Monday, October 27, 2008

Top Designer Talent In DC

There are many secrets in Washington DC. Usually they are the kind made of the knowing handshake or perhaps the scandal kept hidden til days before the election and oh is the atmosphere ripe these days. We here in the nation's capital are but days away from a change in power and unlike our former supernova, the Big Apple, to the north, here power is all.

A new Administration brings new people and new ideas and new needs to Washington. Come January, many new folk will come to town. They'll need advice on who to greet, where to go, how to make an impression on the natives and how to show that they are arriving with new ideas and a new style. That is what makes it such an exciting time and perhaps an historic one.

So you've arrived, and you need some expert advice on putting your new home together. Some in the new Cabinet and many another newly minted Assistant Secretary might think they need to turn to New York for such advice, but for those of us in the know, that's just provincial thinking. There is plenty of design talent right here in DC and today Homer's Odd is going to start showing you what and who is available.

Let's start with a who. For freshness, style, professionalism and a can do spirit you can't go wrong with Sally Steponkus.

Sally is the kind of gal, and I use that term in the highest respect, cause I love gals, who approaches life and projects with a grin, grit, and determination. She reminds me of that scene from The Mary Tyler Moore show when Lou Grant said to Mary in their first meeting, " You've got spunk," to her reply, " well, yea," and he said, " I hate spunk." But who prevailed???

I sat down recently with Sally to discuss her background, thoughts on design and her recent projects. While the discussion took place over coffee I couldn't help but feel a Marguerita would have been better. It's that spunk thing.

Let's start at the beginning: Sally is a native Washingtonian growing up in downtown Foggy Bottom and then in McLean, Virginia where she graduated from the Potomac School and then from Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Her first exposure to design came from her parents hiring her mother's college roommate's husband, Roger Roman to help decorate the house the in Virginia. " I remember Roger and my Mother taking me to the Design Center downtown to help pick out wallpaper and carpet for my room, I'd never had so much fun and I thought I was pretty good at it."

Sally got her start working for the Robert Allen showroom at the Washington Design Center during her college vacations and for 8 months after graduation. She explained, "I was then hired by Ann Kenkel of Kendridge Designs, where I worked for 2 years. When I left I opened my own business while also working for Lavinia Lemon. Before going out completely on my own I worked with Kelley Proxmire, working 2 days a week for almost 2 years, while still running my own biz the rest of the time."

What is your favorite room either from an emotional standpoint or design. You can choose from anywhere?

"I had a really hard time with this question! If we are talking about decorating-wise, then I’d have to say that I love going to lunch at the restaurant that Kelly Wearstler designed at Bergdorf’s in NYC. I adore her light, clear light blue palette and her use of funky, vintage-looking chairs and preppy but chic window treatments. If we are talking about my favorite room for sentimental, non decorating-wise reasons, then I’d choose my late grand-father’s screened in porch in Rochester, NY. He had a beautiful backyard and garden that he tended faithfully, which provided a lovely view from the porch, and he had this rattan furniture that I wish I could have inherited – it went to my aunt’s summer place in Maine, so at least I still get to enjoy it when I’m up there – but I suppose it’s the feeling of being there with him that I remember most. My grandfather was as fastidious a homemaker as any woman. He raised my mom and aunt on his own after my grandmother died (my mom was 5 at the time) and he was a wonderfully kind and gentle person with superb homemaking skills and a crazy sweet tooth: he gardened, he cooked, he baked and he was lovely to everyone and his house was very peaceful and simple. I remember what the grass smelled like after he cut it (the windows were always open in the summertime) and I can still feel the sheer fabric of the window treatments. It seems to me, his house ran in a quiet, organized, metered way – it was perfect.

What project are you most proud of completing?

I am equally proud of all of my projects, as well as the several showhouses I’ve participated in. But I’m most proud of MYSELF for starting my business at age 24. Fortunately my first client was a huge one so starting out wasn’t so bad and I had lots of support from my parents, who always knew I could run my own company. My father is self-employed as a public relations consultant so growing up and knowing that he was in charge, he did all the work, he set his own schedule, etc. wasn’t intimidating, it was just how it was and there was never any question in my mind that I’d work for myself just like him. It seems more normal to me than working for a big company.

Who is your favorite or most respected Decorator?

I adore Kelly Wearstler and really respect her taste and achievement for single-handedly bringing back Hollywood Regency and promoting refinishing old pieces of furniture and reusing them in updated, fun fabrics. She has inspired me to shop even more at flea markets and on Craigslist to find old, cool, cheap stuff to redo and resell!

What is your first question is when meeting a potential client about decorating their home?
I like to know how clients want to use their spaces and what feeling they want to exude from them. If someone wants something casual but funky that is helpful to know, but if someone wants more formal but still family-friendly, it is important that I know that to create the right mood.

What do you find is a client's biggest mistake? Many a client’s biggest mistake is not defining how much money they want to spend and setting a budget. A lot of clients also get bogged down by the money stuff – once they see it in print on a proposal, it gets very real and they often hesitate or stall because they haven’t defined their budget for themselves or to me ahead of time. If a client doesn’t start out with an amount they want to spend, whatever I show them naturally ends up being “more than they want to spend.” "And hey! like they say, you get what you pay for."

What do you find are the most common problems on a project and most common mistakes in dealing with a client?
The most common problem on a project is communication with clients. I try to be very open and not intimidating so they feel like they can approach me and ask questions, or ask for other choices. Often people don’t ask questions or don’t follow up on decisions, which slows down the process.

What is your best fabric source?

The Washington Design Center, specifically Cowtan & Tout for Jane Churchill & Manuel Canovas, J. Lambeth for China Seas, Hinson for great grasscloth wallcoverings.

What object or piece of furniture should every living room have?
An ottoman. You should always be able to be comfortable and to put your feet up.I have to be lying on a sofa or in a chair with an ottoman to get truly comfy & relaxed.

What object or piece of furniture every bedroom should have?

Lovely lamps. Lighting is important in a bedroom,and having some special lamps that are crisp, clean, serene and quiet and not ordinary make a great impact on the room. They are obviously practical but also can often be sculptural and make the room the cherry on top of the sundae.

What is your favorite Lamp or lighting source?
I have been crazy about Christopher Spitzmiller forever and his lamps are certainly the best of the best. When clients don’t have as big a budget, I get lots of lamps from the Kellogg Collection which always has a great collection.I also adore Jamie Young, Currey & Co. and Circa Lighting for basics.

What are your favorite paint colors.

Blue Ground from Farrow & Ball

Manchester Tan from Ben Moore

Hancock Green from Ben Moore

What are your favorite sources for new information and your favorite websites?

Recently I’ve been reading the following blogs: Peak of Chic, StyleCourt, An Aesthete’s Lament and of course you Homer. I am constantly shopping on Crate and Barrel’s website as well as West Elm and Pottery Barn. I always click on the link to the blogs that Terri Sapienza lists in the Home Section every Thursday on

Also, I look at almost every day to see what new has been posted. Recently I purchased chairs for myself and recovered them in a wonderful Sea Cloth chocolate zebra print on the front with China Seas ivory linen and chocolate polka dots on the back. They’re very fun & unexpected!

Thanks to Angie Seckinger for the photographs, except for the picture of Bergdorf's which comes from Girl in the Pearl Blog.

That is Sally, fun and unexpected.Here's to you Sally.


Roxanne Steed said...

great room pix- I do love the "Keep Calm & Carry On" framed piece over the white chair w/ red blanket (my daughter has this t-shirt from her study abroad time in London!) And yes- the Manchester Tan from Benj. Moore is lovely, another artist friend has this in her studio with a gorgeous rosey-coral-pink upholstered chair & rug...made me remember what a great color that is!

Anonymous said...

Great pictures and story. Sally is a real talent resource.

Easy and Elegant Life said...

Excellent reporting Homer. Thanks!

My Notting Hill said...

Hi! Great post. Just wanted you to know that I added a link to your post about Sally's work in my post on the NSO design show.(I have some pics up of her dining room) I'm big fan of her work too. Michele

cotedetexas said...

I loved this! great story and great style.


Scott Fazzini said...

I heart Sally! Honestly, the freshest designer in DC! Great post!