In the age of open floor plans, carving out private niches within those areas is becoming more important.

By Mary Jo Martin
No matter the floorplan or current trends, renowned interior designer Lisa Davenport of Connecticut-based Lisa Davenport Designs says she encourages clients to carve out a little personal space in their homes. It’s the place where dwellers can say a collective, “Ahhhhh.”

“I’ve embraced little nooks and crannies for years,” she shares, “so it’s cool that they are trending now. These spaces are almost like a little surprise waiting for my clients within their homes, which makes it an especially fun element to deliver.”

One of Davenport’s projects was a large build in Vermont that had an enormous gathering room. She took a small corner of that space, added two chairs, a table, and a lamp to give the couple a cozy area when they’re home alone. For another New England home, she added a small bar designed to look like a jewelry box, complete with a hand-painted floor.

“People would rather have quiet, intimate spaces within their large open floorplans than a maze of walls,” Davenport explains, adding, “I want to make these little spaces feel fabulous. As with every other area in the home, lighting sets the mood.”

Lighting rep Melissa Leib, President of Leib & Associates, is seeing a similar trend in her region of Northern California and Northern Nevada.

“Older homes were designed with lots of walls and rooms,” she remarks. “Now that we’ve gotten so comfortable with a more open environment, I don’t think we’ll see homes with mazes of separate rooms trending again. Instead, people are looking for ways to carve out small niches within their existing homes that reflect their taste and provide a retreat for them to enjoy their interests and hobbies. Everyone needs a little space of their own.”

Among the types of spaces that growing in popularity are:

  • Dressing rooms
  • Reading nooks/libraries
  • Yoga studios
  • Weight training/exercise areas
  • Sitting areas
  • Bars
  • Meditation rooms or gardens
  • Butlers’ pantries

As Davenport notes, this trend is especially appealing because these spaces don’t typically require expensive renovations. “You can create one of these spaces in a little portion of a large room by using unique methods,” she comments. “I like separating these small spaces by using pass-through partitions or pseudo walls like floating tables with art and greenery and screens and partitions that aren’t traditional. Recently I was in a home where there were huge 60″ x 80″ canvases that were suspended from the ceiling [as room dividers].”

Even though these spaces are small, selecting the right lighting requires attention to detail. “I believe in layering lighting and never using just one source,” Davenport states. “By doing that, rooms can tell multiple stories and set multiple moods. I almost always use dimmers because they totally change the environment and use of the space. Depending on the situation, I use lighting that highlights artwork or a point of interest, as well as task-oriented lighting. Sometimes I think these spaces demand a really spectacular piece, but not many companies make petite versions of their statement lighting. Fortunately, I’m never afraid to overscale a light fixture in a small space, which is usually very unexpected.”

“People would rather have quiet, intimate spaces within their large open floorplans than a maze of walls.”

—Lisa Davenport

Design Outside the Box

Leib has earned a master’s certificate in the practice of feng shui, which helps her to be very attuned to the feel of any space and how people function within it. She works closely with showrooms in her region, sharing new ideas on lighting for a multitude of spaces. As a lighting rep, she often gets involved in building showroom displays that are experiential. She believes that putting products — and new design ideas — right in front of the customer is a huge first step.

“I spend a lot of time face-to-face in showrooms,” Leib says. “To be able to influence and educate them properly, I need to first understand the culture and atmosphere of each showroom — and who their customers are.”

Leib’s goal is to elevate the knowledge of showroom teams and help them be more comfortable when selling products. Many homeowners are relying on the expertise of showroom salespeople to help them determine the right products for their home and to suggest interesting design ideas.

“I want to help them be a resource for customers who are not working with designers,” Leib states, “and so I encourage salespeople to think about surprising and interesting ways to use lighting. They need to have confidence in presenting their ideas so homeowners have confidence in their selections — especially when it involves creating a new space. The great thing is that you can’t really make a mistake when choosing lighting for these unique spaces. It’s okay if they’re a different style than what is in the rest of the house because of the unconventional space and use of light,” she reveals.

“People want their homes to reflect their own authentic personalities and lifestyles. For lighting sales, it’s all about understanding the customer more than relying on Google analytics,” Leib states. “That’s especially important for ‘sister spaces’ since they are often a new concept to many homeowners. It’s about learning what works and doesn’t work with each customer, so I encourage showrooms to ask a lot more questions than they would for traditional spaces. They need to know customers’ ‘must haves’ and ‘must nots.’ There really is something out there for every space — you just have to find it.”

Leib is a believer in the value of social and digital media to connect and generate interest. On her firm’s social media pages, she often shares images of lighting fixtures being used in unexpected ways, as well as photos that illustrate how one fixture can fit within multiple design styles.

“I use blogs, social media, newsletters, and email to get in front of people,” Leib says. “Photos themselves are the real selling tools. Social media has made consumers much more open to new ideas. They don’t feel like they have to follow the ‘rules’ nearly as much anymore. A lot of sales are driven by the public who are seeing images online and saying, ‘I want that!’”

Why not share the lifestyle images that lighting manufacturers present in their catalogs and websites on your own site and social media (giving proper credit, of course). “Some of the lines I represent are excellent at producing catalogs and using social media that show their products in a wide range of applications. Those are great tools to share with showrooms as well as for my own digital communications,” Leib comments. “It’s all about generating fresh ideas — especially when it comes to creating unique spaces.”

“I encourage showrooms to ask a lot more questions than they would for traditional spaces.”

—Melissa Leib

Personalize the Space

Davenport’s mission is to create a space, home, and design that reflects each customer’s taste. “We work very hard to make clients feel at home from the beginning,” she explains. “We ask a lot of questions and ask them to communicate their vision with us through their Pinterest boards. When they come to our studio, part of our presentation is having their favorite coffee or beverage/food, their favorite flowers on the table, their favorite music in the background. It puts clients in their comfort zone right away and gives them confidence that we know what they need in their design project. So when we start introducing things outside of their comfort zone, they feel more comfortable with our ideas.”

Before making any design decisions, Davenport encourages clients to live in their space for at least six months. That time period allows homeowners to understand the natural light patterns that occur and how they really want to use their space.

“Our job isn’t just to create fabulous designs for clients — it’s also to educate them,” she says. “They are making an investment in their home that will improve their overall well-being. It’s a complete mood-changer from being in a space that is dated, dirty, and sometimes empty.”

Even though these areas are small in comparison to the overall floor plan, they can play a significant role in the clients’ enjoyment in their homes. “I tell them if they’re going to spend any time at all in a space, it needs to be appointed and designed with care and effort,” Davenport remarks. “Showrooms, too, will be most successful when their clients understand that all spaces in their homes are important and deserve time, effort, and attention to detail.”

GALLERY

MEET THE PROS

MELISSA LEIB

Melissa Leib was born into the lighting business, when her father (Herb) was vice president of a lighting manufacturer. She grew up putting catalogs together and stamping them for mailing. After graduating from the University of California-Davis with a double-major in Economics and Art History, she took a position at Macy’s where she was asked to join their management training program, but the allure of a different culture took her to Japan. She spent two years in that country, learning to speak fluent Japanese and earning a master’s certificate in feng shui.

Meanwhile in the U.S., her dad had formed a rep agency (Herb Leib & Associates) and its success led to an invitation for his daughter to join him in the business. She began working with her dad in 1994, sharing 10 years together before his passing in 2004.

“It was very special for me to work with my dad,” she shares. “He was such a nice man and well-liked by people in the lighting industry. He taught me how to be a business person and a sales person. He didn’t just want to write orders; in the days before the internet, he was a true resource for the many people who would come to him with questions.”

Another significant influence was Hinkley CEO Rick Wiedemer, who recently died following a tragic accident. “I met Rick when I was in col-lege, so he has been someone I’ve been able to turn to for virtually my entire career,” she notes. “In fact, after my dad’s death, he helped me make the decision to change the agency’s name to Leib & Associates. Over the years, he would often ask my opinion about designs and what I believed would be the next trends. And I would ask his advice on running a business, expanding my networking, and thinking about other potential income streams.”

LISA DAVENPORT

Originally considering a career in graphic design, Lisa Davenport soon decided that working from a cubicle all day wasn’t going to be the right fit. She happily put her creativity and outgoing personality to work as a visual merchandiser for a clothing company based in Middletown, Ct., where she had responsibility for all of the merchandising displays at the company’s five stores. The experience she gained building those sets proved to be an ideal lead-in for a career in design.

She got her first taste of client design when a local woman, impressed with Davenport’s talent, asked her to select paint, wallpaper, and a valance for her bedroom. Davenport found the experience to be rewarding and enjoyable to see how happy the woman was with the results.

Shortly afterward, however, her daughter was born and Davenport thought it was time to “stay home and be like Donna Reed and vacuum wearing my pearls.” But the same need for personal interaction that kept her from pursuing graphic design – and the gratification she felt from using her creativity to decorate for that client’s bedroom – made her realize that a career in design would be ideal. Not one to waste any time, Davenport returned to school before her daughter’s first birthday.

Davenport enjoyed 15 years as a partner in a 6,000-sq.-ft. showroom; seven years ago, she started her own design business in Connecticut, and later opened a studio in Naples, Florida. She credits her success, in part, to surrounding herself with good people whom she trusts will help her make solid financial and business decisions. Her team includes a CFO, an office manager, several designers and assistants, and a social media pro.

“When I mentor designers and design firm owners, I tell them that a key to success is finding as much fulfillment in creativity building a business as in the design work itself,” Davenport states. “You never want to be the smartest person in the room.”

She also credits a handful of design professionals who have inspired the way she approaches projects; one of them is Barry Dixon. “I like to say that our industry is full of generous, giving people,” she comments. “But Barry is that and more. He’s one of kindest, most talented, and ‘real’ people I’ve met in this business. He has no ego, and his designs reflect that. His work is a pure reflection of his clients.”

Davenport describes her signature design style as “Cashmere and Blue Jeans.” She jokes, “My husband has always said, “’This wife of mine can walk into a room in an evening gown and stilet-tos, and the next morning she’ll be barefoot in the garden with no makeup on.’”