Home-Stagers Who Have Perfected the Art of Living Well – NYTimes.com

10 Sep

Sheila and Peter Potter are professional nomads: home-stagers who move into empty properties with their antique furniture and art, creating a timeworn look in a matter of weeks.

The Potters have turned a habit of collecting art and furniture into a career staging houses for sale. More Photos »
THE house on the Bohicket River is not the worst place Sheila and Peter Potter have ever lived. But its weird, empty spaces — the double-height “great” room, the floating gallery — and abundance of wet bars make it one of the most awkward, as Mr. Potter might say, stroking each syllable with a William F. Buckley Jr. drawl.
Despite these architectural impediments, the Potters have turned the house, a developer’s special built three years ago, into a home, filling it with their eclectic, elegant belongings: foot-worn, antique Chinese rugs; tiny, early 18th-century beds; 19th-century artwork. Taming one of the wet bars is an armada of family photos — Mr. Potter’s diplomat parents in a paneled library, Ms. Potter and her seven siblings in a living room on Sutton Place in Manhattan.

And on the stereo the other day was Bach lute music, “a cool sound for a hot afternoon,” Mr. Potter said.
The nearly 5,000-square-foot house, on the market for $1.499 million, has been home to the Potters since March. It is their 14th residence here in as many years — and their 14th project as live-in home stagers. For anyone familiar with the perky, manic staging professionals on HGTV, the Potters are a curious example of the breed.
Languid tastemakers beamed down from another era (Ms. Potter makes expensive lamps using an 18th-century collage technique, while Mr. Potter is an amateur furniture historian), they have little in common with the affiliates of giant national staging companies like Showhomes, which move house managers into empty luxury properties, or with newbies who have “graduated” from online staging academies, paying thousands of dollars for “accredited” courses in curb appeal, furniture rental and marketing. He is 61 and she is 57, born in the middle of the baby boomer years, and they don’t even own a computer. Yet the Potters are a household name in Charleston, a city known for its great houses.
They have lived in some of the best of them, including an imposing, marble-columned, Greek revival antebellum palace with two guest houses, a maze and a pool, which sold for $4.3 million in 2005, thanks to the Potters’ ministrations.
(Among the family photos is one of Mr. Potter in an Andy Warhol wig, dancing in front of the marble columns.) Their payment includes living rent- and utility-free, along with reimbursement for their moving costs and often a percentage of the sale, though not always.
“There are other stagers here, but all they do is bring in furniture, and you really wouldn’t want what they have,” said Thomas Bennett, a principal at Carriage Properties, a luxury real estate firm in the city, and the agent who listed the Greek revival the Potters lived in for a year and a half.
It was a tough house to sell, Mr. Bennett said. During the last century, it had been turned into a county library and then sliced up into apartments. “It was like a beautiful woman who had had her clothes and her jewelry ripped off, a beautiful body just lying there in the dirt,” is how he described the place.
It was the Potters’ decorating, Mr. Bennett said, that helped buyers look beyond the remnants of the house’s hard times. “Sheila and Peter give a house flair and sophistication,” he said. “I think there is probably a need for them more now than ever, because people lack imagination. A lot of people are made of money, and can make money, but fine taste and money don’t always go together.”
Which brings us, ineluctably, to the wet bars. Ms. Potter showed off all three in the Bohicket spec house, including the one in the master bedroom, which is like a little kitchenette, with all-white wainscoting and a granite counter. “Isn’t it weird?” she said. “Like an ice cream parlor. What happened to going downstairs for a glass of water?”
Ms. Potter, who has the husky voice of a former smoker, apologized when a reporter tripped over a little Chinese chest. She apologized, too, for the drive from the airport and for the house’s inadequacies.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again, turning on the lights in the downstairs bathroom.
“It’s the world’s worst powder room. No place to hang a towel.”
But there were Porthault hand towels stacked behind the toilet (the terry cloth ones that really dry your hands), and on the wall, a Japanese wood-block print Mr. Potter found at a thrift shop in Washington, D.C. “Five dollars,” he whispered. “So happy to have a Hiroshige, they are very famous.”
Ms. Potter rolled her eyes. “No, they’re not,” she said.
“Oh, dear,” she added. “Everything looks rather tatty, because it is.”
Tatty, sure. But the Sèvres china on a shelf came from Versailles, by way of Pauline de Rothschild, a cousin of Mr. Potter’s. This kind of tatty can burnish a whole house, even a developer’s special. Assembling old-money objects to provide ballast for new money is a time-tested formula; it’s the look that made Ralph Lauren a billionaire.
You imagine that you, too, could live like a pasha here, never mind that the furniture is not for sale and that the flowers in the deceptively offhand arrangements tucked into silver christening cups weren’t picked in the garden (there is no garden), but chosen by Ms. Potter and ordered from Fischer & Page, a flower wholesaler on 28th Street in Manhattan who sends grape hyacinth and ranunculus by FedEx. (Ms. Potter spent a few years in the 1980s doing the flowers for Pino Luongo’s restaurants.)
The Bohicket house was built on property bought by developers at the height of the real estate boom, said Debbie Fisher, owner of Handsome Properties, and the third agent to have the listing. And it hasn’t been easy to market.
“It’s a great property,” she said. “Because it’s on deep water on the Bohicket River. But the house was hard to wrap your head around.”
When Ms. Fisher got the listing, she dropped the price by $100,000, and brought in the Potters, whom she knew by reputation. “Having them there makes it not seem like a desperate sale,” she said.
AS Tom Scheerer, a Manhattan decorator who spent six years in Charleston, noted, “One of the obvious ironies is that no one will ever live as well in these houses as Sheila and Peter do.”
He added: “I have a vision of Peter in a French striped-sailor shirt, cigarette dangling, buttering Sheila’s toast, Gerald Murphy without the paint box and the dual trust funds.” (In fact, the Potters no longer smoke. It’s bad for business.)
Ms. Potter grew up on Sutton Place, in Connecticut and on a thoroughbred farm in County Kildare, Ireland. Her godmother was Sybil Connolly, the Irish designer who dressed Jackie Kennedy (Ms. Potter has six of Ms. Connolly’s dresses, though she said she doesn’t have much occasion to wear them).
Mr. Potter, the child of foreign service officers, was born in Norway and raised all over the world: Washington; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Hong Kong.
The two met in Manhattan in the 1980s, Whit Stillman’s Manhattan, where young women like Ms. Potter wore mink coats to Upper East Side clubs like the Zulu Lounge and Private’s.
“The doormen called her a ‘minkie,’ ” Mr. Potter said. He was a D.J. and a manager at these places and others (Nell’s, the Tunnel), a haughty aristocrat who made deft mixes and kept a young Madonna, who plied him with her EPs, at bay. “The only song I liked from that untalented woman was ‘Holiday,’ ” he said.
Ms. Potter made decalcomania lamps, glass fixtures collaged on the inside with cutouts from botanical and other prints, which she sold to socialites like Mercedes Bass and decorators like Sister Parish. She also took photographs, 35-millimeter black-and-white prints of street scenes in New York and Ireland, and women preening in the bathrooms of clubs. (Mr. Potter showed the reporter one example, a model in high-1980s fashion on a Manhattan street, but Ms. Potter quickly snatched it away, glaring at her husband. She is shy about this work; he thinks it’s terrific.)
When the ’90s rolled around, Manhattan was not as much fun as it had been, they said, and the Potters moved to Litchfield, Conn., first to a house of their own, and then, when their savings ran low, to a house that Ms. Potter’s father owned and wanted to sell. “We moved all our furniture in, and it sold in three months,” Ms. Potter said. “Our first staging job.”
Charleston was easier on the pocketbook, though, and warmer, than Connecticut. And the Potters already had friends there.
Because Charleston is a house town, the purchase and gussying up of its trophy properties — the huge antebellum confections, the clapboard “single houses” with their side piazzas, the sherbet-colored stuccos on Rainbow Row — is a hobby for its residents, many of whom are part-timers. These houses define Charleston’s social life, attracting people who collect real estate (rich people, mostly, looking for second or third homes), but also those in the creative classes. Mr. Scheerer bought a house on impulse during a two-hour visit there with a client.
He and the Potters, who have friends in common, arrived around the same time. “It’s a cheap place to live,” Mr. Scheerer said. “And when we got there, it was just starting to burgeon.”
The Potters moved into a $500-a-month, one-room rental on Rainbow Row, and did it up, Potter-style, with Mr. Scheerer’s help. When a larger apartment upstairs became vacant, they moved in and did that up, too.
Eight months later, the building was converted to condominiums, but another opportunity presented itself: a friend who was getting divorced asked the Potters to move into her empty house. When it sold nine months later, they realized they had stumbled into a career. A condo in a developer’s “town home” that the Potters staged next sold so quickly — in four months — that the developer moved them into the mirror image apartment across the street.
The worst house they ever staged was also the one they spent the least amount of time in: just 10 days. It was a Charleston “single house,” a clapboard structure one-room deep on the street side, that a local rock band had been living in. There was gum embedded in the pine floors, which were strewn with beer bottles and condoms. The owner had somehow forgotten to clean the house.
“But we’d already said ‘yes,’ ” Ms. Potter explained. “And our word is our word.”
“We had just hung up the last picture,” Mr. Potter said, when a couple from England offered all cash for the place, perhaps because the Potters’ furniture was so familiar to them. An 18th-century Irish hunt table that had belonged to Ms. Potter’s family (it’s here on Bohicket Road, behind Ms. Potter’s mother’s sofa) was the twin of a table they had.
These coincidences do occur. In the Greek revival house, a potential buyer recognized his brother in a photo of Mr. Potter’s grammar school football team.
When the Potters are between houses — this happens — they stay at a place that belongs to a friend (Melinda Mitchell, a local real estate agent, who owns a number of rental properties). “When the clock is ticking,” Ms. Potter said, “she takes care of us.” Their things are stored in three 10-by-20-foot storage units.
This house, which they moved into with 300 boxes, used up the contents of two of those units.
It takes them about two weeks to decorate a house, and they always do their bedroom first. They don’t sketch out the rooms beforehand. They place the furniture by eye, and quickly. They can fill a house, mentally, on the first walk-through.
“It’s definitely an old-money look, that’s for sure,” Mr. Scheerer said. “There are travel references, the Chinese furniture from his father’s tour of duty. The furniture is very polished because Peter is a chronic furniture polisher. Sheila is an inveterate thrifter, and she’s been able to add to the look. She’s also fantastic with flowers, one of the best.”
The Potters are a paradox, moored down by their stuff, but floating free in an accidental career. Wouldn’t they like to settle down?
Mr. Potter grinned. “Yeah, in a way, it would be lovely to own your own house, and pay taxes and insurance,” he said. “Buy a shotgun.” (Mr. Potter has a strong libertarian streak.)
How long does it take for a new house to feel like a home?
Ms. Potter answered this one: “It always does, immediately, because it’s always our stuff,” she said.
“It’s sort of horrible, being a collector,” Mr. Potter said. “I guess because you don’t own your things, they own you.”
But unlike most collectors, you remind him, he is able to put his things to work.
In a guest bedroom at the Bohicket house, four swoops of slightly frayed silk damask that hang over the windows amp up the space.
“We just happened to have four,” he said.
“Sometimes we forget what we have,” Ms. Potter added.
In the dining room are a pair of intricate 18th-century thread “paintings,” and upstairs, a “million-dollar” Boston banjo clock.
“It’s not worth a million dollars,” Ms. Potter said.
What would the Potters do with a million dollars?
“Buy a little apartment in New York,” Mr. Potter said.
“Travel,” Ms. Potter said.
Three weeks ago, they heard from Ms. Fisher. “I have bad news,” she said. An offer had come in.
“But that’s good news,” Ms. Potter replied. “We sold a house in five-and-a-half months. I’ve started packing.”
That takes longer than moving in, she said. At least three weeks.
Is there a soundtrack for that?
“There is,” she said. “Bubble wrap and James Brown. You know the one, ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’?”
Creating Instant Old-Money Patina
Sheila and Peter Potter are professional nomads: home-stagers who have inhabited 14 of Charleston’s most impressive houses in as many years. More Photos »
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

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