The Junior League of Detroit—veterans of almost five decades of showhouses—hosted its biennial event in September 2020, bringing together 27 design teams to reimagine the city’s historic Bingley Fales House. Migrating for the first time to Detroit’s Indian Village neighborhood, the 2020 Designers’ Showhouse transformed the first two floors of a more than 100-year-old Georgian mansion into a dynamic mix of decorating styles. “The home has a very interesting history, and it has all its original features,” says charity chair Liana Dabir of the 16,000-square-foot estate set on over an acre of meticulously manicured land.
Inside the Showhouse with Laura Zender
aspire design and home: How much time did you have to complete this room, start to finish?
Laura Zender: For the master bath, I worked with the homeowner for one-and-a-half years. It was supposed to be only about ten months, but was vastly extended with the COVID shutdown, and the showhouse being pushed back from May until September. For the Lady’s Retreat, I had about six months to plan and only three weeks to install, due to unforeseen delays with the master bathroom install next door. It was a hectic time!
aspire: What was your biggest challenge? Did you have a “Eureka!” moment during the process?
Laura: The biggest challenge was trying to schedule trades for both rooms coming out of the Covid shutdown. Everybody was extremely busy with pent up demand in the region as a whole. Not really a Eureka moment, but decisions were made to pare down the design in both rooms due to shortage of trades, and budget constraints due to the unforeseen shutdown. Wallpaper was planned for both the master bath and the ceiling in the Lady’s Retreat, both being nixed in the final moments.
aspire: What did you and your team accomplish that you thought would not happen in time?
Laura: Finishing the master bathroom! In all seriousness, at one point about two weeks before the showhouse was to open, I thought we would just have to close the door and not show the room. We were painting and installing until the very last minute! In fact, the faucets were not actually hooked up due to our plumber hurting his shoulder, and the knobs and pulls for the vanities were never installed, but these are little things that our attendees never even noticed!
Seeking Inspiration and Finding Cohesiveness
aspire: What was your inspiration for this room?
Laura: The homeowner asked for a white, clean, and classic bathroom, so his vision was front and center. We used classic marble subway tiles and a timeless mosaic floor with a black accent stripe. This aesthetic also made its way into the Lady’s Retreat next door because I really wanted these rooms to flow and compliment one another. Colors and selections in both rooms were subdued to create spaces that felt calm and serene.
aspire: Did you step out of your comfort zone for this project, and if so, why?
Laura: At our firm, the style of the client is most important. It is our job to create the homeowner’s dream room. We consider ourselves to be “more guide, less guru”. My own personal aesthetic is very eclectic, full of color and pattern. The homeowner wanted something much quieter and more subdued, which is always a big challenge for me!
aspire: Despite the fact that there were so many designers involved, there is an inherent cohesiveness to the home. Did you all converse/collaborate? Or was this a completely individual process?
Laura: We were all blown away by this facet, as well, since there was no collaboration at all between designers. In fact, many of us were not aware of this synchronicity until installs began. Good designers always seem to have their pulse on current trends, however, I chalk it up to the fact that we tend to know what colors, styles, and patterns are “in” at the moment.
aspire: Is your preference for a showhouse a small space or a large space? Does one or the other provide a better opportunity to stretch your creativity?
Laura: I tend to choose the smaller spaces strictly based on budget requirements. Most people are not aware that the designers usually foot the bill for almost everything in the room, and it all adds up quickly! We are a small firm, so we tend to stick to the smaller spaces. Plus, I love the intimacy of the smaller rooms. The large, grand rooms are always showstoppers, though. I hope we can do one of those someday!
aspire: Describe Detroit in one sentence.
Laura: A city that never gives up.
“This or That?” with Laura Zender
aspire: Paint or wallpaper?
aspire: Hardwood or rug?
aspire: Beach or Mountains?
aspire: Saturated color or black and white?
Laura: Saturated color.
aspire: Brunch or Dinner?
aspire: Mid-century or 18th Century?
Laura: A mix of both in the same room!
aspire: Draperies, shades, or nothing?
aspire: 2001: A Space Odyssey or The English Patient?
Laura: The English Patient.
aspire: Week at the spa or Week of Broadway shows?
Laura: Week of Broadway shows.
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Photography by Werner Straube.
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