Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Design for a cause: Contest helps spaces that help others

From page HS6 | February 21, 2014 |

To make lives of the less fortunate better, I have gotten dressed up, teetered around a party in too-high heels while balancing a glass of champagne and written a check. I have also put on old jeans and a baseball cap, rolled paint and hung blinds.

And I will tell you which one is better. Hands down it’s hands on.

Top Los Angeles designer Mark Brunetz and I think alike. “Designers get a little weary of always dealing with the luxury market,” he told me recently, “but that’s the nature of the business.”

He was referring to clients whose biggest problems are whether they want granite or marble, leather or suede, 5-inch or 6-inch moldings. Meanwhile, others are worrying about issues like bed or sidewalk.

To help offset that, Brunetz is championing Design for a Difference, a national contest for designers, both professional and amateur, who want to makeover downtrodden spaces that serve those in need.

“There’s a legitimate perception that design is for the affluent,” said Brunetz, whom many know as the former TV host of Style Network’s “Clean House,” “but I have always been a big fan of designing for the masses.”

The winner of this year’s Design for a Difference will get $25,000 to invest in the needy space and a team of volunteers, including Brunetz, to get the job done. International Design Guild, an alliance of floor covering companies with 100 showrooms in North America, puts up the money.

Last year’s top winner, Transitions for Women, a center in Spokane, Wash., that helps poor and homeless women and their children, got the first renovation. Several regional winners received smaller sums, which helped them makeover a food pantry in Indiana, a human rights center for refugees in Utah and a therapeutic horseback riding center for at-risk youths in Kansas.

As I heard about this, all I could think was: I’m a selfish sloth and need to do more.

Then I watched the heartening video of the Transitions project, and recalled a few years ago when I walked into a woman’s shelter in Denver that was filled to capacity with a wait list. The staff was doing the important work of giving abused women and their children shelter, food, protection and a way out. However, the décor, sadly, reflected the women — worn out and beaten down.

My first instinct was to bolt. “I can’t fix this,” I thought,  overwhelmed. Instead, I took home a battered nightstand, which I sanded, painted, and dressed with a new crystal knob. It was not much, but it was something. Eventually, I adopted a room.

Please, I am not holding myself out as some paragon of charity. I can and should do more. And Brunetz has reminded me of what I — and we all — can do:

We can better serve the underserved by improving the spaces that heal them.

“People don’t realize how much we are affected by our space,” said Brunetz of why he’s heading this cause. “When you wake up in a space that supports you, your life instantly improves in ways you can’t imagine.”

“I know,” I tell him. “I require organized beauty or I’m as grouchy as a cornered snake.”

“Improving your exterior space improves your interior space,” he said.

Now, if you’re inspired to make a difference like I am, you can get dressed up for a fancy gala and write a check, or you can roll up your sleeves. I’ll tell you, sweating is more satisfying but checks are still welcome.

You don’t have to be a designer to make someone else’s space more uplifting. Here are some ways you, too, can make a design difference:

  • Enter the contest. Design for a Difference is accepting entries now through June 1. A panel of nine judges will review entries, and winners will be announced Aug. 1. To enter, propose a community service center in your area that could use a facelift.
  • Be part of a project. Many churches have missions that build homes or schools for the under-privileged. Habitat for Humanity builds houses in many cities across the country and welcomes volunteer labor. And, if one of this year’s five winners of the Design for a Difference contest is in your town, offer to pitch in.
  • Donate items. When you give your unused or unwanted household items to a yard sale or Habitat, they can have a new purposeful life. Put in the right hands (read designers or those who have an eye and a knack) they can make a huge difference, said Brunetz.
  • Start small. Just because you can’t makeover an entire room,  don’t get overwhelmed and walk away. Spend an afternoon repainting an accent wall, add a bright area rug, create a computer station, set up a small reading library or rearrange the space to make it more functional and inviting.
  • Spread the word.  When you find an opportunity to make a place better, let others know. Making the world more beautiful for those in need is even more rewarding — and a lot more fun — when you work with a team.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through





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