Designer’s creative itch matched those seeking custom designs

I recently spoke to a group of young designers and told them that I believe that design, like any of the talents we are endowed with such as singing, dancing and painting, are innate — born within us. And so I plainly stated that I was born a designer.

A designer has the absolute need to express himself in some way, no matter what. I chose the path of most resistance, no doubt, by putting my greatest energies into designing custom furniture and cabinetry while interior design remained a constant companion through the thick and thin of a 30-year career.

To many, a designer is some kind of a fancy thing, maybe akin to a species of exotic plant; you know the kind, look but don’t touch and handle with care. But designers really are just people, even if they are a little special. And in my world, there have been countless times when clients were only too glad to find someone like me who could show them just how custom, custom can be.

A vivid memory of this special niche that I have in life concerned a major movie personality with a proclivity for bugs; I’m not sure at this time if this love affair is still ongoing, but it was then.

I was sitting at my desk one morning when the door opened and in walked Mr. Big Movie Star carrying several small boxes. He had already approved my design for his custom bed, which I had fashioned in the shape of a bat in a magnificent Carpathian elm burled wood. So, by that time, I was familiar with his love for the insect kingdom. Still, I was totally unprepared for the crowning touch that he was about to spring on me.

We exchanged some banal pleasantries and then he struck, excitedly placing four small white boxes on my desk that he said he’d like to have included as part of the bed design. I hardly had any time to wonder what they could be as he couldn’t wait to reveal their precious contents, which turned out to be four of the most horrific-looking insects I had never hoped to see.

My first thought was, “Who shares this man’s bed; what is he thinking?” I tried my best to feign delightful surprise, but I must have had some kind of a strange frozen smile on my face as I remember him asking if I was alright. He hurriedly and proudly described them as rare, petrified Amazonian beetles and that he looked forward to having them permanently lodged in his bed so that they would surround him. The two larger ones were to be placed in the headboard and in the motorized up/down television cabinet, while the two smaller ones were to be placed in each night table. All four were to be mounted on a gold background and under glass.

The bed was a great success and, of course, much talked about. It was even mentioned once or twice in interviews with Mr. Big Movie Star. Imagine my pride of accomplishment. Seriously though, I was there for a client that had a very special need for a designer who could embrace his vision and run with it.

Another experience was with a charming lady who I grew quite fond of. She was one who knew her mind and what she wanted, a no-nonsense, take-charge type. It was up to me to make it a reality, however, which can be a wholly different story.

She had a wonderfully creative and highly contemporary home that she had designed and furnished herself in one of our gated communities. The home had a magnificent three-story indoor waterfall designed and executed by Las Vegas glass artist Leslie Rankin.

I was called in to design and build the dining table and chairs. The owner wanted an extension table with a wood base (I wound up using cherry) and a custom glass top to be designed by Rankin. Of course, the design had to work with the unusual shape of the room, seat 10 people and be at least 10 feet long, open and close with three pieces of glass that weighed at least 1,200 pounds, and be able to move along the home’s stone floor easily enough for the owner to move it herself.

I was astounded that this little person could imagine herself capable of such a feat, but she did. And she did, ultimately, with the help of my design. To this day, this unusual table remains one of my proudest accomplishments — and I’m so glad it’s behind me.

So, you can see that the life of a custom designer, like so many professions, has its challenges. But bringing design to peoples’ lives, which can help them lead a happier and more uplifting one, sometimes even changing it, has got to be one of the more nobler pursuits.

Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design International; he has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He is on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to soleildesign@

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