Homes with a Heart

April 1, 2003
Dave Weinstein

Residents of the Canon Barcus Community House enjoy the nuturing results of a project that rallies the time, talent and resources of the San Francisco design communtiy.

Tony and Joan Thomas have a lot to be proud about. Their home may be small, but nothing is out of place—except for a sprinkling of dried petals on a tabletop. Yet that was purposely done, carrying through a color scheme suggested by interior designer Gina Bui."I just love order and structure," Joan Thomas says, "now that I have my own."The Thomas' apartment at Canon Barcus Community House is an extraordinary project not because of its scope or cost—they only spent $12—but because formerly homeless families rarely get the chance to work with interior designers. Bui, a designer with Jean Coblentz & Associates, is working with the Thomas family through a project run by Philanthropy by Design (PBD), a San Francisco, CA, non-profit that provides furnishings and design services to charitable institutions throughout the Bay Area.The Thomas' home, which they share with their two teenage daughters, is a beauty, with an Art Deco designer sofa, a solid wood dining table and one of Joan's favorite items—a fabric lampshade whose rose-colored scallop shell determined the apartment's color scheme.Then there's the first modern kitchen she's ever had. "I have a dishwasher," Joan says. "I think that is so cool!""What really turns me on is somebody who doesn't know us could come in here and think we make $200,000 a year," Tony says.The Thomases' apartment is part of a new 48-unit complex on Eighth St. near Mission St. run by Episcopal Community Services (ECS) of San Francisco for very low-income, formerly homeless families. PBD solicited donations of furnishings, furnished several apartments as "showcases" to show off the work of volunteer designers from the Northern California chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), and provided volunteer designers to work one-on-one with new tenants.The idea for a non-profit showcase house was the brainchild of San Francisco designer Randall Koll, a veteran of several design showcase houses and a PBD board member. Koll was disappointed that most showcases feature only high-end design ideas and furnishings. He imagined that a showcase house could illustrate design ideas for an entirely different clientele, and that all the furnishings could be donated and would remain for use by the residents.Koll brought the idea to PBD and worked closely with executive director Roberta Swan to put the plan into action.The ASID Northern California Chapter played a crucial role putting the project together and supplying designers. One of ASID's missions is community service, says Susan Peliks of Susan Peliks Interior Design, who coordinated the project as ASID liaison with PBD."The goal of the showcases," Peliks says, "was to show how a low-income or simple apartment can be decorated to look absolutely stunning using a set of given products—freebies."At the showcase open house, Peliks found herself next to a tenant who didn't know she helped create the apartments. She asked how he liked his new home. "He said, 'Oh it's wonderful. My family and I had been living in a car for the last year and a half.' I just got goose bumps."The collaborative project with the San Francisco Design Center and the San Francisco Quilters Guild included donations and services from Ikea, McRoskey Airflex Mattress Co., Robin Azevedo, Michael O'Rourke, numerous showrooms from the San Francisco Design Center, the trucking firm Padded Wagon and the Gabilan Foundation.Collaboration has been a way of life for PBD since its founding 15 years ago. Many of the Bay Area's top designers, furniture showrooms and stores, manufacturers and hoteliers have worked with and contributed to PBD projects. PBD continues to help people by redesigning and furnishing shelters for homeless people and people with AIDS, classrooms for tutorial programs in Hunters Point, daycare centers, non-profit offices and the Children's Waiting Room at the city's Hall of Justice. Projects have included Canon Kip low-cost housing, the Diamond Senior Center, Project Open Hand, Walden House and Girls 2000. Volunteer designers, including design students, donate hundreds of hours, while volunteers from all walks of life join in paint days. Whenever appropriate, the people who ultimately use these spaces take part as well. Besides creating hundreds of nurturing, healthful spaces, PBD has prevented thousands of tons of furnishings from being landfilled or left to languish in warehouses.Interior design is often considered a frill. But designers—and their clients—know better. They understand how important a well-designed space is to people's well-being. Among the designers who have helped PBD is JoAnne McDowell of McDowell Design Associates, Sausalito, CA, one of its founders, who emphasizes that, "The design industry has always been superbly supportive."Over the years, PBD has received its share of recognition: the ASID's Design For Humanity Award, President George Bush's 1990 Points of Light Award, the J.C. Penney Golden Rule Award, an Unsung Heroes Award from Mayor Willie Brown, as well as numerous state and city commendations.Margaret Collard, principal of International Art Properties at the San Francisco Design Center and a long-time PBD supporter, says PBD's benefits extend beyond its projects. She has hired clients of Episcopal Family Services whom she met through PBD's projects with that agency, she says, as has the Design Center.Bui, who met the Thomases several times, says of the project: "It's a different set of challenges. You have to work with what's available. You're restricted. It forces you to be creative and more resourceful, versus having deep pockets. Then it's easy to say 'Yes,' or 'No,' and 'I want three of that.'""It challenges your abilities to do things as a designer on a certain budget—zero," says Anvarian, who donated furnishings and her own artwork to the showcase apartment she designed.The task went beyond home design to psychology. People who have been homeless and who have had substance abuse problems often need adjustment to living in their own space, Koll says. Episcopal Community Services provides counseling, job training and other services to new tenants. All volunteer designers went through sensitivity training.Tony and Joan are former substance abusers who have been clean and sober for five years. For a while they and their children lived separately. "Now we're happy," Joan says, "a united family."Tony, tall and thin, is an affable man who programs cable TV boxes for AT&T and sings like Smokey Robinson. Joan, who loves to gab, leaves the apartment's front door open. Neighbor kids drop by. She was the one who made sure her family was selected for an apartment by repeatedly lobbying the manager. She's studying for her high school diploma, hopes to work as a receptionist, and is looking forward to her first real Thanksgiving in many years: turkey, roast beef, ham and a duck, sweet potato pies, peach pie and apple pie. "I'm going to be up for two days cooking," she says, "and I can't wait."When the Thomases moved in, their apartment had a donated bed with a high-end mattress from McRoskey and Ikea end tables. They brought nothing. "We had clothes and a couple of little gadgets like that," Tony says. "Soap."Furnishings were supplied by PBD, many donated by showrooms and manufacturers. Tenants had their pick. The $12 the Thomases spent was for a plant.More than most design projects, this one has helped create a home. The Thomases make clear how much the project has helped their family come together again. "The house is comfortable—the main thing," Joan says. "It's serene. You're humble. Everybody likes each other again."Once you get your kids to smile at you and call you mommy—they were calling me other things," she says, and lets the sentence trail off.It was collaborative all the way, Joan says.The dining table, for example, began as a wooden tabletop from PBD. Joan loved it. For legs, Tony brought home a work station support discarded by AT&T. A perfect fit. Peliks, who coordinated the designers' work on the project, says the experience was satisfying for all concerned. The designers enjoyed being able to help people in the community—and were proud to see how much their volunteer effort was appreciated.No one appreciated their work more than Tony."Homeless doesn't mean you don't have a place to sleep," he says. "It means you don't have a home. This is a home for us." Susan Peliks and Randall Koll are talking to non-profit groups nationwide about setting up similar showcase houses. For information, contact Peliks at (415) 668-4884 or [email protected].

Dave Weinstein is a freelance writer in the East Bay area and a board member of Philanthropy by Design.

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