Design for a Cause

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The Philharmonic Society’s 20th House of Design project continues a tradition of raising funds to bring music literacy to Orange County children. By Marry Morales

 It started as a simple idea, as most great things do. In the late 1980s, members of the women’s committees of the Orange County Philharmonic Society were looking for a way to raise a large amount of money with a single, annual event to benefit the society’s free youth music education programs. Some of the women were interested in interior design, so they joined forces with members of the Orange County chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), and the idea for the Philharmonic House of Design was born: The first house opened with a holiday theme in November 1990 on historic, tree-lined Victoria Drive in Santa Ana.The owners of the three-story Georgian residence moved out for three months, while a team of designers, contractors, landscapers and hundreds of volunteers transformed the home into a traditional vision of neutral tones, floral prints and fine, antique furnishings for crowds of visitors to enjoy.Fast forward to 2012, and the most contemporary House of Design ever undertaken by the group is constructed, says Sabra Bordas, chairman and CEO of the Orange County Philharmonic Society. The 12,000-square-foot, newly built south Laguna Beach estate requires no one to relocate while designers discover inspiration in the home’s breathtaking coastal and Catalina Island views, in time for an April 21 opening gala.

The path from historic Santa Ana to scenic Laguna Beach has held many twists and turns for this highly successful fundraiser. From family homes to new construction, to a one-time meandering home tour around the county, the project has gone from spring to fall and back again, and even skipped a year or two. Several years ago, ties with ASID were severed. The one constant is its popularity.

“This fundraiser nets more than $200,000 each year,” Sabra says.

2012 – Villa Mar Vista

Located in south Laguna Beach, the 2012 Philharmonic House of Design, called Villa Mar Vista, was built around its ocean and Catalina views with big Craftsman windows and French doors. The 12,000 square-foot estate on 40 acres features a circular drive, six individual garages, helicopter landing pad, infinity pool and expansive garden. The design will feature local Laguna Beach artists.

The 2012 House of Design will be open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, April 24 through May 20. Premiere night is April 21 and will feature wine, food and entertainment. A café and boutique are open during regular house hours.

Tickets went on sale in February. Access to the home is by shuttle only with parking and regular pick-ups and drop-offs in north Dana Point. High heels and strollers are not permitted in the House of Design.

To purchase tickets or for information on lectures and times when designers will be on-site, visit or call 714-840-7452.

The Cost of Giving

You might wonder what would inspire some people to give up their home for three months or longer.

“For the homeowner, it’s the prestige,” Sabra explains. “And marketing.”

In recent years, featured houses are more often than not new sites and for sale.

Homeowners face few monetary expenses, unless they choose to accept any permanent structural changes. The 20-plus designers involved in the annual event face real costs—paying out-of-pocket if they cannot get items donated by manufacturers.

“It’s a marketing tool for the designer, so they’re looking for a hook to capture visitors’ interest,” Sabra says. “They have a very real expense when they work with us. Each room in most cases has something priceless.”

Interior designer Frank Pitman of Orange County’s Frank Pitman Designs has been involved in numerous House of Design projects.

“It’s the majority of our advertising budget,” he says.

So why do it?

“The #1 reason is that it is a great cause,” Frank explains. “We’re a family of musicians—I play the keyboard and strings, and my partner, Ric Alba, is just releasing his seventh album.”

Frank looks to create a buzz around his House of Design work.

“For the 2003 Chelsea Manor, I [created] a princess suite—an over-the-top, detailed suite for a teenage girl,” he says. “It had every convenience wrapped into a palace: televisions that rose out of cabinets, a hand-carved toilet, places for guests to sleep, hidden computer equipment and motorized window coverings. I had inquiries from around the country wanting me to recreate that suite.”

Designers are often willing to drive up expenses—sometimes ripping out brand-new cabinetry or appliances—to reach their vision. The society must control costs to make sure funds raised go to programs such as Music in Movement, which educates local teachers who bring music into the classroom; the Music Mobile, a fleet of white vans covered in blue musical notes that bring interactive musical programs to elementary schools; and Tix for Teens, which provides free tickets to regular Philharmonic Society concerts to Orange County high schools.

Volunteers put in hundreds of hours each year planning, coordinating, escorting guests and collecting monies, among many other tasks. The House of Design runs for four weeks; planning and preparing is a year-round process.

“Getting the house is a huge event,” Sabra says, as the list of requirements is long. “[I]t must be at least 7,000 square feet, have enough space for the boutique and food, and at least two stairwells—we can’t have people coming down while people are going up.”

Then there’s the neighborhood—even with a shuttle service to ensure that there will be no parking issues, getting community association approval can prove challenging.

“We try to be good neighbors,” Sabra says. “We invite the neighbors with complimentary tickets.”

Even with months of planning and coordinating, the event doesn’t always come together as seamlessly as it appears to the thousands of visitors who attend.

“We had one year where the front yard was not done,” Sabra says. “They were hosing down the yard as we pulled up for the opening gala. … I saw one designer running down the street with a vacuum cleaner!”

But the society must be doing most everything else right, because people return year after year.

“It’s a win-win-win-win,” says Frank. “I win with a month of meeting the public. The charity wins. The public wins because it’s fun. And it’s a win for the manufacturers who get to put their wares in the eyes of the public.”

And, in the end, the children of Orange County win with a musical education. NBM

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