knew she needed help.

"I had some nice things; I just didn't know what to do with them," she said.

But Johnson also knew she couldn't bear the sight of someone rooting around in her garage for stuff she had put there for a reason.

So it was a good thing she wasn't there when Starkey discovered the antique, tiger-wood fireplace mantel that Johnson had saved from her old house, a 1920s bungalow that had been torn down. Starkey made the mantel the focal point of the living room.

She lugged a bedroom side table and dainty Victorian chair downstairs to the living room. In the dining room, Starkey hung an eye-catching, 3- by 4-foot portrait of Johnson's grandmother -- wearing a blue evening gown and a pensive expression -- over the Shaker-style buffet. It was one of those quirky family heirlooms that a homeowner loves but "doesn't quite know what to do with," Starkey says.

Now it's a focal point. As is the antique dining room furniture that Johnson once arranged in perfect symmetry. It's now angled. And noticeable.

"I don't do straight lines," Starkey jokes. "Of course, it does depend on room size and ceiling height, but a really large room can accommodate a cozier setting around a focal point."

In the book Use What You Have Decorating, author Lauri Ward, founder of the Interior Refiners Network, writes that the most common mistake clients make in arranging is ignoring the room's focal point.

Other mistakes include ineffective use of accessories, poor furniture placement, improper use of artwork, an uncomfortable conversation area or a room that is off balance or lacks a cohesive look.

"You can have the beautiful home you always wanted," Ward writes. "You just need to learn how to use what you have."

Ward, like Starkey, rarely if ever encourages a client to purchase anything to add to a decorating scheme.

If you're thinking of hiring a room rearranger, Ward recommends beginning with these fundamentals to create a comfortable setting for conversation:

-An upholstered leather sofa or two love seats.

-- Two upholstered armchairs.

-- Reading lamps.

-- A coffee table or its equivalent (an ottoman or trunk, for example).

-- A small table that can be easily reached from the chairs, particularly if they're placed away from the rest of the furniture.

-- At least two square 18-inch throw pillows for the sofa.

Starkey, who sometimes has an assistant helping her move furniture, charges $100 to $150 an hour.

"I can do one room in three hours," she says.

For Johnson, it worked out well. Starkey arranged three rooms, two of which are immediately visible from the front foyer. Friends who had grown accustomed to the decorating mishmash now come over and rave.

"I have my talents," Johnson says. "Decorating isn't one of them. Roma and I were the perfect match."

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