Textile designer Mark Pollack likes to tell the story of an interior designer who, while working on a restaurant, wanted to use one of his more expensive floral fabrics to upholster the seats and backs of otherwise prosaic chairs. But the woman's plan, says Pollack, a Baltimore native and cofounder of the Manhattan-based fabric company Pollack, would likely have quadrupled the cost of each chair. "She was way over budget," he recalls. The designer modified her plan, finally covering only the back of each chair. "Instead of ordering 200 yards of fabric, she ordered about 50 yards," he says. "But when you walk into a restaurant," he points out, "what do you generally see? The backs of a bunch of chairs." The point, says Pollack, "is a little fabric can go a long way in producing your desired effect."
Today's interior designers use fabric to reflect a variety of sensibilities. Some embrace the lush, more adventurous approach, with a mix of patterns and textures working in harmony, or in planned dissonance, in one space—or even on one piece of furniture. Others, like Baltimore's Mona Hajj, prefer fabric to play a rarified role. In her soothing interiors, dark wood plays against cream-colored walls, and solid upholstery is a foil for an antique pillow from Turkey or a rare Italian shawl. "I avoid big prints and prefer hand-done weaving techniques," says Hajj, whose Lebanese heritage, extensive travels, and love of all things Mediterranean enrich her work.
She describes her use of fabric as the "less-is-more" approach, but nevertheless claims that fabric is "the unsung hero" in interiors.
"They can really make or break the mood of a room," she says.
Mark Klatsky's interior design business grew from his furniture business. Regency Gallery & Antiques, which he opened on Howard Street in 1987, was known for its extravagant reproductions of Baroque and Rococo styles, heavily ornamented chairs and armoires, and chandeliers dripping with crystal. His own home, a condominium in Guilford, has marble floors and faux-painted columns, mirrors and paintings with ornate gilt frames, Sevres porcelain, and tall Czech crystal vases.
Clients who bought his furniture, Klatsky recalls, soon began asking for design advice.
"Everyone wanted me to come to their house," he says, "but I thought I was too busy. Then I realized this was a big part of it." Soon, Regency Interiors became the lion's share of his business, and "working with fabric became a necessity," Klatsky says.
The opulent style that is Klatsky's signature calls for billowing window treatments, watered silk upholstery, thick tassels, and fringes. In his own home, large arched windows in the dining room have bunched damask valances with profuse trimmings that follow the shape of the window frame.
Recently, Klatsky's clients have begun seeking a more streamlined aesthetic. "They're looking for clean lines and sophisticated looks," he says. But that's no reason to shy away from luxuriant fabrics. At a home in Pikesville, he created a bedroom with brown velvet as a theme. The client, Gail Margolis, said she wanted the look and feel of a luxury hotel to serve as a sanctuary. Klatsky had curtains custom-made in London from brown velvet with gold fabric appliqué in a pattern reminiscent of ornate plaster scrollwork. When the heavy velvet drapes are pulled back, sheer panels appliquéd with the same pattern remain across the windows. The velvet design is repeated on the brown velvet bedspread, and a bench at the foot of the bed has a silk panel embroidered in the same color scheme.
Margolis's husband had requirements of his own. An avid collector of antique Coca- Cola paraphernalia, he wanted a private space—in a soda-fountain equipped basement room, no less—designed to show off his collection. Klatsky chose a woven print of over-sized paisley-style flowers for a sectional sofa and a nubby tomato-red fabric for a pair of club chairs.
In the greatroom off the kitchen, 20-foot windows are draped in taupe silk with valances of paisley tapestry, while the otherwise brown leather couches have seats upholstered in a different, but complementary, pattern.
Klatsky says he usually presents clients with a range of choices for drapes, upholstery, or bedspreads, so they are involved in the finishing touches. "It creates an individual look," he says, "so the person using the room knows it is their own, personal space."
Laura Kimball of LCK Interiors says she sells more fabric than anything else, and notes the options are endless. "Looms these days can create patterns that look like abstract art and weaves that look like they came from the earth," she says. "A stripe really isn't a stripe. It's a meandering vine inspired by a plant form."
Kimball, president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers, says fabric is essential in today's world. "We live in such a high-tech, hard-edged era. We sit at computer screens, drive on hard pavement," she points out. "Fabric gives us the softer edge we long for."
While she claims to love florals, it's the texture that really gets her excited. "I like to feel something with my eyes before I touch it," she says. Kimball recalls a valance she recently installed in a home in Park Heights: "It was a deep red silk with ruby-red beaded trim that hung in luxurious layers," she says. "It was eat-it-with-a-spoon sumptuous."
But Kimball also points out that fabric can be used to achieve a look on a budget. Over the past several years, she's been working with a retired couple on their modest circa 1970s rancher in Churchville. "We're doing one room at a time," says the designer, who describes her challenge as "keeping unity and flow throughout the house," so the new elements don't put the older looks to shame.
The tiny master bath had turquoise fixtures, relics from The Brady Bunch era, that the clients were not inclined to change. Kimball and the owners had a new vanity built around the existing sink and hung a large gilt-framed mirror above it. She painted the walls a deep gold (to coordinate with the gold walls of the master bedroom, which hadn't made it onto the design schedule yet). Finally, she added a Chinese print with a bright red background and a pattern that included gold and turquoise. "The fabric really pulled all these oddities together," she says.
Susan Burch Obrecht came to interior design as a late-in-life career: After her marriage dissolved, she attended The Community College of Baltimore County, where she received a degree in interior design. "I did things backwards," she says.
Her firm, Morgan Truesdell Interiors, which she purchased in 2003, specializes in fabric. "To me, the design and layout of a home are important, but fabrics are essential," she says. "Without beautiful fabric, it's like wearing a beautiful dress and not putting jewelry on."
Obrecht admits that she likes lots of jewelry. Defying the trend of modern, minimalist looks, Obrecht is in the "more is more" school. "I'm a person who loves a lot of bells and whistles," she says. "When you have lots of things going on, you feel more cozy."
She was fortunate enough to find a client with a large house in Laurelford who felt the same way. "I knew she'd be a good client when she got excited about two-story drapes," says Obrecht. The two worked together on the 10-year-old house, filling it with color and texture. Fabric is used in each of the home's 20 or so rooms: as raffia-textured wall covering in a hallway and in the 18-foot draperies hanging in the great room.
And Obrecht doesn't hesitate to mix patterns in a space. "The more patterns, the better," she says. But she does have some rules. One is that "everything has to be of a different scale. You can use two florals in a room, but never use florals with the same-sized flowers. Same thing goes for stripes," she says. She also repeats themes, incorporating fabric patterns from one space into another part of the room. In the greatroom, for example, the couch fabric becomes an element in the window treatment.
Fabric doesn't always need to be visually busy, Obrecht concedes. In the Laurelford home's guest bedroom suite, fabric is monochromatic and designed to be soothing. Obrecht had the walls of the room upholstered in a white floral linen fabric that is also used in the window treatments of the adjoining sitting room. The coverlet on the bed is a complementary green water-tinted damask.
In another home, the client wanted a monochromatic theme in the sitting room, so Obrecht chose textured wallpaper, striped silk curtains, and a mini-print upholstery—all in an amber hue. In this case, the room was designed to appeal to the husband, who didn't want too formal a look. "I tried to find a balance that they would both like," she says.
Obrecht frequently starts by taking a trip to the Design Center in Washington. "I'll ask clients to pick their inspiration fabric," she says, "and we'll build a whole room around that."