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Space Case



Published May 18, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Buying furniture is like getting a new wardrobe, or a new car -- you're not just making a purchase, you're making a statement. But even the finest pieces can proclaim your cluelessness if you don't know how to arrange them.

Shoppers at Town & Country in South Burlington can ask design doyenne Maria Graffeo to share her suggestions. The soft-spoken sixtysomething Burlington resident has been helping customers of the family-owned business re-imagine their rooms for 25 years.

Graffeo, a New York native, got a B.A. in Biology and Chemistry from St. Joseph's, then studied art at Brooklyn College, and interior design at the New York School of Interior Design. In addition to helping Town & Country customers, she also arranges the contents of the store. Walking through it, you feel almost as if you're moving from room to room in a real house, an illusion that's heightened by the ubiquitous presence of fake food.

SEVEN DAYS: It seems like you're not just selling furniture here, you're selling lifestyles.

MARIA GRAFFEO: Exactly. That's why I set the store up as closely as possible to what can be envisioned in a home, just to give a flavor, an atmosphere that's possible. It's not exactly what you would do in your home, but it feels a little bit more homey, so you can relate to it.

SD: Which would explain the realistic-looking upturned ice cream dish on this coffee table.

MG: Right. Well, that also grabs people's attention. You can't imagine how many times people really think it is a spill. They'll come over and say, "We didn't do it, but there's something spilled on the table." Or on the carpet. It's fun. Then you can talk about that. Or have a lighter kind of atmosphere.

And we do some avant-garde things, too. A lot of people comment on the room we have with paper-bag paper on the walls.

SD: Paper bags?

MG: Let me show you. This room is like a cabin. We have paper bags on the walls. This paper has been up for many years, actually. The room is not big, but you have a bed in here, you have seating.

SD: The music is different, too. It's like a New-Agey flute music, and there's the sound of rushing water, coming from this little water sculpture. What does this room say?

MG: Cozy. Unstructured. Lived-in. There are lots of variations in color. You don't have to have House and Garden color variations, where you have one main color and maybe two others and no more. Lots of variation in pattern adds interest, makes it feel a lot more creative. Gives you license to do a lot of what you really want to do without saying, "What will other people think?" You can make it your own space.

SD: These books over here -- Trials of the Resistance? Apartment in Athens?

MG: You know what? -- the books are not chosen by title.

SD: How do you pick them?

MG: We go to Recycle North, we buy a box of books, that kind of thing. I think books add warmth to rooms, but I don't look at the titles. I scatter them about. I sometimes choose them according to color.

Some people do look at the titles. A husband and wife will come in, and the husband's not interested at all into looking at furniture. So the wife is walking around with me, and the husband finds a chair. And he takes a book, and he starts reading it, and he makes a joke about it -- he's only on page something or other, can he take the book with him? And we let him.

SD: How do you choose where to put the furniture in the store?

MG: The furniture's not chosen beforehand to go in any specific place. When I come in in the morning, I go back to the warehouse area. I never know what's coming in, when it's coming in, but it has to go out.

We sell a lot off the floor, so it's always changing. If a sofa sells off the floor, I have to put something else in its place. That's the fun part, actually, the spontaneity of it. I love working with people, but the fun part is the challenge of putting the furniture out so that it still forms an integrated transition from one space to another.

I particularly have fun with having an imaginary person move into a room.

SD: How do you mean?

MG: Well, if I do a space, I'm thinking what kind of person might be there, might be happy in there.

SD: What kind of person might be happy in this next bedroom here, with the brass elephant trophy head, the grandfather clock and the spilled red wine?

MG: Kind of a traditional person, a person who likes things simple, but quality. Might have a hobby, like riding. It's not particularly formal, but a quality look.

SD: What do the large ceramic penguins say about the space?

MG: Nothing. They've been here forever. Mr. Lash -- the original owner of the store -- loved penguins, and they just are here. But they aren't my favorite.

We still have some of his things here. I kept the piece of paper in this old typewriter -- those are his words, and his handwriting. And these are his old glasses. He's sort of always here.

SD: How do you help people design a room that's right for them?

MG: Sometimes they come in asking for an interior designer to help them -- they have a house under construction. So I do floor plans for them...

If you start without doing a floor plan, it's very difficult. Because a lot of things come out of the floor plan -- it's not just where the furniture goes. The balance of color, scale -- all of that comes out of floor plans. So if you don't do that, you're really skipping an important step. And a lot of people don't want to get into the floor-plan thing. They think, "I know the room. I know a sofa goes there, a chair can fit there." That doesn't always give you the best possible room.

SD: That's a much different service than when someone comes in here and says, "I want a couch."

MG: Very different. There are people who feel very confident in what they choose and need. And those are the people who want to come in and not have anybody help them. You get a sense right off that they really want to do this on their own. And you let them walk through. They'll have questions, possibly, and you'll answer the question. But in that case, you're just a salesperson.