Inside Showcase


Jeanne Chung, veteran interior designer and expert observer of the design trade, pulls back the curtain on The Pasadena Showcase House of Design designer selection and design development process.

Story and Images: Jeanne Chung

As we roll into fall, the process of selecting designers for the 2018 Pasadena Showcase House will be in full swing.  Yes, the designer selection for the Pasadena Showcase House that opens in April 2018 starts in early October and the search for the home starts many months before that.  Even though the Pasadena Showcase House is front and center for the duration, the house is open and a few weeks leading up to the opening in spring, the organization runs year-round, as a lot of preparation goes into pulling off a Showcase House – especially one that is entering their 54th year – the oldest showcase house in the country.

As a longtime Pasadena area resident and attendee of the Pasadena Showcase House, I always wondered what went on behind the scenes, and having recently completed my first Pasadena Showcase house (I designed the Guest Bedroom in the 2017 Pasadena Showcase House) and fielding so many questions, I now realize I wasn’t the only one wondering.  Believe it or not, more questions pertained to the process of being selected and designing rather than the inspiration and execution of the design.  How are the designers selected?  Who pays for the product that goes into the home?  Does the homeowner get to keep everything that is installed?  Enquiring minds want to know, so although most Showcase articles show beautiful “after” pictures, I’d like to give the inside scoop of what goes on behind the scenes and before all the pretty pictures are taken.  Not so much as a tell-all, but almost like a “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book.  You know – the book that every mother-to-be reads.  Designing a room for Showcase is very much like birthing a child, where all the anticipation is built up leading up to the big event, and then once the house opens, you go into auto-pilot for the next four weeks. When you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, it can be a bit daunting, but it really is not that scary when you know what to expect. Follow along with me as I take you through the journey of pitching, designing and executing a room for the Pasadena Showcase House.  Who knows – a stint as a Pasadena Showcase House designer may be in your future.

The process for the designer starts in early October, when past Showcase designers are invited to the Designer Walk Thru.  If you are not a past Showcase designer, you are required to present a portfolio of your work ahead of time as part of the vetting process.  During the walk-through, designers are shuttled to the home where they view the fabric and inspiration boards along with the color palette that has been carefully curated by the interior advisors with guidance from the Dunn Edwards expert on historical color.  Each designer is given a packet which includes a floor plan of the house with each of the rooms labeled and four sheets of paper for each of the top four spaces you pitch.  You are given as long as is needed (until mid-afternoon) to take notes, sketch and mingle with other designers over a beautifully catered lunch in the gardens.  One thing that I discovered is that photos are not allowed.  For someone who has 36K photos stored on her phone, it is quite apparent that I take pictures of everything, and not being able to do so required restraint.  I did, however, ballpark the room measurements so that I could more accurately sketch out the room to scale. Some designers prefer to submit quick sketches and concept statements right then and there before departing that afternoon, but I like to mull over my concept overnight and come up with a more detailed plan, so I took advantage of the full 48 hours allotted to turn in my paperwork.

While there for the walk-through, I noticed some designers brought their contractors with them to scope out the project.  Having only eight weeks from demo to complete a project is a big endeavor, so knowing what challenges you’re up against ahead of time is important to determine feasibility, and a contractor has more experience in identifying problem spots ahead of time. Designers are also encouraged to arrange with their vendors ahead of time so that they know what products they already have donated.  Being my first time, I had no idea what to expect, so I decided to “wing it” and cross that bridge when I got there, as I know not all designers are invited back for the second walk-through.

The day after I turned in my sketches, I was notified by phone that I was invited back for a second walk-through and that my bid for the Upstairs Guest Bedroom had been accepted.  My first choice was the room next to the guest bedroom, as the condition of the walls were much better, therefore the cost of renovating would have been considerably less. Unfortunately, that room was to be turned into the media room, so it was unavailable. The committee liked my concept (I only submitted one) so they shifted me over to the next room, which meant that I was responsible for removing the painted over burlap wallpaper (which had been patched over and painted several times over the decades), a cracked ceiling and a water-damaged closet. I was also asked to consider the adjoining bathroom, and as enticing as that sounded (plumbing and tile would have been donated), I knew I would be on the hook for labor and updating the electrical, plumbing and obtaining permits, etc.  I regretfully declined the bathroom and there was no problem getting another designer to fill the spot. Immediately after I got off the phone, I did a mental run through of all my resources.  Contrary to what people may think, the designers are not paid for their services by the homeowner, but instead are responsible for all costs associated with design, construction, furnishing and installing the room.  Those who don’t have deep pockets resort to the “beg, borrow and steal” approach to make it happen. I was determined to make it happen, so I immediately started calling in all the favors. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you get in as much as you put in, so even though you are given or loaned a product, there’s always a price. That may mean funneling future orders over to the vendors that have helped, or even promotion via social media during and after the event. It is always a two-way street, and that is the only way you can continue to get vendors to support you.

A week and a half later, I returned for the second peek, where detailed measurements are taken so that a scaled floor plan and elevations can be put together, and a quick mood board, in anticipation of the Informal Presentation, where one by one, each designer is given 15 minutes to present their ideas and present their boards to the committee.  Any concerns are addressed and suggestions made, and the designer makes note of what is to be amended for the Formal Presentation, held three weeks later.  There, all Pasadena Showcase House Association members are invited to attend.  All presentation boards are retained at the Formal Presentation so that the homeowner can approve all the changes being made to his/her home.

After the Formal Presentation, two months are allotted to get things in order and procure the items needed.  There is always some juggling to be had, as first choices are not always available, so this is also an exercise in flexibility and the ability to pivot and change direction should things not go as expected.  Products that you think are being donated or loaned may be discontinued or the vendor may change their mind and the designer may be on the hook for absorbing the cost. If that should happen, a decision must be made to find another solution, or fork out the cost. The expense can easily get out of control if you aren’t careful, and the return on investment may not be seen for months or even years.

As the end of January approaches, the house is emptied of all personal belongings and the ever so popular Empty House Party is held.  The Empty House Party is just as fabulous as everyone says – my favorite party with Showcase (and there are a LOT of them! Honestly, I would do Showcase House again and again just to attend all the parties…and I’m not the only designer who has said this!)  During the Empty House Party, the press, donors and designers are invited for a fun evening of seeing the home in the “before” state.  Presentation boards are set up in each of the spaces showing what each designer has planned.   A progression of food displays are set up in each room, starting from cocktails and appetizers and closing up with a coffee and dessert bar.

The Monday after the Empty House Party, the mad dash to the finish line commences.  Demo begins and it is full steam ahead!  The kitchen and baths are usually the first rooms that are attended to, as they require more time on-site to execute and secure the permits required by the city.  About five weeks in, at the beginning of March, everything starts to ramp up and the house is buzzing with a constant flow of tradesmen, artisans, designers and Showcase House staff.    Tile is being put into place, flooring is being laid, wallpaper is hung, but it isn’t until the furniture is delivered, right before the official photographer comes in to take pictures of the spaces that go into the program that the house starts to feel anything like a home.

The Pasadena Showcase House is a well-oiled machine, run solely by volunteers who have every meticulous detail figured out to a tee.  The spaces are completed almost a month in advance to allow each space to be photographed for the program.  Two weeks before opening day, the press is invited to photograph the spaces and interview designers for any stories they might air or publish in print and online.

The week leading up to opening day there are several parties – one to test the electricity load when every designer turns on all the lights in their spaces, a luncheon for the Pasadena Showcase House Association members and the big gala right before opening day.

Designing a room for the Showcase House is a big commitment, and once the design is done and the house opens to the public, the designer is not off the hook yet.  Each designer is expected to staff their room for a certain number hours each week. To generate the maximum amount of business leads, it is best to be there as often as possible. You never know when the potential client will walk by, and it is important to be able to answer all questions for them.  Having written a blog post on the Pasadena Showcase House every year for the past four years prior to designing a room, I had the unique experience of attending Showcase House from an entirely different perspective.  I asked a lot of questions, and as well trained as the docents were, no one was best able to field questions than a representative from the design firm, or better yet, the actual designer.

Most people don’t know this, but to recoup some of the expense, each designer can sell the products they have in their room – ask, and each designer has a list where you can look up prices.  First dibs are given to the homeowner, and they have until two weeks after opening day to decide what they will be purchasing.  After that, anyone is free to purchase, but the items cannot be removed from the room until the last day.  Showcase House is possibly the best place to obtain designer product at rock bottom prices, as most designers are eager to recoup what they spent and really don’t want to take everything back just to collect dust in storage, because that really IS what happens.

Once the Showcase House closes, it is time to dismantle!  Everything that is attached stays.  This means wallcoverings, tile, flooring and built-in cabinetry, plumbing fixtures. Many designers have light fixtures loaned to them, so those fixtures must be switched out with another fixture that is approved by the homeowner.  After the furniture is moved out then all the repair work needs to be done.  The designers are required to leave each space in the same or better condition when leaving, so that may mean removing any temporary flooring, patching holes, painting, etc. Not until the second week of June can the designer close the book on Showcase.  Eight and a half months from start to finish, then in October it starts all over again.


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