Multifunctional Homes, and the Multitasking Designers Who Create Them

Does anything have just one purpose anymore? Jo Saltz talks multifunctional design with five Raleigh, North Carolina, designers.

Roux Mac
Anagram Photo
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Joanna Saltz @josaltz

Joanna Saltz: It feels like our spaces have to work so much harder than they used to. Are you seeing that in your universe? Do you feel like the rooms you design now have to do more, frankly, and function in more than one way?

Heather Garrett: I feel like they have to swing between family life, entertaining life, studying, dining, little kids, big kids—but also I feel like the types of spaces that people want are changing. Very few people want a formal dining room anymore. Even a zipped-up, sitting-up office—it’s now a lot of laptopping, loungey spaces, because a lot of people are working from home, and the kids are doing homework on the kitchen table, so it’s kind of open spaces. I used to sort of hate the open space idea, because I love to form a dream in each small enclosed room, but I think that those days are over for me as a designer. People are expecting their spaces to flex. And that means having fewer of them, I think.

Robert MacNeill: Heather and I are friends, and we live in the same building, which is a loft building—an old tobacco loft in downtown Durham—and I think that her space, and even my space, are examples of these kind of open spaces that have to serve all these functions. They’re relatively small: I’ll be at Heather’s house, and her kids are playing the piano for us, and everybody’s like gathered in one space, in one room. So I think that, you know, the open concept in some cases can be kind of difficult, and maybe alienating because everybody kind of is bothering each other—maybe they retreat in different spaces—but in other ways it brings people together, so I really enjoy that.

"People are expecting their spaces to flex. And that means having fewer of them, I think."

Jo: The idea of them being alienating is so interesting, because it is true that people sort of rescind into their nooks. I do feel like we’ve been seeing more open spaces, just in a lot of the submissions we’ve been getting. And it feels like more and more people are carving out little niches: It’s a little bed in a corner or a little table, and that really probably is an answer to that, right? Like, you need to tuck away.

MA Allen: I have so many different viewpoints for this. Probably it started with the recession, because houses started getting smaller. Our new-construction projects and our remodel projects were smaller homes: One example of a space we did, you walked into the foyer like a traditional Southern home, and to the left you had the formal dining room, and to the right there was a space that could be a study, a formal living room, or any number of things. We designed it basically as a study that is geared toward also kind of being a formal living room. So it’s that sitting room that doesn’t have a TV, in the front of the house so it’s beautiful and presentable and still has a bit of a formal feel. I think because so many people are working off laptops and tablets now, we’re able to incorporate a home office without the whole room being just an office. All we needed was a floating table desk, and technology needs could be stored in base cabinets, with open bookshelves above so you have that study feel. But then there's space enough to have a seating group opposite the desk area, so that if you’re entertaining there can be a breakaway conversation area, or for mom and kids to play there. The room served a multitude of functions but still kind of maintained this classic and traditional feel.

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The plan for a family home Heather is currently working on addresses changing needs: A first-floor suite has a separate entry "for adult children, or elderly parents."
Courtesy of MA Allen

Jo: I love that. It’s funny though, too, how suddenly it feels like even the traditional television room doesn’t need to exist in that way, because also people are watching shows on their tablets and phones now more than ever. My family still gathers around a television at some level, but most of the time, my boys are like watching on their phones. So it does feel like what you’re saying will probably be amplified in the next three years, probably even more so now that we’re sort of disintegrating the boundaries that we used to know.

Brittany Roux: It’s interesting what MA is talking about, keeping this formality of a traditional Southern house but turning it too, so the spaces are multipurpose. But lots of my clients want to get back to spaces that are just for one function, and to have an "away space" to go study and sit at this open thing in the center of this open space. We recently interviewed a client whose architect had designed a "sleeping chamber" so that there was nothing else going on in that room. So it’s interesting: As more and more houses are succumbing to these open floor plans, people are, I find, striving to get their own away spaces or rooms that function for just one purpose.

"When people buy a house, a lot of times they are happy with the layout but don't necessarily know how to use it best."

Niki McNeill: When you asked about multifunction I thought about multi-generations, because i’ve designed for a lot of families. You have families that are straddling between school age, even now to toddlers, but they also have their parents visiting or living with them long term. So how do you make everyone comfortable? Just thinking about having performance fabrics for little sticky fingers, but also things that are a low profile or comfortable for someone that’s older. Even flooring materials, you know—having things that aren’t trip hazards or are easy to clean. So when I think of multifunction, I think more of surfaces and furnishings and not necessarily the spatial aspect. When people buy a house, a lot of times they are happy with the layout but don’t necessarily know how to use it best, or best furnish it to actually use it.

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MA concealed a washing machine in this home office/laundry room.
Courtesy of Anagram

Jo: This goes back to the conversation I had with my first roundtable, I think, which was that so many people have this preconceived notion of what an interior designer can bring to the table. They might think, "Well, I have kids, I can’t have an interior designer because I can’t have nice things. When I get older and my kids are older, then I can have nice things." But this idea that you guys are designing for people with real lives, with real needs—and to your point, Niki, little kids but also elderly family members—and having to think about a lot of the trials and tribulations of all of those different things. You bring up a great point: It isn’t just about what the space is, it’s what’s in the space and how it delivers. I think it probably is a challenge—I won’t assume, but do you find it more challenging to have to design spaces that can do more, or do you feel like it just comes second nature now? Do you feel like, because space is—to your point, MA—at such a premium, that very rarely do you get the opportunity to just design broad expanses? That you have to make every square inch work harder?

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MA Allen @maalleninteriors

MA: My process is always starts with function. Of course aesthetics are a big piece of it, but I’m just so analytical about everything, I want to start with the function. What are you doing, where are you putting it when you do it? I want to study every single thing about a family before we even start working with an architect or designing the house. It's like "programming" each space—call it what you will, but I know exactly the different kind of things that are gonna be happening in that space. So I don’t think it ever feels too forced, because the seating, and the table surface, and whether there are built-ins or not—it all comes from whatever functions we’re bending into that room for that specific family. And I have to add one bit about what Brittany was saying: I do think that people are coming back, maybe because the recession’s over, to wanting all the individual spaces. There's one space I can’t give up: I’m southern, I like to entertain—my whole new house is designed around entertaining—and I can’t give up the formal dining room. I see lovely images of a dining room that’s also like, a library and all of these things, but at the end of the day, I just want a dining room that’s a dining room. I want my kids to know and understand how to use formal china and silver, and how to sit at that table in a nicer room and feel comfortable.

Heather: It’s so funny that you say that because clients of mine are asking to eliminate the dining room altogether. Not just not have a formal one, but not even really have one at all and sort of put a big farm table in the middle of the living room so that the kids can do homework and then they can eat. I have raised two teenagers, well they’re teenagers now, in a 1,500-square-foot loft space, and we don’t have a dining room in our space, but at their dad’s house they’ve always had this very large formal dining room, and they love it. They enjoy eating there, it’s special to them, but I think because I’ve personally been living without one for so long, that also informs the way we live. I think you just can’t just help that the way you live will inform the way you’re designing, too.

Niki: Absolutely. That’s why multi-generation came to me when I thought about multifunction, because that’s how my family is. We literally have 90-year-olds and then we have babies, so when we entertain, we have to consider that. It’s nice to have the formal setting with the china and all of that, but in reality, you can’t accommodate 20–30 people in a formal dining room. You wind up spreading out throughout the home, so you want to have those spaces that accommodate big groups.

"As more houses succumb to open floor plans, people want their own 'away' spaces."

Jo: I mean, I certainly know that my mother-in-law loves a formal dining room. She has her eat-in kitchen and she has her formal dining room. There is, I think, an expectation in the older generations that like to have that moment, still. They’re not ready to let it go. But Robert, you were gonna say something?

Robert: In addition to the fact that the recession kind of led to smaller houses and more multifunctional spaces, and I agree with that, we’re also seeing a development of a lot of urbanization of our area. We’re seeing a lot of condos and people who want to live downtown and live in those spaces, so we have the challenge of smaller spaces to work with and being able to make those multifunctional as well. One solution that we came up with in a loft project was to design a space for a specific purpose, but know that that purpose is going to change in the future—so in a client’s laundry-room space in this loft, we also turned it into an office for their daughter. We created a table that is on rollers, like a custom steel table, so maybe that becomes a folding table in the future, maybe it’s moved out so they can get bigger machines rather than the efficient ones that they have now. I just want to say too, since we’re talking so much about dining rooms, that one of the most fun things to do in a dining room is wallpaper and color. What I really miss is being able to define a room with something really special like that. In an open floor plan, you can’t necessarily find a great starting point and stopping point, so you’re kind of like, let me just paint the whole downstairs of the house neutral. And that’s fine, but it’s so much fun to have those four walls and be able to do something really special.

Jo: To your first point, retractable walls have become a thing now, like glass walls that slide. And honestly, on my way here, I think in the airport, there was somebody advertising “We make retractable glass walls,” and I was like, Who needs that? And then I was like, Oh I guess people with open floor plans who want to section off something and not interrupt… oh yeah, those people need it.

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In this bedroom by Niki, a hidden storage unit is tucked under the mattress platform.
Images by Amber Robinson

Another thing people don’t realize is how much multitasking you guys are doing as interior designers. Exterior/interior designers! And how much you’re juggling. I mean, we’re all juggling in lots of our different industries, but even just in your client-facing job, how many roles do you play? What would you say is your favorite second role in addition to interior designer, and what’s your least favorite?

Robert: My favorite is confidant. And I know a lot of people say we’re like a therapist and we have to do that, but I’ve built a lot of friendships from working with people, and being a person that they feel like they can be themselves with and really get to know. I mean, it sounds trite, but the personal relationships that we form are the most rewarding part of my job. It sounds sappy!

Jo: No, it’s really sweet. What I’ve always heard too is that your clients tend to be the ones that are texting you at the oddest hours… at the weirdest moments of the day.

RM: I mean, you’re picking out their toilet—it’s very personal. Like, do you want a bidet? My least favorite is probably referee, mostly between husband and wife or partners. And secondarily between parents and children. "I want this in my room, this is my ideal thing, Dad can I have it?" And the answer is no. But with partners, like adult partners, it’s hard because you always want to have both people present to make decisions. It’s not always possible if one or the other person is really busy and making the money to afford this design.

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Heather Garrett @hgarrettdesign

Heather: My hate is dealing with the money. I learned a while ago that I had to just dedicate all tasks surrounding invoices and breaking bad news about things to someone else in my office, because I’m so relational with the client that it’s really difficult for me when I’m anticipating that there may be a trip-up down the road. Because it’s bound to happen, it just is. You can’t have a crystal ball for this stuff. That’s what I don’t like. The other side, though, is that I love the psychology of working with a new client. Maybe it’s a husband and a wife who feel that they’re really on the same page about what they want in terms of the design—I love those initial conversations, when there’s so much that they’re learning about each other and what the other person doesn’t like. "Oh I never knew you didn’t like that, I thought you said you wanted a bed in the other room!" So I enjoy figuring out those differences, and then working to find a solution that everyone’s excited about. I love it.

MA: I think similar to Heather’s point, I enjoy kind of having the role of mediator. Because it’s amazing that, you know, two people have come together, and they love so much about each other and they’re so similar in so many ways, and then aesthetically it’s like night and day. And they want one house! I love the challenge of finding a way to take these two people and merge their design styles into something, in the end, that they both totally love. The tension between contrasting styles and things that come together can really help these rooms have layers and life and look like something no one’s seen before, not just another pretty room.

"I love the challenge of finding a way to take these two people and merge their design styles into something, in the end, that they both totally love."

I really do not like the financial part of it. We run some mean budget spreadsheets for presentation day, but I always kind of defer to the project manager to present that to the client as we go through the presentation. I get bogged down worry that I’m asking someone to splurge too much on this or that. I just want to do what I can as a designer and present the best design. Of course it has to fit the budget at the end of the day. Yeah, it’s the relationships too—I want to be less the face on the dollar sign than the designer.

Jo: That’s all creatives, we get that in media all the time too. Creatives and money don’t mix.

Brittany: My favorite secondary job is talking with the client and sharing ideas. I love it, actually when I get an Instagram DM like, “What about this? What about this??” The initial excitement when the client is discovering their style and really enjoying the creative process with me, that’s my favorite part. That sharing back and forth really gets me excited. Least favorite is probably the expediting process. We try to set up clients for appropriate expectations, but in the end, we all know good things take time. Especially when they’re made by hand. So that’s probably my least favorite, the time part. They were talking about the money, I’m talking about the time.

Jo: I always say this, too, how television has altered reality. To your point, Brittany, that is probably the biggest factor in expectations. Also budget, but frankly, budget and time. TV is throwing that off in a pretty intense way. I don’t envy you guys for having to deliver that news.

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Niki McNeill @nikimcneill

Niki: It’s my least favorite part, explaining to someone that they have Champagne taste on a beer budget. I’ve started, during the consultation, showing them furniture, like do you like this sofa or that sofa? And allowing them to pick which one they like and them letting them discover that they actually don’t like the $1,500 sofa, and kind of educating them on how much things cost. That’s hard. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and even some designers who are fueling it. I feel like that’s the most challenging part of my job: educating the client. I would say my favorite part—prior to design I was very much a science nerd, I actually thought I was going to medical school and I majored in psychology—so I really like the research-and-development part of design and illuminating that for the client. Being able to demonstrate color theory to them in real time and showing them, when they say, Oh I don’t like this color, putting it with other things and then they realize, Oh, OK, I actually do like it. I really enjoy that element, so working with clients in that way is fun.

Jo: Education seems to be both your arch nemesis and … [laughs]. We have so much more than I will ever be able to fit, but I wanted to… does anyone have any last notes? Because I have a ton, I always find these conversations so fascinating. Also, I had the thought this morning that I want to do what I’m going to call a "roundtable reunion" in December and have everyone from the roundtables come to Hearst, because I think it will be really fun. The breadth of people who have been a part of this is so fascinating, it’s all different people from all different numbers of years in the industry, and its really great. I hope you’ve enjoyed this, I know it’s fast, but I try to make it as efficient as possible.

To be honest with you, back to your point Niki, so much of the reason I wanted to start doing this because I wanted to give our audience more face time with the designers who are working, not just the ones who are always featured, but also the people in their neighborhood, the local designers too who are putting in the hours and doing amazing stuff. And also, I want CQ to be a platform for all of you. It’s not Jo Saltz’s vision of how people’s homes should look, it’s your vision and our cumulative community of visions that are how America designs today. And so it felt disingenuous to write an editor’s letter every month, because I was like, No one needs to hear about my boring life, which is raising my kids and whatever—they want to hear about what you guys have to offer. Frankly, I’m sure I will hear "I hate dealing with the money too." Because there are so many interior designers in our audience, too, who are figuring things out and are like, Oh my God, am I not gonna do a good job because I don’t like to deliver the bad financial news.

Roux Mac
For their design studio, Robert and Brittany made a custom table to serve as desk, lunch table, and presentation space.
Anagram Photo

Robert: I agree with that wholeheartedly. Something that Brit and I always talked about as we started our business is, you know, in the past we’ve kind of been in this design bubble working for a larger firm. Just being friends with, reaching out to, talking with designers who are local, rather than seeing them as a threat or a competition—it’s like thinking with, what do you call it, the theory of abundance. So like, coming at it with that positive attitude.

Jo: It’s interesting though, and I was saying this to MA before, the comment that I get the most when I sit down with designers for this is, “I don’t ever get to sit down with designers and have a conversation like this.” As I was saying, you guys are dealing so much with vendors or with your clients, it’s all those people who you’re interfacing with on a regular level—and that’s not saying you don't go to events or meet people, but to have this actual conversation about the state of design today, there’s no time for that. I’m lucky to be in a community of editors at my company where, you know, Hearst owns 21 brands, and I have a boss who really cherishes the intercommunication between editors in chief, so I get to hear how Cosmo is doing whatever now and how Country Living is doing whatever now. It’s invaluable, from a business perspective, on how CQ should be positioning ourselves and what are the creative ways we can get in front of new eyeballs. What’s also interesting is, no matter what level you are as a designer, you have the same insecurities and same issues.

Robert: We can advocate for ourselves. I know there are organizations that do that but on a grassroots level, if you want to call it that—to say, Oh, you’re my friend, tell me how you charge and what should I be charging, so that someone doesn’t make a decision based on, oh this person is so much less to work with than this person. If it’s less of a secret, then we’re more likely to raise all ships.

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Robert MacNeill and Brittany Roux, Roux MacNeill studio @rouxmacstudio

Jo: Stop hiding it and be very transparent.

Niki: I’ll say too, when I first started my business I called Heather, because I was looking at our community and I was like, Who is really successful and who did that really beautiful work, and it was Heather. I reached out, out of the blue, and said I would love to meet with her, and she met with me. I’ll never forget, one of the most important and invaluable things you told me was, when you are meeting with a client, always make sure the husband and the wife are there when it’s like, decision-making time. I do make them both be present for that meeting. That was so valuable for me that Heather took the time from her schedule, which was much busier than mine at the time, and we sat there at Parker and Otis, and that was just so kind. There have been plenty of people in our design community here who have not been kind to me, and it’s silly because it’s not a competition. It’s a time of abundance, we’re not competing for jobs and everyone’s style is so distinct.

Heather: I love that memory, because it feels to me that it was 10 minutes ago but it was many years ago. But also, you know, Brittany and Rob and I went to New York at the same time and went to the Show House together in the spring at the same time. And we were all like, Why don’t I ever think to do this? What do you guys think about that? It was really cool to share it in that way, and I loved it.

Jo: I think, too, having a conversation matters. I want CQ to continue to be a place where we showcase beautiful interiors, and I would say that our audience, every audience, has less and less time for words. I mean, that’s the baseline of it. So to be able to start with a conversation that feels valuable and filled with information—you all sound brilliant—we will make it even more. That is really important to me, as the space in the magazine now is at a premium, just like space everywhere else. To be able to put every corner to use, with no page wasted, is something that’s really important to me.

Want To Talk? E-mail me at [email protected]


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