We recently chatted with Virginia-based designer Alison Giese, whose home was featured in the October 2016 issue of Better Homes & Gardens. Alison let us pick her brain about her design process, design tips, and some of her favorite things.
How far does your love for design go back? You used to be a law student, is that correct?
Alison Giese: I have always loved old houses, redoing old houses, that sort of thing. I remember having a conversation with my dad before I picked a major, before I was going to college, saying I wish I could find a program like that. He said, “I don’t want to burst your bubble, but that’s a rich lady hobby. You’ve got to figure something out that you can do to be independent.” And I understandd where he was coming from. I didn’t know that there was a degree in interior design. So I went to school and I got into a nutrition program. I got my degree in that, and I worked in diabetes sales for five years. I loved the people aspect of it, but hated the sales.
My fiancé was finishing up law school and said you could go to law school, so of course what else do you when you don’t know what to do with your life?! So, I did that and about that time we got transferred up with my husband’s job, and then we were moved overseas, and that’s when I discovered design blogs. And it gave me an outlet to start honing my skills. I knew I had a passion for this, but I kept thinking what am I going to do with it, and can I do anything with it? I went to back school to get a little bit of street cred and to learn some of the basics, so that’s kind of where I’m at now. I’ve technically had the business for about two years now, but I’ve just now realized it’s a business.
You used to live in Brazil. How did living there influence your design style?
AG: It was huge. When we went there, I would say I was straight up traditional. Not old-school traditional, but more or less traditional, kind of where Pottery Barn was five years ago, transitional-traditional. We went there, saw all this modern design and it was amazing. It’s very different because they don’t have squishy sofas and things like that that we do. Everything is very linear and pretty small. Most people live in apartments. But then I started seeing iconic mid-century modern pieces worked in the settings and just thought it was incredible. It really expanded my aesthetic, especially in terms of mixing and layering different styles. It’s hard to make that look easy, I think, but I work at it. It’s definitely what I’m drawn to.
What are three words to describe your style?
AG: Timeless, Eclectic, Approachable.
Your home was recently featured in Better Homes & Gardens. How did you tackle the design process?
AG: When I first saw this house, it needed a lot of work and I certainly did not have a love affair with this house. With the kitchen, I had a really good idea of the style I wanted to go with before we remodeled and we had lived with it for about six months. I would recommend that for anyone, just to know what works for you, what doesn’t, what’s critical in terms of practicality and use. And I changed some things in what I thought I wanted.
What do you keep in the back of your mind when designing for families with kids?
AG: I try to be like, look, you’re the adult in the house. We are the adults in the house, and our 3 children live with us, and we want the house to be enjoyed by everyone. The client will dictate that ultimately. I don’t say this is how we function in our family, and this is how you should function. But if a client really loves something, I would hate for them to not choose it because they didn’t think it was good for having with kids.
How do you approach decorating in small spaces?
AG: I don’t that I have an overall approach to small spaces other than don’t let that box you in. A lot of people balk at the idea of doing a dark color. You always hear don’t do dark colors in a small space, but I just think there are not really rules regarding that.
Do you have a favorite room you’ve done, whether it’s for clients or for yourself?
AG: The blue room [from BHG] is pretty awesome. I mean, it’s just such a dramatic change. I feel like with that room I’ve finally gotten layering down, which is hard!
What would be your advice for somebody moving into a house that needs a lot of work?
AG: I would definitely recommend keeping in mind all the rooms that need to be done. At times I have felt like ours is a little bit patchwork just because I didn’t have an overall design scheme. I was just kind of going with the flow. Now that we’ve got the dining and we’ve got the kitchen and we’ve got the blue room, they have a similar vibe. The colors aren’t the same, but there’s still a similar flow to the house. Don’t do something in one room that is going to be so specific that if you bring into the rest of the house it would drive you crazy.
In terms of buying, I think it’s certainly better to have an overall plan because you tend to not overbuy. If you can map things out together, then you know exactly what you’re looking for. When you find it, boom it’s the right thing. But I don’t think a lot of people work that way and I don’t necessarily either. It’s the ideal.
What would you say is the most common decorating mistake that clients make?
AG: [Sometimes clients], if they’ve recently done a bathroom or kitchen remodel, something that is more permanent, they’ve been talked into something by a contractor or a builder. The contractor or builder might say, “Well, everybody’s doing this.” When in fact, it might just be that he had a slew of this ugly 90s outer gray tile and he got more mark-up on it because he didn’t have to buy it again.
Which trends are you loving now? What kinds of things are you gravitating to currently?
AG: I’m pinning a lot of the white, the bright white kind of Southern California style. I think it’s just that I crave the sun. We have really struggled living here because after being in Brazil for five years. We’re from south Texas and obviously it’s sunny there, but when we were in Brazil, both of our homes had so much natural light. Our apartment was glass! We have struggled with less light. We live in such a wooded area and the tree line comes up so close to our house. So, I love all the bright and white spaces that people are doing.
Do you have a favorite color you’re using in design?
AG: I’m still using a lot of gray. I know some people are over it, but I just love it. I have always loved the caramel leather, and you’re seeing it so much with that Southern California style. But, that doesn’t necessarily work in Northern Virginia. You have to pay attention a little bit to the surroundings and the style of the homes. But I think you can warm it up with gray, with that worn leather that really warms up and gets rougher and aged with time. I think it’s an awesome combo and an awesome way to translate that Southern California style if you don’t live there.
What would be your dream vacation?
AG: I don’t really need to go anywhere. I just need to stay in my house by myself and get stuff done. How about you all leave and take a trip and I’ll stay home? Haha.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
AG: The TV show Outlander. My husband doesn’t get it, but it’s actually a really good show. It is not for the faint of heart. It’s nice sometimes to just zone out.
Do you have a favorite design set from movies/television?
AG: I’m with everyone else with Something’s Gotta Give. I mean that movie set just set the standard really. But it wasn’t just her house either. It was the fact that she’s listening to lots of Bossa Nova, which we listen to around here, but also the difference between his New York bachelor pad versus her place out at the Hamptons versus the Christies location in the movies…I just love the feel of all the different sets. Something’s Gotta Give is the obvious answer, and I hate being obvious. Anything by Wes Anderson is visual eye candy, but visuals alone don’t cut it for me – I have to have a great soundtrack, too. Two favorite films of mine, Fandango and Almost Famous, have killer soundtracks that contribute as much, if not more of the “feel” of the story as the set design.
If someone was visiting, what are three must-sees off the beaten path in the DC area?
AG: I don’t know if these are hidden per say, but I would say Middleberg for just the drive out, it’s beautiful forest country and there’s cute antiquing there. We don’t do a lot of touristy stuff, even when we travel, we tend to do the stuff that not everyone says to do. I like to walk around and feel like a native as much as possible. We found a perfect little quiet bistro in a strip mall (not seemingly very appealing) when we first moved to the area. It had consistently great martinis, food, and service – it became our go-to for our rare dinner date nights. The last time we went, it was closed – like, doneskie. We were crushed. So, we’re in the market for another low-key charming place.
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