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No one's home, but the designer touch is all over it

This is not Trading Spaces. With four days and an $80,000 budget, Steve Scarritt goes to work decorating the Mediterranean-style model home for the Oakstead.

By JAMES THORNER
Published January 25, 2004

LAND O'LAKES - The San Remo model home in the Oakstead neighborhood begs for a decorator's touch. It has no furniture, no electricity, and the dominant smell is paint and plaster.

Enter Orlando home designer Steve Scarritt, whose job is to dress up the plain Jane into the seductive Mediterranean Juanita of its builder's dreams.

But first he has to deal with the vanity countertops in the master bathroom. They're cultured black marble with brown swirls.

Wrong. All wrong.

"I ordered black granite. This is an awful choice. It throws the whole bathroom off," Scarritt announces minutes after he arrives at the empty model for its four-day makeover on Jan 15. "It looks cheap."

In the building industry, 40-year-old Scarritt is a vital link between contractor and customer. He's a model home designer, a person whose work is supposed to inspire oohs and ahhs from the home-buying public, with the goal of selling lots of lots.

Models seem to rise every few blocks in fast-growing suburbs like those of central Pasco County.

But Scarritt's stands out. With its barrel-tiled roof, Moorish columns and date palm landscaping, the two-story, 4,335-square-foot San Remo isn't your standard Pasco habitation. Asking price: $390,990 and up.

The builder, Mercedes Homes, bought 44 lots in an enclave called Ballastone, wrapped in cypress trees on the back end of Oakstead. San Remo showcases its "Mediterranean Collection."

With his roughly $80,000 decorating budget for the San Remo - design fees extra - Scarritt doesn't have to skimp.

But money's only half the game. It takes muscle and long hours to outfit a house with several truck loads of furniture, framed art and knickknacks.

Scarritt bounds into the house with the buffed up frame of a four-day-a-week weight lifter. T-shirts, shorts, work-out shoes are his uniform. Not one strand of his gray-flecked dark hair is out of place.

It's the start of the multiday marathon. And one of Scarritt's first impressions is that the house isn't finished.

The waterless pool out back displays a bottom of raw concrete. Black iron railing posts on the stairway are missing. The front door is white; it was supposed to be black.

And then there's this excess furniture - oaken cabinets, stray cushioned chairs - that got delivered mistakenly to Land O'Lakes. They were supposed to have been shipped to Fort Myers, where Scarritt is simultaneously designing a model called Napoli.

"This one hasn't been bad," Scarritt says of the Oakstead job. "I've been on moves where 20 percent of the merchandise is broken."

Scarritt's crews have already done the prep work of stacking furniture in staging areas for later rearrangement. The San Remo's library, for example, is teeming with lamps.

The house offers six bedrooms, but Scarritt has made a library and exercise room out of two of them. Four bathrooms, a living room, family room, media room and loft round out the floor plan.

To prevent scuffing up the house, helpers spent the day before Scarritt's arrival laying strips of carpet and bubble wrap on the hardwood floors and taping cardboard bumpers on wall corners.

Today, Scarritt's assistant, Laurie Zavala, is helping lug a sofa into the house from the courtyard out front.

"Steve! The Bellisimo couch. Upstairs or downstairs?" Zavala yells.

"Living room!" Scarritt shouts from the kitchen without consulting his intricate floor plan.

The Bellisimo is all subdued tones like gold, rust and olive. That's the color palette selected for the house. Weeks earlier Scarritt directed painting crews to lay on shades of Harvest Tan, Cockatoo Gold, Tobacco Road and Brass Bucket.

The furniture seems fit for a Renaissance prince. There's a giant carved bed piled with velvety pillows, lots of leather chairs with wooden arms, tapestry-like drapes and shower curtains hooped with tassels.

Mercedes Homes gives Scarritt a fairly long leash. Marketing surveys inform decorators of trends and tastes. Scarritt gets to spend $18 a square foot on the house, higher than the Florida industry average.

Still, Mercedes executives vetoed his plan for wide-planked hand-scraped wooden floors. Too expensive. Scarritt got real wood floors, but a less costly mass-produced version.

"They'll let me spend $1,000 on a painting if it makes the house work, but I'll have to cut back on other stuff to stay within budget," he says.

On his first day of decorating, Scarritt realizes not everything he ordered arrived. It's time to go shopping. Day Two dawns with his purchases piled around the house, just as he left them at midnight when he retired to his hotel.

Paisley towels from Marshall's are a clearance bargain at $3 apiece. Ross and T.J. Maxx stores supplied candlesticks and other knickknacks. Curtain rods came from a local Big Lots.

The helpers had been busy into the night. Scented candles, lotions and soaps have appeared in the bathrooms. Urns and columns have sprouted around the house. A three-man crew lays a finishing coat on the pool bottom.

Scarritt is wanted upstairs in the media room, a chaise-lounge equipped space holding a television and bar.

"Steve, a quick question if I can," Scarritt's curtain hanger says.

Scarritt fingers the fabric. He tucks. He lifts. "Make them a little tighter. Shrink them up a bit," he says.

The upstairs of the house gives Scarritt a chance to break with the market-tested Mediterranean theme downstairs. The two children's bedrooms are shaping up to be lushly tropical in decor.

A muralist has begun painting red and yellow hibiscus on a girls' bedroom wall. The bed is a twisting green vine assembled from jig-sawed boards. Grinning Polynesian tiki heads make up the boy's head and foot board, and the painter has sketched a volcanic South Seas scene on the wall.

"I can be a little more cutting edge with the kids' rooms," Scarritt says. "But I'm not trying to intimidate a client. It's all about impulse buying."

By the third day of decorating, the crew appears to be running on cans of Red Bull energy drink, protein shakes, dried fruit and potato chips. Dance tracks on a boom box pump them up.

Scarritt outfits the exercise room with a Nautilus style weight-lifting rig he bought a day earlier at Sam's Club. He cautions his helper to leave the cables and pulleys detached. Don't want people touring the model hurting themselves.

Patio furniture rings a pool that's shimmering with water at last. Finally, most rooms look as they did in Scarritt's imagination when planning began months earlier.

Zavala roams the house with a knife, severing T.J. Maxx and Marshall's tags from candlesticks and hand towels.

Pictures clipped from magazines, mostly of fashion models, lay stacked in the kitchen. They'll be framed and placed around the house to leave the impression San Remo is a hit with the beautiful people.

"I still need light bulbs, soaps for the bathroom, more frames," Zavala says. "I make Steve feel like a wife with a grocery list."

Not everything's right yet. Scarritt grimaces at the throw rug on the library floor. It's that white trim. He wants black.

"It's just a little off," he says. "To me the color's not deep enough."

One of the biggest issues is how to find a tall enough ladder to hang window treatments 20 feet off the floor of the family room. The group held its breath a day earlier when one tapestry hanger did a surfer-like balancing act on the top step of a ladder, the one usually marked "Danger."

Two days later most of the decorating is done.

Plastic champagne grapes, lemons and pears nestle in a bowl on the kitchen's granite counters. There are no lacquered pizzas or fake cakes with plastic icing, though. Scarritt thinks those are tacky. China and cloth napkins adorn the kitchen table.

Two problems of earlier days are solved. Scarritt has swapped rugs in the library and master bath. Window treatments tower over the family room. And no one broke his neck.

The black bathroom counters with brown swirls remain intractable. The correct tops needed to be specially ordered.

Before the model home can officially open for tours, cleaners have to act. Plastic foam packaging beads flutter across floors. Dust coats the staircase. Windows are smudged and carpets linty.

Scarritt speeds off to his next assignment, a Hilton hotel he's redecorating in Gaithersburg, Md. Fourteen other Mercedes modeling jobs fill his calendar.

One of his biggest is decorating the home of one of the Mercedes owners, a $6-million beach house owned by Scott Buescher.

A couple of days after Scarritt vanished up north, one of the first model viewers pokes her head in the front door.

Susan Kelley praises the rich colors and functional layout and assumes that something so tasteful was designed by a woman.

"Would I buy it? If I could afford it, yes," Kelley says.

Looks like Scarritt's accomplished his mission.

"I've worked seven months straight," he says. "But I have the best job there is."

- James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco. He can be reached at 813 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is thorner@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 25, 2004, 02:00:57]


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