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Designer's credo: It comes from within

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Fran Grabowski used to be the kind of person who painted all the rooms in every house she ever lived in the same shade of winter white.

"I thought, "Everything goes with white,' " Grabowski said. "I just never thought about decorating. I put my attention into other things, like raising children and being good at my job."

But a few years ago, Grabowski had a realization: She wasn't really happy in her house and she didn't know why.

That's when she asked interior designer Denny Daikeler for help.

Now Grabowski's home dazzles with color. Her living room is painted butterscotch, her dining room is deep salmon, and the hall that connects them is violet.

But it wasn't the designer's big idea. Grabowski chose the hues after Daikeler helped her discover her buried yearning for color.

"Working with Denny is not just about decorating a house, it's about learning about yourself and finding out what makes you happy," said Grabowski, a nutritionist. "Now I feel this is home."

Where most interior designers offer clients swatches and sketches, Denny Daikeler gives them soul-searching exercises.

Hot design trends? Status-boosting showplaces? Forget about it. Creating a home that really works, Daikeler is convinced, isn't about choosing the right wallpaper. It requires connecting with your true self. What's more, she says, changing your home can transform your life.

She has been honing her unusual approach to interior design for more than 20 years, and now Daikeler has put her ideas in a book: What Color Is Your Slipcover? How Discovering Your Design Personality Can Help You Create the Home of Your Dreams (Rodale, $18.95).

In it, Daikeler offers two dozen exercises aimed at helping readers uncover their personal aesthetic and deepest desires. Among them: Dream up a fantasy day to figure out what you really like to do. Write a list of 40 things that make you happy. Create a household activity inventory for every member of the family. (Daikeler also includes techniques for couples who work together and for family groups.)

Daikeler began on her maverick path early in her career, soon after graduating from Drexel University's design program in 1960. "It really bothered me that interior design was so materialistic," Daikeler said in her sunlit living room outside Philadelphia. Her modern furniture mixes with antiques, shells picked up on beach walks are displayed along with her contemporary pottery collection, and a family of bushy Christmas cactuses was about to bloom.

"The elitism also bothered me _ that idea that it had to be expensive or the "best' taste," said Daikeler, an ordained interfaith minister who sees her design work as part of her spiritual ministry.

Interior design, she thought, seemed too bound by strict rules, too caught up in the idea that the designer always knows best. "I thought if I could help a person get in touch with the home that was right for them, that would be a real gift."

So Daikeler changed her approach to working with clients.

It wasn't easy, she recalled. "People wanted to move right on to buying furniture and there I was asking all these questions. I'd get couples who'd say, "We're not going to tell you anything. You just tell us what we need.' And I'd say, "I can't tell you a thing until I know who you are.' "

In scores of private consultations, classes and workshops over the years, Daikeler has developed a process that can point people toward their own vision of home.

One of her favorite exercises is to ask a client to name the most precious object he or she owns. The choices, Daikeler said, are always revealing, and often become the focal point in a home redesign.

Sometimes the objects reveal the owner's aesthetic. Julie Berger chose as her most significant possession a French antique dish her husband gave her. It contains her favorite colors _ terra cotta and blue _ and both colors now fill her house.

Daikeler client Marianne Koller chose as her dearest object a painting of the Arc de Triomphe she and her husband bought when they were newlyweds. "It's not a great piece of art," Koller said. "I think we paid $25 for it."

A different designer might have deemed it unworthy of display, but when Daikeler heard the story behind it, she suggested the couple put it in an ornate frame and hang it in a place of honor in the dining room.

"We had our first argument the day we bought it," Koller said. "I can't remember what it was about. But whenever we have a fight I go and look at that painting and remind myself, "Get over it, it's not that important.' It must have worked, because we're married 27 years."

Another of Daikeler's key techniques is to ask her clients to compile a picture journal. The aim: to discover what shapes, colors, textures and style truly speak to them.

Maryann Kleschick, herself an interior designer, took one of Daikeler's seminars and was stunned by what was revealed in the pages she'd torn from magazines. "My journal was full of elaborate moldings, cracked walls and jewel tones," said Kleschick, who worked for a prominent designer at the time. "But I lived in a vanilla box with white carpeting. That wasn't my taste _ it was my boss' taste."

"Denny said, "This space is not you. You belong in an old home,' " Kleschick recalled.

Kleschick's newfound sense of her design self didn't just affect her decorating choices; it changed her entire life, she says. She quit her job, sold her suburban condo, moved into an old downtown Philadelphia townhouse that she renovated, and opened her own firm.

In Daikeler's expansive philosophy, there are no "shoulds." A home can be a soul-soothing retreat or an efficient way station for a busy life.

One client loved jogging, but found dressing for her early-morning run disturbed her husband. Daikeler's solution: a gym locker downstairs in the laundry room. One couple who wanted a comfortable place to read together transformed an unused exercise room into a cozy den with two large armchairs.

Daikeler recalled one woman whose kitchen had turned into a place her children passed through on their way to other areas of the house. "No one stopped to talk and she was really frustrated," Daikeler said. "So she put a rocking chair right in their path. And that really worked. The ramifications of that choice just changed her life."

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