“When the family comes back at 5 p.m. tomorrow, the house will be waiting for them, totally redone. They’re going to walk in and it will be just like coming home, with cut flowers, lit candles and everything perfect. It’ll be fabulous,” says Donna, whose down-home, Southern drawl masks a laser-beam eye for detail.
Over the preceding twelve weeks, she has purchased at least 2,000 pieces ranging from furniture to accessories and artwork, then personally supervised the packing and labeling of two trucks’ worth of boxes. In just two days, each item will land exactly where it belongs in the 7,921-square-foot home.
Almost everything will be a surprise to the Martins, whose long-term relationship with Donna allows them to be comfortable, trusting her to make most of the decisions. “I gave them a general sense of what I had in mind and a few little glimpses along the way,” Donna says. “They gave me a budget. Over the years I’ve learned what they like.”
“I know how complicated it is to get the right result,” says Lynnette, who worked marketing home furnishings before opting to be a full-time, at-home mom. “These days I just don’t have the time,” she says. “My priority is raising our four boys and this move meant a lot of changes in their lives. So I’m really lucky to have someone like Donna to help me.”
“It’s been unbelievably hectic,” agrees Scott, a corporate dad who tries to be as hands-on as possible. “There are a million things happening around here at any given moment. I don’t know how Lynnette does it.”
Scott didn’t take much persuading to get with the program, but he cannot resist teasing his wife as she describes a whirlwind tour of North Carolina furniture showrooms led by “Donna the Decorator,” from which she emerged with a general sense of color palette and furniture styles.
“The truth is, Lynnette, you haven’t seen any of what we’ve bought,” he says. As for the two-day makeover, he credits the impact of prime-time TV with putting the idea into Donna’s head in the first place.
She sees it differently. “I’d bought all these things and it just made sense for me to come up here and see that it’s put together right. And this was the time I could schedule it. With a little organization, I knew we could do it in a weekend.”
It’s the kind of challenge that Donna, whom Lynnette describes as “definitely a get-it-done kind of gal,” relishes. Part Auntie Mame, part Martha Stewart, she is all Steel Magnolia when the chips are down. After several key accessories ordered from Mexico did not arrive when expected, she demanded results. “Hey,” she says, “we were loading the trucks by then. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer!”
“She’s so cute,” Lynnette says. “She told me, ‘I feel like a surrogate mother to your home, like I’ve been pregnant for nine months and now I’m getting ready to deliver.’”
Cut to Friday, “Weekend Makeover Minus One.” The house has been emptied of rental furniture. Scott — accompanied by McKinnon, age ten; Mason, age nine; Matthew, age six; Mitchell, age four; and Shadow, the family dog — is putting the finishing touches on the family’s traditional Halloween decorations. “We’ve got a ghost that will howl as it flies back and forth on the front porch, a couple of tombstones with chains and a giant spider,” says Scott, sounding for a split second more like yesterday’s trick-or-treater than today’s company executive.
This year he’s reluctantly agreed to limit his decorations to the exterior of the house. “No way he’s putting cobwebs all over my beautiful new décor,” says Donna.
“They ganged up on me,” he says, testing the fog machine and strobe lights that will be turned on for Halloween night. The spooky setting’s crowning glory is a witch that looks as if she just crashed into a tree on the front lawn. “The witch is an heirloom,” he says. “We brought her with us when we came here from Montgomery, Alabama.”
A business promotion for Scott precipitated the family’s move to Darien, and they loved the custom-designed house as soon as they saw it. “It has a timeless quality so it can adapt to any kind of décor,” says architect Bob Everett.
“Bob told us that he built the house to fit the former owner’s furniture, a collection of large-scale antique Asian pieces,” Lynnette says. “And now we had to build furniture to fit the house.”
The Martins moved in with the bare minimum. “We brought our dining room table and chairs, furniture from the boys’ rooms, some pieces from our family room and rented the rest,” Scott says. “We had beds and two TVs, but it was strictly no frills. We were just rattling around in this house.”
“I came to measure and began ordering in July,” says Donna. First the upholstered pieces and then the extra-large cabinet for the living room had to be made to order so that the scale would be right for the size of the room, which is easily 1,200 square feet. “It is absolutely huge; my job was to make it welcoming — formal, but also comfortable for daily use,” she explains.
A remote-control plasma-lift flat-screen TV built into the living room cabinet lets the room serve as an upstairs family room as well as a formal living room. “Lynnette and Scott are all about family,” Donna says.
Along with wedding portraits in the master bedroom suite, images of the four boys are everywhere, anchoring different parts of the house. Some are oil paintings; others are black-and-white or color photographs. Even in Scott’s home office, the priority is clear: Over the fireplace a large oil painting of the five “Martin men” looks exactly right against walls of rich forest green.
“We’re a little nervous about that green,” Lynnette admits, explaining that Donna made a second visit to select colors for the walls, which then were painted in advance. “We love the aqua/turquoise color she chose for the sunroom,” Scott says, “because it reminds us of my family’s home on Cape Cod.” As for his office, he’s not worried. “If we have to, we could repaint, but we’ve learned that Donna’s usually right.”
An oil painting done by a friend of Lynnette inspired the color palette. “I looked at it and instantly saw the whole thing in my mind,” Donna says. “It had aqua and cobalt, lime and olive greens as well as various shades of gold, buttery yellows and chocolate. I just loved it.”
Over the fireplace in the living room, the painting serves as catalyst for different interpretations of its colors throughout the house. Twenty pieces of Italian majolica pottery are another connective element, reiterating the color scheme while adding touches of red, orange and persimmon.
It’s Saturday and the Martins have left for the day. Donna turns her attention to the moving vans on the driveway, where gridlock threatens her carefully laid plans. “We can’t do anything until they get the stuff in the house,” she says. “I’m going to go out there and twitch my nose a little to make some magic happen. You know, like Samantha in Bewitched?”
Fortunately the enormous living room cabinet is already in place when the technicians arrive to install the plasma lift TV. “There’s a second unit,” Donna says, noting that she’s replaced the footboard of the sleigh bed in the master bedroom with a look-alike piece of furniture that will hide another remote control pop-up TV. Work grinds to a standstill with the discovery of missing components. “Get them and get back here fast,” Donna orders the crew. “You’ll have to stay till it’s done. We’ve got a deadline to meet.”
Jarrod, the floral designer, carefully places an arrangement of red, gold and ivory hydrangeas on the dining room table then gratefully takes the elevator to the lower level where his wife, Kathy, is working on bookshelves in the downstairs family room. “Yeah, we’ve been running up and down the stairs all
morning and we’re just getting started,” he says. “All of us will be staying here overnight, but we don’t expect to get much sleep.”
Early Sunday afternoon, “Weekend Makeover: Day Two.” Despite getting just three hours of sleep, Team Tokeneke is hard at work cleaning up and adding the finishing touches.
“The moving trucks left around 10 p.m. last night,” Donna says. “We were only missing a lamp and a nightstand, which isn’t too bad. Plus only one piece ended up here by mistake; it belonged to another job in Morgantown, North Carolina.”
At 4:45 p.m. the final countdown starts. Donna has just called Lynnette and Scott. “They’re on their way!” she announces. “We’ve got fifteen minutes!” With some ceremony Donna lights the last candle, then steps back for a final appraisal. Satisfied, she takes five minutes to freshen up. “My feet,” she sighs, “are killing me!”
Shadow’s joyous barking is the signal that the Martins are back, this time with Lynnette’s mom, who’s flown in for the unveiling. The family tumbles out of the car to be greeted by hugs from Donna and her team. Scott is carrying Mitchell, who fell asleep during the ride. “Okay,” Donna says, opening the front door. “Are we ready?”
“Oh, wow!” Lynnette and Scott say in unison, standing in the entrance hall, trying to take it all in. “This is just beautiful!” The oil painting in Scott’s office, visible through the open door, is a showstopper. “The green walls are fabulous,” Lynnette says. “You’re right, Donna,” Scott says. “We love it!”
After admiring every detail of his new office, Scott pauses. “Hmmmm … what’s that on my desk?” he says. “Could it be a bill? Oh, the pain!” It is indeed the bill. Admitting that she might have gone “a tiny bit” over budget, Donna waits while Scott, flinching melodramatically, opens the white envelope. “Don’t worry, Lynnette,” she says, “I bought him a nice soft chair to collapse on.”
“I pretty much expected we’d go over,” Scott says, laughing. “But I know already this is going to be worth every penny.” The living room, first stop on Donna’s official “welcome home” tour, makes that abundantly clear. “Oh, my goodness! This is gorgeous!” Lynnette says.
“It’s amazing!” Scott agrees. “Do you remember that first day we moved into the house and it felt so cold and huge? Now it feels elegant, but very homey.” Everybody sits down on the couch in the central seating area for Donna’s demonstration of the plasma lift TV. Beaming, she hits the button on the remote and, like magic, the screen rises. “It’s the TV of your dreams, Scott,” Lynnette says, smiling.
“Can we watch now?” the boys chorus. “Is the game on?” McKinnon, football in hand, seems about to throw a pass to his brother Mason. Donna intervenes just in time. “Watching football in the living room is fine,” she says, “but playing it is reserved for the family room downstairs.” Crisis averted.
Champagne for two has been set up in front of the living room fireplace for Lynnette and Scott, but it’s a pleasure that will have to wait. After happily exclaiming over the sun room and dining room, the family heads for the next stop, a guaranteed crowd pleaser: the game/exercise room leading to the family room on the house’s lower level.
The boys race through the kitchen and dining area and down a flight of stairs, coming to a screeching halt in front of a Foosball table. The poster hanging above it celebrates the University of North Carolina’s 2005 victory over Illinois in the NCAA Basketball Championships and elicits a family cheer. “UNC is our alma mater,” Scott explains. “That’s where Lynnette and I met.”
From Lynnette’s trousseau chest to the painting of Scott’s family home in Cape Cod, everything important has been accorded a place of honor. A photograph of five generations of women in Lynnette’s family is on display in the living room. The twin beds in a guest room belonged to Scott’s mother and her twin brother. In each boy’s room, their original artwork has been framed and hung; desk chairs painted as class projects at their elementary school in Alabama are tomorrow’s heirlooms. The crystal chandelier Scott gave Lynnette for their first wedding anniversary is the crowning glory of the opulent white marble master bathroom.
“Everywhere we look, there’s something wonderful to discover,” Lynnette says, admiring a pair of porcelain parrots. “It’s going to be like Christmas all year long.”
It’s smiles and hugs all around as Donna and her team, by now almost like family, take their leave. “Yeah, we’re beat,” Donna says, “but it’s a good kind of tired. After all these months, this is such a happy end result.”
Meanwhile the troops are getting hungry. For the family’s first “really at home” celebratory meal, what better choice than pizza? Popping a couple of Chicago-style pies into the oven, Scott smiles at his wife. “We call these the Martin Madhouse years,” he says. “We know we’re going to look back on them as so very special.” The kids are no longer babies, Lynnette points out, but they’re not teenagers yet. “We’re not dealing with all that attitude,” she says. “They’re still little boys.”
The house on Hope Road has metamorphosed from Asian art environment to an easy-living definition of casual elegance. The perfect venue for family celebrations, sleepovers, Cub Scouts, baseball games, birthday parties and over-the-top Halloween decorations, the stage is set for the creation of tomorrow’s memories. “This is an important time in our lives,” Scott says. “Lynnette and I wanted to spend these years in a home that our sons will always remember.”