Broken Idea

7 Dunecrest, MontereyWhen you tell people you are flying your designer half way around the country for a visit, they think you have money to burn. Truly, just building a house opens you up to a whole new spending league that I really didn’t want to be part of. While I cannot take credit for being especially frugal, it’s also true that I hate to spend money. We have been on a tight budget most of our married life, until about a year ago when my husband announced that, all on his own, he had saved a small fortune and I could now buy a Rolls Royce if I wanted to. Well, guess what, years of his glowering at me any time I got anywhere close to a store other than for groceries, worked so well that I can hardly take any pleasure in shopping now. Particularly as the prices have shot up since I’ve been away these past few decades. I now take pride in driving around my old car, which has plenty of nicks to prove it’s been on the road these past 14 years, and I count it a good week when I haven’t spent any money except for food though I can hear the meters ticking for gas, electricity, water, etc.

To her credit, the designer, also Laura, has always been clear with me that there would have to be a trip out to the site if she were to complete the project. (Could she possibly be suggesting I hire another designer in California?)  In truth, I have tried to make as many decisions without her as I could to keep my bill at a minimum. But, I will also say the project has been proof positive this is not my area of expertise.

Del Monte Beach

Del Monte Beach

She has given me a few tests along the way to see if I might be set off on my own. Like the time we went into this football field-sized plumbing store to pick out fixtures. We went to the faucets department and she asked if there was any one that particularly called to me. When I pointed to a massive farm like implement of unidentifiable metal with lots of twists and turns and joints on it, something akin to a water pump, she said simply, “No, that would be completely wrong for a contemporary house.” A few times since when I have tested out ideas it’s actually been a little like therapy. For example, while she was here, I divulged my secret plan for lighting that others in my entourage, who shall go nameless, had endorsed as a very fun idea. She replied dryly that she was familiar with LED colored light shows that she found to be completely “…over the top. However, if you want to spend $1,684 on that, far be it from me to stop you.” This conjured a scary glimpse of myself, wine glass in hand, at the living room window singing to all of the gawking neighbors “Let’s Give ‘em Something to Talk About,” while the light show played in the background–a truly broken idea. And finally there was the time I mentioned to her that a large overstuffed La-Z-Boy chair was awfully comfortable. She did play her trump card at that, “If you purchase that, please do not tell anyone that I designed your house.”

While the primary purpose of the visit was to select paint colors it would also entail meeting with all of the trades’ people to work out finishing details. Laura said early on that this is a small enough house it’s a little like a boat designed down to the smallest details, however, the biggest challenge is to create a sense of space where there really isn’t any.

Harley DavidsonSo the time was at hand and we identified days when she could fly out on the weekend so we were set to make the most of a day and a half on Monday and Tuesday before she flew back late that afternoon. I had set back-to-back appointments first with Terry Latasa, the architect, and Allan Aasen, the builder; but also the cabinet guy, the painter, the lighting guy, the floor guy, the granite counter tops guy and the tile guy, who came on his brand new Harley—I think to make Allan jealous, though there was some suggestion that I get on the back of it and go for a ride. I’m sure they were having a laugh at the thought of me trying to hang on, shrieking, as he gunned it down the street. Take heart dear reader, I declined the offer.

Things were going along pretty much as planned and we had most of the major meetings accomplished, when late Monday Laura said that she was going to have to come back for a second trip because there were just too many paint colors that she had not yet selected and too many pieces of the puzzle yet undecided! I called for an immediate cocktail break and a couple of large martinis at the most picturesque Mission Ranch (Clint Eastwood didn’t show again), and we reconnoitered.

I suggested we cancel all of the next day’s appointments so she could work exclusively on the paint selections. I promised to stand guard and not let anyone interfere with her thought processes and, voilà, at last she had it, with a full hour to spare for a nap before her long flight home.

Color Palette

Color palette: paint, backsplash, counter, wood floors, upholstery

I was really no help in any of this. I kept saying that all the colors looked the same to me and I could tell that only annoyed her. “No, no, no! Can’t you see the pink tones in that?” I said it looked grey like the others…”Can’t you see the green overtones in this?” she inquired. “Oh sure,” I lied.

But, it’s all a part of the larger color palette that she has been compiling since the beginning, which I must say is quite beautiful. It began with the countertops to which she added tiles and upholstery, floors and now paint.

I suspect that many in the all-male crew think designers are all about pillows and curtains. Laura has had to put them straight on things, while being nice about it. I have learned a great deal about her skills since we first hired her when I could not understand why our architect was asking me whether we would still be ordering our cabinets from a store in Monterey that sells factory-built cabinets. The price for just a few of those was the equivalent to a small addition on the house and they weren’t even of wood but of something called MDF, aka particle board. In the end Laura designed all of the cabinets, turns out this is her specialty, for every room in the house, all scratch built, on site, of wood “…precisely as I have drawn them in AutoCAD, please.”

She has also designed much of the furniture in the house, the signature piece of which is a sectional sofa, custom built in Houston to Harry’s comfort, upholstered in a fabric she selected as part of the palette. In the end she will have designed the dining room table, all of the desks and cabinets and three banquettes that will provide seating and storage in the dining room, sleeping loft, and master bedroom.

During the visit she made lots of decisions as planned and then many changes that had not been planned. And in between there were mind-numbingly complex conversations about construction details in which I was very much on the perimeter. I likened it to a finished edge in sewing. Keep in mind, I nearly flunked the eighth grade over a dress I had to make. My choice in material, like a bad pin cushion, showed every seam the teacher had had me rip out over the course of the semester. If you don’t know how a dress is put together, it is very difficult to understand the finishing touches that will leave you with enough selvage to make a finished edge, instead of a ravel of threads that will ultimately, I’m sorry to say, lead to the final undoing of all seams.

At the airport on Tuesday I gave Laura a hug and a kiss and waved good bye before heading back home for a quick walk on the beach with Charlie and then crawling into bed for a long night of much needed sleep. In truth I had been tired before she arrived just preparing for the visit. But, this has been true for most of my visitors for whom I spend days preparing.

I have been running something akin to a boutique hotel since moving here, now nearly a year ago. I actually had no idea I had so many friends or was so well liked. By my rough calculation, I have had a week of visitors for every one of the eleven months that I’ve been here, not including my husband’s visits. They have been immensely enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but it does take preparation and organizing on my part. I have gotten it down to a rough science of breakfasts I can do easily; places that are good for views, cocktails, meals, etc.; in addition to honing my tour guide skills: routes in my head, park hours, basic history, rudimentary geology, etc. When my husband complained recently he was getting a little tired of going to the same places over and over, I reminded him that having to go to Big Sur again is not really a hardship.

EricaA word here about houseguests. Why did my mother never teach me how to be a good houseguest? I had one couple stay for 10 days, but, they were the easiest of all, because they knew how to be good houseguests. She took over the cooking and food shopping! She took me places I had never been before! And, even over my wimpy protestations to the contrary, she insisted that her husband would vacuum up their room on the evening before they left, which he did with a smile. He also led nightly discussions on church politics that were great fun. So, my longest visitors were in fact my favorites and they topped it off with a gift of binoculars (not the hugely expensive variety) that I dearly love.

For Mother’s Day this past month my lovely daughter came down. She is an easy visitor to have, and I can buy her gifts just as we do when she comes for Father’s Day. Perhaps it is another sign of old age when it really is more fun to give than to receive.


About Laura Nagel

I am on the verge of retirement. For the past nine years I have worked for the International Women's Convocation an organization of liberal religious women dedicated to building international partnerships to improve women's lives. I am a wife, and the mother of two grown daughters. My husband Harry and I are in the process of building a house in Monterey, CA, where I grew up, and where we are planning to retire on the beach. In July of this year, I moved with our dog Charlie to nearby Pacific Grove. For the next nine months I will be overseeing construction of the house. My plan is to blog through the changes in an effort to make sense of it all and keep my bearings while all about me is changing.
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6 Responses to Broken Idea

  1. harrynagel says:

    Very nice. Your best so far.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Laura Nagel says:

    Thanks, my sweetie!


  3. Oh dear, Laura! I sound like a complete ogre! Really though, you made me really laugh… out loud, reading this. And I can honestly say, I don’t do that often when reading! Thanks for the great post, and thanks to you and Harry for being great clients. Its going to be a lovely house- so excited for you!


    • Laura Nagel says:

      I hope not an ogre! It’s not you’re fault I have no design sense. I think you deserve lots of credit, but you may have had to read between the lines. It’s all about me of course! I thought your visit a complete success.


  4. Judith Butler says:

    Laura, when you are settled, drive on down to Cambria (you will have to go to Big Sur again) amd visit Hearst Castle and our small UU church here in Cambria. Would love to see you and Harry.


    • Laura Nagel says:

      Hi Judy, We have been to Cambria. It’s a lovely place. In fact we stayed there over night on one of our trips back and forth. I’m so glad to know you are there and that there is a UU church there. Be sure to look us up the next time you are in Monterey.


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