Appreciating a master of decoration

#379 in a series of true experiences in real estate
October 2001, Hills Newspapers

Sahdu works her magic

We saw this week in Berkeley – with pleasure – a staging job done by Sahdu Mannell who has staged a number of houses for clients of our own. This time, however, it was not our listing but that of a colleague. So we hadn’t seen the house in its “before” state; we were seeing it for the first time beautifully readied to be shown to agents and buyers.

The house looks wonderful all spanking clean and well decorated, but I was sorry to have missed knowing what it was like before the recent improvements. It’s great fun to watch houses change, often dramatically, with painting and cleaning. But the frosting is the best part, when the stager rearranges, subtracts and/or adds furnishings.

Sahdu possesses a keen eye for color, scale and placement. She uses furniture, flowers and accessories to fine advantage, so successfully that I find myself gliding through houses she has staged focusing, I am sure, on precisely the pieces of the design she intended for me to see. There is never a jamb-up, a visual dead-end.

Instead I experience an easy flow from one room to the next with treats for my eye all along the way. Each of these treats seems simple enough in itself, but when I stop to think about almost any one of them, I am impressed and delighted by Sahdu’s brilliant execution.

This latest house is an unoccupied two-story Victorian with a smallish parlor at the front and a formal dining room behind it, followed by a good-sized kitchen and half bath. Upstairs are a full bath and 3 bedrooms. As part of this job, Sahdu chose the interior paint colors, and after the painting and cleaning were complete, she brought in furnishings for all of the rooms.

She used things of her own and some that are ours. We keep for the use of our stagers a garage full of chairs, lamps, rugs, tables, cushions and the like. Some of our collection came to us as gifts from clients, some from our own homes, but most belonged to my mother. We moved many of my mother’s things to the garage after she died, and I am so glad that we did, because now I get to see many of her treasures used in staging.

My mother would certainly approve. She appreciated good design and frequently rotated accessories in her house for her own visual pleasure. And I get such a kick out of going to a house and being surprised by seeing my mom’s belongings.

Here in this pretty house, Sahdu chose a number of my mother’s china teacups, plates, and vases. She placed a pretty bedside table, a favorite of my mother’s, in one of the bedrooms. Laid out in the kitchen are leaf-shaped, green ceramic salad plates my mother made in a ceramics class during the 1950s. Covered with a white cutwork cloth, it’s my mom’s wooden kitchen table and chairs that were used. Had I brought them home, they’d likely have remained hidden in a cupboard or packed away in the basement. But as “fodder” for our stagers, they are enjoyed over and over again.
Presented with a new item, large or small, the stagers immediately imagine the possibilities for using it. Whatever the item, it will likely someday become a part of one of their tableaus. As with any artist, it is which items are put together and how the elements are arranged that become distinctively their own art.

In this house Sahdu used, as she often does, a number of wall hung mirrors, candles (taper and votive), also crisply ironed linens, and large, blowsy bouquets. Let-in-the-light sheer curtains hang at most of the freshly washed windows. The closets contain a minimum, just enough to emphasize the space inside when the doors are open: a couple of hat boxes, padded hangers, towels, and in old houses, one or two vintage dresses. Sahdu has even been known to stage an empty refrigerator, which always makes me laugh. Inside she’ll put pretty bottles of water and perhaps, green or red peppers.

Sahdu’s rooms are generally clear and calming, the details engaging. You want to stand around, just stay and look some more. She ably combines different styles — old and fine, newer and funky, childhood and classic. Just to keep the visitor on his toes, among these she intersperses an occasional wacky element.

In one bedroom is just such a surprise: a mock tea ceremony. Because it is unexpected in this Victorian setting, the sight jangles. And the shades of red used in the floor cushions and pillows — fuchsia, brick red, orange and bright fire engine red — most of us wouldn’t combine, but they work! The punch — unexpected, great — is a lacquered tray set full central. It is blazing orange in color. The color and the shape of this tray pack such a wallop that I am left with no choice but to look at it first before moving on to what else the room contains.

That is what good staging does: it guides the eye. The objective is not to cover up anything unfortunate (reputable stagers will not do this), but to move visitors through a house physically, visually and pleasurably.

Walking through this house makes me want to provide new materials for our stagers to use. I’d like more rugs, different chairs and lamps and pictures, would enjoy making available to Sahdu and the other stagers an ever-changing feast of supplies from which to choose.

I frequently daydream about having a “lending library” of other people’s goods, treasures that they have tucked away, aren’t using, and would enjoy visiting at staged houses, as I do my mother’s things. When I go to flea markets and as I peruse catalogs, I am on the lookout for further inventory. Maybe I need to go into the estate sale business. That would be fun and would probably reveal some things we could put to good use.

Sahdu says that her favorite part of her job is seeing how different objects look in different settings. She likes the many possibilities of a single item, which is good, because our stockpile is limited. She loves her job, as do all the stagers we know, and especially she enjoys the overall effect she has created when the job is done.

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