Matt Finlason lets his eyes linger over the art hanging in his bedroom, phone pressed to his ear.
“It looks like a scruffy Montrealer in boxers painted it in his basement,” he says. It’s one of the few items in his house that he didn’t choose himself.
The painting was purchased at The Cheaper Show, a monster Vancouver sale where artists discount their work for one night only. Finlason’s busy schedule kept him from the sale, so he sent Chris — his partner of ten years.
“It’s really tough for the partner of a designer, because he can’t bring anything into the house,” says Finlason. “It’s cute that he bought it, but of course, it’s like two feet by five feet, and it’s sitting over our bed — it’s impossible to ignore.”
He laughs. Loving, but critical.
Lesson one: the wall above the headboard is a sacred space for designers. Lesson two: it’s the spirit of compromise that has kept the pair together over a whirlwind decade.
Finlason is a design consultant, set designer, former actor and, over the last two years, one of the boisterous hosts of HGTV’s The Stagers.
On the show, Finlason makes over client homes in the trademark HGTV fashion: one per episode, with the help of an assistant — and with cameramen and clients trailing behind. It’s got all of the genre’s distinctive shots: pans of drab rooms, midshots of the designer explaining his plan, and closeups for moments when frustration and tension are mounting.
The catch is, these reno jobs aren’t designed to be lived in — the furniture and accessories are carefully prepared set pieces for real estate agents’ open houses. Everything is rented — or, in the case of some of the art, on loan.
“Staging is the art of professionally preparing a house for sale in order to get the highest price in the shortest amount of time,” he says.
Indeed, staging is about first impressions, not long-term livability. And that makes appearances the name of the game.
“Staging isn’t what sells property; price point is what sells property. But a non-staged home will offend more buyers,” he says, and that means turning away potential sales.
The show is set in Vancouver, where housing prices tumbled by 13 per cent between Feb 2008 and Feb 2009. Combined with razor thin interest rates on mortgages, it is a formula for putting homeowners at a disadvantage compared to people just entering the market.
“In a buyer’s market, people are looking for homes that are ready to move into,” he says. “It’s like, move in at 8am, cocktail party at 8pm. You have to show buyers that the place is already livable.”
Bottom line: presentation counts. And that’s where the Jamaican-born, Toronto-raised Finlason comes in, ready to empty your bookshelves and hang something fresh on the walls. But don’t expect him to compromise the look of the pad for the clients’ tastes.
Of all of the design sub-disciplines, staging is the one where clients are least likely to contribute ideas. The best stagers don’t design with a client’s tastes in mind, they design with a home buyer’s tastes in mind.
Seems clear enough, but on The Stagers, some of the clients don’t understand the difference. In the season opener, Finlason chats with his client about the wall-mounted flat screen TV. He is surprisingly diplomatic at the time, but later he’s more candid about what he calls the “electronic technostress.”
“I’m so sick of those big, black boxes on the walls!” he says. Then he takes a deep breath before hitting the high points of a future where technology doesn’t impede design.
And that’s just the beginning. Over the course of 45 minutes, he extols the virtues of Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, the benefits of having design-conscious girlfriends, buying furniture on Craigslist and “shabby chic,” talking a mile a minute, just like he does on air. Oh, and he’s even got a little breath left to talk about the trendy tee he picked up as a momento of The Cheaper Show.
“I should take a picture of myself wearing the shirt and send it to you,” says Finlason. “It says, ‘buy art, not cocaine.'”
He laughs, then his schedule beckons and he’s off again.
Staging for beginners
Sometimes the best thing you can do for a space is to de-clutter it. It makes the room look bigger, cleaner and more modern. As Finlason says, “Do you really need all those end tables?”
Take down your awards and trophies. The idea is for potential buyers to project their own lives into the space, not to get a peek at yours.
Keep furniture to scale.
The size of the sofa should be proportional to the size of the room. If you get the scale wrong, the room will look unpolished.
The quickest way to freshen up the look of a room is to reconsider the floorplan. Can you get rid of dead space or unclog your house’s flow by moving things around?