The Lone ‘Room
Re-Arranger’ Rides Again

Vol. 8, No. 39
Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2000
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How Room Smart Redesigns Led the Fight for Law and Order in Bay Weekly Offices

A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty "Hi Ho Silver!" The Lone Ranger rides again. With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...

At right, room redesigner Jackie Gallagher and editor Sandra Martin.

I know how they felt. When Jackie Gallagher's white Chrysler van pulled up, amid a cloud of parking lot dust, I stood in the boots of those settlers of the early Western United States. Fear and hope mingled in my breast. Would the lone Room Re-arranger manage to bring law and order to our chaotic office? Certainly it would be a fight.

After seven and a half years squashed into 700 square feet, Bay Weekly was moving.

Our new digs, a freshly renovated home by Rockhold Creek in Deale, would be pretty grand: a story and a half complete with glassed-in porch, pine plank floors and a water view. Our yellow Lab office dog Max would finally have plenty of room to spread out without tripping the casual production-floor pedestrian and we, as he, couldn't be happier. Even the writers would benefit, moving up to a writer's loft overlooking Rockhold Creek.

Empty, our space looked great. Would that last once we moved in? My heart sank as I surveyed our dense conglomeration of hand-me-downs, cheap (but not best) buys, hunkering necessities (hulking five-foot high file cabinets), computers, wires and - in these last days - boxes everywhere.

"Is there hope?" I ask the cool-as-a-cucumber Room Re-Designer.

Jackie Gallagher says she has never refused a redesign. Should she have? Are there jobs just too tough to handle? Do we fall into that category?

"It may be a challenge, but you can always learn from it. There's never not hope," she says. "There are ways I can make it more comforting "

What We're Looking for

One of the advantages of working with a room redesigner, I learn early, is that it starts me thinking about what I want in the space where I spend 40 or so percent of my waking life. I've got to think hard to answer Gallagher's first question: "What do you want from your new office?"

I have feelings about this - they rise to her words like fish to mayflies - but not words. The routine, the weight of work, the clutter have gotten in the way. So I set out to catch the feelings on the hooks of words.

Comforting is good. So is efficient. And orderly. I dwell on this one, waking up in the wee hours thinking about storage shelves. These shelves turn out to be symbols. What I want is an office where there's a place for everything and everything is in its place. But there's more. I want this shared space - cohabited by six or seven and visited by some regular dozen more - to look good.

Now just what does that mean, I wonder? For Gallagher - as for all who contemplate the aethestics of space - the key is relationship. "We study the architecture, the shape of the room, the floor and ceiling lines and identify the focal point of the room. We work with the architecture to create harmony and warmth to balance weight and scale," says Judy Alto, of One Day Interior Make-Overs, another Chesapeake Country re-arranger.

These are the same principles that guide Gallagher as she unpacks our old possessions - first mentally and then physically - in our new space.

Who Is That Re-arranger?

Gallagher and Alto, both of Crofton, practice a new profession: Interior arrangement design. They've made a livelihood of finding where your things belong. What they do is redesign your home or office, "righting" your things - furnishings, accessories and art - in their settings. Like the Lone Ranger, who had to right each injustice before the end of a half hour radio or television serial, each works her magic in a day.

Like Gallagher, Judy Alto specializes in what she calls "creating dramatic changes with your existing home furnishings." Both were trained by the Interior Arrangement and Design Association, which offers classes leading to certification plus conferences to keep skills up to date.

In gaining certification, both were formalizing work they'd done as play since childhood. Gallagher had inherited her mother's love of creative decorating and flower arranging. But she'd also followed her mother's admonishment to be able to support herself, choosing a business path that led her to a career in human relations at Nordstrom.

Alto, too, turned a disposition into a business. "I always had the best dorm room and helped others along the way," she says. "But when I really got interested was when my husband traveled a lot. I had young children and bare walls. I let my creativity go."

Now the room re-arrangers get paid - and showered with gratitude - for playing house and going shopping.

"I feel like Jackie gave me a designer home," says Norma Courtois, a real estate agent who felt overwhelmed when it came time to arrange all her possessions in her brand new home. It wasn't that Courtois didn't like what she owned; faced with so much new space, she just didn't know what to do with it. Working together over months, the two women have tackled room after room.

It's a sign of the times that you'll find two re-arrangers working in such close proximity. Explains Alto: "Interior room redesign is on the cutting edge. We live in a mobile society where people don't have time. But their rooms can look magazine perfect in a matter of hours. It's like taking your home to the spa."

Customers are both residential and commercial. On the commercial side, Gallagher has designed an automobile dealership and racquet club as well as all sorts of offices. Alto has done office lobbies, movies, seatings, lighting and entertainment areas.

But what's an impersonal office to a private home, where the human comedy runs matinees and evenings 365 days a year? The room re-arranger gets to set the stage for many of the acts of that great comedy - especially the ones spiked by change: when a family first moves in; when two households are marrying; when a household is growing or moving up; at the other extreme, when couples or individuals downsize: that, says Gallagher, is the kind of stage business Room Re-Arrangers do. Not to mention managing emergencies, like when you just can't do another thing with that clumsy or cluttered or congested room.

"Oftentimes, the people who call us have experienced some depression or grief," Alto adds. "The greatest satisfaction I get is that I lift their spirits. I've had clients cry when they see the amazing things that can happen."

What Gallagher and Alto do for their clients is different from what our mothers' interior decorators did. "Some interior decorators walk into a room with the notion that everything must go. I go on the notion that everything can stay. We provide a service, not a product." says Alto.

Room redesigning's a business that has spatial advantages for the professional as well as for the clients. Both Gallagher and Alto work out of home offices.

Working at home realizes two dreams for Gallagher: Not only does it give her her own business, it also lets her keep up with her 12-year-old son, Christopher, an athlete always on the go. "I am being fulfilled building my business and spending time with my son," she says.

How'd She Do That?

Room re-arranging starts with a good, hard look around. What is the room shaped like? What's in it? How is it used? How will it be used? Gallagher stalks the scene, snapping angles with her digital camera, taking notes. We cringed as she sized up grungy old Bay Weekly.

"When I looked around the old Bay Weekly office," Gallagher said, "the first thing I saw was clutter. You didn't have the space, and it wasn't organized so you could be efficient."

She was right. We were crammed like four pairs of shoes into one shoebox. For years, we'd done what we had to do - produce a weekly paper - but it wasn't pretty or pleasant.

As Gallagher looks, she's listening, making us think about what we do and what we want. Part of what she wants to know is how we do our jobs. She also needs to know about the objects that help or hinder us. "Is there a must-have or must-remove? Can I take pieces from other areas. Will we shop later?" she asks.

"I pride myself on listening to each client, and I take a lot of time in reflecting their needs in my work," Gallagher says.

After looking and listening, Gallagher framed an overall goal: to make Bay Weekly more productive, inviting and attractive. In that, all agreed she was right on target. The editor's office got a pair of extra goals. "In Sandra's office, we were looking for comfort and power," Gallagher decided.

Doing the Bay Weekly job would need magic, but there were some upsides. Once a room is hers, Gallagher starts dismantling. "I put all that will move into a nearby room, a staging area, and then really can work with the architecture and lines of the room," she explains. Since we were moving, the heavy work of dismantling already would be done for her.

Before moving day, Gallagher planned a pilgrimage to the new office. While clutter and confined space defined the office we'd outgrown, the new space was perfectly bare. The paint wasn't yet dry on the walls, and paper was still taped to the newly refinished wood floors.

Everybody wanted to come along, and Gallagher had to take us three at a time, each bursting to be first to stake out space. One by one, more or less, we explained how and with what we did our job.

Gallagher listened to each. Then she considered the new surroundings and the old furniture. She also took occupational ergonomics into consideration, placing monitors so they wouldn't show glare and paying attention to chair heights, tables, even an editor's footrest.

With the move to a new building, Gallagher was able to divide space - and people - by function. The sales reps - Mary Catherine Ball, Kathy Flaherty, Kitty O'Dowd - would go together, in one office. Production manager Betsy Kehne and all her production needs would stretch out in another office. Writers would go upstairs in the loft to write in peace - when they weren't lost in the best view in the house. As before, Martin and general manager Alex Knoll would have their own offices: Martin's the power office, Knoll's "the cave."

"Before it was all mumbo jumbo," said Gallagher. "Once we had separate areas, we were able to arrange so it worked efficiently for the whole crew and there was flow to the office."

By noon of moving day, heavy and light lifters had littered our office with the same old stuff and, apparently, much more.

Many clients clear out of Dodge while the Re-Arranger's working. "Others," says Gallagher, "stay in another room and ask when they can come peek." At Bay Weekly, everybody ganged up on Gallagher. Clearly, she'd have to bring order out of human as well as object chaos.

Gallagher remembers that chaos with nice tact: "With a time deadline and a newspaper to get out, you were actively involved," she said.

"When I came into the building that day," Gallagher explained, "I took a look at what had been brought over into each room. My first focus would be getting the work stations in the right spot, following the lines of the jobs and the building. With so many windows, we had to pay attention to security, too.

"I only focused on one area at a time, and once I had one settled, I moved onto the next. Of course, when I came into the outside office, where three sales people would have their desks and there'd be a reception area, I had to take a look at everybody's needs at once," she said.

July 29 was a long day. From early morning until late afternoon, a couple dozen people under heavy loads whirled from building to building and room to room. Directing the final placement of just about everything but Knoll's office was Gallagher, assisted by heavy-lifting husband Tom and son Chris.

"It was a long day but a good one," Gallagher reflected. "It went off smoothly, even with so many hands stirring the pot. When I walked out, it was done. And it looked good: efficient, inviting and comfortable."

Working There

Our move was done in a day. On Monday, all that we'd done - or left undone - awaited us, as did a full work week. Before my office was re-arranged, I'd escaped for a short weekend, so I returned with a bit of trepidation.

To my delight, my office was complete, even to books on the shelves, organized by Christopher. On walls and bookcases, my pictures and gewgaws had been artfully arranged down the to last detail: Two cardboard blanks hung on the wall telling me two horizontal pictures belonged there. I'm getting some framed. Best of all, the computer waited on my desk, plugged in and ready to write. All I had to do was sit down in my new leather chair and put my hands on the keyboard.

I wasn't the only one enjoying my office. Kathy Flaherty and I share a window, she looking in, I looking out. "I was most impressed with your office," said Flaherty. "I like all the little spaces Jackie made for all your decorations."

Not only my office, the whole place was in shape, complete to our gallery of historic 1993 covers, freshly framed, and The Wall of Merit, full of Bay Weekly's many editorial and advertising awards.

"Wow! said Mary Catherine Ball on Monday morning. "We not only get this beautiful view of the water but we have all this space to move around in. I have my own little area, my own file cabinets. I can spread out my things and work from my own desk. What a change."

"It's so nice in here I'm almost sorry to leave," said Betsy Kehne at 6:22pm two weeks in, when the addition of shelves finally lets her get her boxes off the floor and gives her a place for almost everything.

Law & Order at Home:
Judy Alto Solves the Case of Ruth Baldwin

Ruth Baldwin stood in the middle of the club room in her Millersville home. Turning her head from side to side, she looked and looked and looked. Something was wrong in this room, but she didn't know how to make it right.

Surprisingly, Baldwin found her answer at Chesapeake Bagel Bakery.

A small business card hung on the bulletin board at the bakery: Judy Alto, One Day Interior Makeovers. Was this the solution to her problems?

"Some people have a knack for things like that, putting things where they should be, making it look good. I don't. I knew I needed help," Baldwin says.

Alto happily came to her rescue. "This was the first room that I completed in her home. She was really struggling with it. When I first saw the room I could see why," Alto says. "There were too many straight lines and nothing aesthetically pleasing about this room."

Baldwin agrees that the room lacked pizzazz. "I have a huge home and lots of beautiful things. I had furniture and pictures, but I didn't know how to set it up," Baldwin says.

Alto and Baldwin spent time discussing the room, the things it was used for, the mood Baldwin wanted it to have. Alto needed to know what this room represented in order to determine how to set up all the pieces.

Disney prints, Disney movies, Disney collectibles. The common thread in this room jumped out at Alto. Of course, Baldwin's grandchildren spent a lot of time here and it had to be special, comfortable and warm.

"I wanted everyone to walk in the room and be like 'Wow'," Baldwin says.

Alto knew what was wrong at first glance. "It had a bowling alley effect," Alto recalls. "People just raced around and through the room. Nobody was given the chance to stop, look around and meander."

Determined to give Baldwin's guests something to look at, Alto studied the architecture, focusing on the fireplace. The hearth was in a half circle.

"The architecture should dictate the furniture placement so I brought everything in on an angle," Alto explains. "If something isn't related to something else in the room, it's not going to work."

With one simple change, the room already took on a new look. "After you arrange the furniture and you start hanging the art you watch the room come alive," Alto says.

Everything fell into place.

"You never know exactly how it's going to turn out, but I knew she'd love it. When she walked down the stairs she was thrilled. Why? These were all of her things that made the room look so good."

Baldwin agrees, "It was a picture right out of Better Homes & Gardens."

Want to know more? Find her at 410/451-5154 ·

-Mary Catherine Ball

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly