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Different looks at interior design
Interior decorators talk about their work and homes

by David Moore
Q-Notes staff

Robbie Warren relaxing at home.

An example of Robbie Warren’s work on the annual ABC house.

Derrell Johnson and the red bedroom (below).

Robbie Warren, a native Charlottean, has been in the interior decorating business since 1989.

“In my work I focus primarily on new home construction,” says Warren.

“We’ll talk with the client about the home they want and work with an architect and residential building designer. We work together as a team.

“Once we start construction I’ll help the client select architecural elemets that go into the house, like tile and cabinets. On a big project I may work with a client for over a year. When it comes time to design their draperies and the traditional stuff it’s easy because I know so well what they like.”

Warren and her partner Marty Ackerman (a residential designer) are currently at work on a project all their own. “We’re building a new house in Lucia, about 21 miles from Charlotte,” Warren says excitedly. “It’s something very different for this region — it’s very southwestern — kind of like The Alamo house in Texas.”

Warren and Ackerman were inspired to adopt the design style for their new home after they took a motorcycle ride across the American southwest.

“It’s really our dream house, Warren enthuses. “I like an earthy feel with neutrals and rich textures. Our floors will be stained concrete in an earthy gold color.”

The 4,300 square-foot house includes 3,600 square feet in the main residence and 600 square feet over the garage apartment or mother-in-law suite.

A cerified Energy Star house, it utilizes passive solar energy and radiant heated floors.

Other outside projects for Warren and her staff of eight have included the March of Dimes house and the ABC Designer House to Benefit Public Education, an achievement Warren is particularly proud of. “The ABC house is 8,000 equare feet,” Warren explains. “My firm designed the entire house.”

With personal clients, Warren admits a fondness for working with gay and lesbian couples or individuals.

“I’ve been working with a lesbian couple building a new home on the lake,” she offers. “The thing I’ve noticed — with gay couples — there tends to be a bit more creativity and a little more whimsy than most heteros would put into a project. I think my gay clients are willing to step out on a limb with it and I have a lot more fun with it.

“Everybody should be like that though — your house is an extension of yourself, an extension of your personality. I guess in the gay community we just express ourselves much better.”

Warren confirms that she’s seen clients spend as much as $400,000 on a complete interior decorating job, although most of her clients average between $100,000 and $200,000.

“Some of my designers have done houses that are 1,200 square feet and the client may spend as much as $15,000 on furnishings, draperies and art pieces.”

If those figures leave your head spinning, don’t be dismayed. Warren confirms there are lots of ways to get the look you want without having to take out a second mortgage.

“When I first got into the business, only the most elite hired decorators. In the last six or seven years — with the advent of HDTV — all kinds of people can do it now. They’ll call you in a heartbeat for a consultation and then do it themselves.”

According to Warren, Charlotte has great opportunities for interior designers and homeowners who want to decorate themselves.

“For the trade-only community there are so many showrooms available to designers — fabric showrooms, furniture showrooms, lighting showrooms.

“If you’re an individual and not a professional decorator, I’d recommend places like The Purple Picket, Boulevard and Urban Homes. The number of antique stores in the area is also a great resource.”

So what if you’re strapped and your digs really need some help.

“Paint,” says Warren. “You can get paint cheap and no matter the color you can get a lot of bang. New fabric on furniture and throw pillows can add a lot, too.”

Another take on interior designing

Originally from Greenville, S.C., part-time designer Derrell Johnson and his partner Clarence Gray, a social worker, have been together for 11 years. They make their home in Charlotte’s historic Wesley Heights neighborhood, just west of Uptown.

“For years I lived in a new house,” says Johnson. “Never again. I would never go back to a new home. The older houses have so much more attention to detail. The trim, the craftsmanship, the clawfoot tub. I love all those things about my older home.”

Situated on Walnut Ave., Johnson’s home was built in 1936.

A graduate of the Art Instiute of Charlotte, Johnson was certified in design in 2003.

Since that time he’s taken on various design and consultation projects, while continuing to work part-time as a paralegal.

Johnson admits the interior designs of his own home might be considered a bit eclectic by some but readily confesses an unyielding passion for the style. “I call it Afrocentric with a modern twist,” says Johnson. “There’s lots of rich colors — like chocolate and orange and apple green.”

Some of his most favorite projects have been those that posed considerable challenge, like a recent assignment for a client that lived in a small apartment.

“This client wanted to add some additional sleeping quarters,” says Johnson. “It’s a small apartment and it had a tiny dining nook off the living room. He wanted to re-purose that area and make it into a guest sleeping alcove.”

Johnson chose a deep red for the room, while keeping in mind the client had some specific requests.

“He didn’t want to cover the windows, and didn’t like blinds, so we used beads over the windows,” Johnson offers. “The wood tones of the floor and the beads worked together very well.”

To continue the Afrocentric design theme, the client chose a faux-fur bedspread.

For Johnson, perfecting his design style is a constantly evolving process.

“There are a lot of people — when you say Afrocentric — all they think of is animal prints. But there’s so much more to it. For authentic art pieces and collectibles, the House of Africa on Thomas St. is incredible. But you don’t have to spend a whole lot of money for fabrics if you don’t want to. Places like Target have these great bright colored fabrics that work for draperies and furniture cover. Mixing the African artwork in with traditional African colors in a contemporary usage modernizes it. It’s bringing an historic cultural thing into a modern age.”

In addition to his love for older homes, Johnson also confesses a passion for vintage furnishings and collectibles as well.

“There’s something about the item having a history to it that I find very appealing,” he says. “To know that a chair or a lamp or artwork have had a life of their own before it came to you — and to know that you’re allowing it to continue its purpose seems somehow, very meaningful.”

Fortunately for Johnson and Gray, they equally share an appreciation for yard sales, thrift stores and the ocassional roadside gold mine.

“It’s amazing what you can get out there if you take the time to look,” says Johnson. “We do a lot of shopping at thrift and consignment stores and there are some pieces that we’ve picked up that other people have thrown out. We recovered or striped them and re-stained them and ended up with something beautiful.”

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