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Gunkelman offers advice for the design impaired

Published in 1993
in Equal Time

After dryly assessing one of my tortured attempts at furniture arrangement, a former roommate aptly labeled my style of interior design. "It looks shoved," she said.

Experience is a tough teacher.

Three years, four apartments, and three couches later her words still echo in my ears. I am a design illiterate, one among the ranks of the design impaired-that large, but secretive group that prefers that unaffiliated partners or friends arrange their homes for them.

According to Tom Gunkelman, member of the American Society of Interior Design and an award-winning 30-year design veteran, I am not alone in my disability. "Not many people can fit things together well," he said in his third Minneapolis showroom, Gunkelman's Interior Design at 1112 Harmon Place, Minneapolis.

Gunkelman first entered the design business in 1962, after earning a business degree with a minor in art and design, and studying design at Occidental College and the University of Southern California.

In 1964 Gunkelman bought Black Interiors of Fargo, Minnesota, then sold the company's assets and moved to Minneapolis in 1971, where he opened his first Minneapolis studio in an affluent zip code on Nicollet Mall. In 1976 he moved uptown slightly to 1116 Nicollet Mall, where for 14 years, a narrow storefront framed Gunkelman's design statements.

Gunkelman's new showroom shares space with custom frame shop Opening Night and is a testament to Gunkelman's creative design vision.

Objets d'art, glazed 19th century Burmese terra-cotta pots, small oak chests, willow chairs and rockers, woolen rugs of muted olive, taupe, and blue with subtle floral and geometrical designs, and stylishly upholstered overstuffed sofas and armchairs adorn the 6,000 square foot stark white former auto garage. The pieces, when combined well, would make nearly any home look like something out of Metropolitan Home magazine. But given the wrong combination from a design illiterate's touch the results could be a visual nightmare.

That is where Gunkelman enters the picture. He has outfitted rooms for budgets ranging from $500,000 to a modest $1,000. "Good design has no price tag," he said. "If it's done well junking it," said Gunkelman referring to the lowest cost interior design style, "I'm just as impressed as if I walk into a $1 million place.

"I put design always on the intellectual level," said Gunkelman. "I think you have to want a lifestyle. It's your expression to society-what you're all about." He continued, "I don't think budget is the determinant of design. There's 1,000 ways to skin a cat."

Gunkelman say his clients come to him and his four-member design team with their budgets, goals, and tastes.

But what if your budget is small? "The smaller the budget, the more the person involved has to do [for themselves]," Gunkelman said. At that point, it is a matter of picking the design professional's brain for tips on where to find the right pieces.

"It's a lot of shopping," admitted Gunkelman. But he emphasized the importance of having a master plan from which to work. Otherwise, people go crazy buying things that look great in the store, but look "shoved" when they get them home. "All mistakes are expensive," stressed Gunkelman.

Gunkelman said he abides by the design basics of form, function, color, and materials. In other words, it has to look good and feel right.

People on a budget have to mix styles, said Gunkelman. "That's where the play comes about. Where do you spend you dollars to create atmosphere you can live in?" he asked. That's also where the master plan enters in. Here are some design does and don't from the professional:

  1. Don't be afraid to express yourself. But for goodness sake, get somebody to help you. Good design isn't something you learn. You either have the knack or you don't. Then you nurture your natural talent to become a professional.
  2. Always take time to think out your needs. When you're starting on a small budget, it's you needs at that moment. Prioritize, prioritize ,prioritize. Don't buy a lamp if you want something to sit on.
  3. Be open minded. If you have a closed mind, you can't be helped anyway. However, when you shop, be constantly critical of the things you see. What you think you like, may not be what you want.
  4. Don't overcrowd or overdo a space. Less is sometimes more.
  5. Don't think you know it if you don't. Don't get started on doing your own interior and find out you've created a mess. This relates to rule one. Interview several designers at the start to find the one with whom you feel most comfortable. Honesty is the key. If you only have $300 ask what the designer can do for you. There is no sense in playing some role you are not.

With the rising price of home furnishings, Gunkeman said there are still good buys to be had. He recommends eyeing pieces at Room and Board, Crate and Barrel, Gabbert's, Dayton's Home Store, Cobblestone Antiques, and antique stores in Stillwater.

However, short of dumpster diving-the art of scrounging for other's castoffs pitched to the alley in a frantic move-small town flea markets and auctions may yield the real bargains. But Gunkelman stressed that unless a bargain figures into the overall design plan, it is no bargain at all.

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david southgate
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