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"See, it's all about scale," he says. "Even in the accessories. You don't want people to walk in and just say: 'What are those things?'" With the right-size accessories, even a small house can show its possibilities.
"Staging a house gives a buyer a starting point," says real-estate agent Feste. "So that they can know how a house could be decorated or how they would live in it." Staging has become standard practice in the Bay Area whenever a homeowner can afford it, Feste says, although there are certain times that stagers aren't brought in. "Some people actually live a staged lifestyle," she says. "Their own decorating looks so good we just use that. And other times a house is in such disrepair that a staging wouldn't help at all."
In the master bedroom, Friedes drops three postcards on the bedside table -- he picked them up from an art gallery opening. The bed's headboard is actually nailed higher on the wall than it would be if it touched the floor. It's a little stager's trick to make it more conspicuous.
Friedes compares staging to set design more than to interior design. "In interior design, you work with a small number of people for long periods of time," he said. "You end up knowing more about them than you want to. You have to worry about daily life -- where's the TV going to go, and all the electronics? Staging is a suspension of reality. I just have to make it look like a magazine."
In Kensington, Pierce has staged an old Victorian house up in the hills, where the biggest challenge was keeping the deer from eating her carefully arranged flowers.
Logs are piled in the cozy little fireplace. But they aren't real wood; they're just hollow tubes of bark. "Now these actually are props," she laughs.
In staging, it isn't cheating to make things look better than life. Pierce hung a vintage poster guide to mushrooms in the dining room. The legend reads "Champignons Qui Tuent."
"I had never translated the text," she says, "but at one open house, someone walked in who spoke French and said, 'Ah, mushrooms that will kill you. '"
Despite the poster's ominous title, Pierce still likes to use it. As in most things about staging, its look is more important than its meaning. No one expects staging to look real, but stagers still like little touches of reality that make a home look homey. Friedes always uses real plants, and Pierce can't stand seeing fake fruit.
"I can't do fake fruits," she says. "I have to use real ones. Sometimes people actually eat them." There's a bowl of nuts in the kitchen and some empty shells on the countertop. "See, this isn't my doing. Someone ate the nuts I left here."
Pierce often returns to the houses she stages after she's done to check on them, replace old fruit, water the plants, and make sure everything's in order. Like a seasoned tracker, she combs over the house for clues of activity. The seat cushions on the couch have been smushed; someone has been sitting there. The deck chairs are scattered; someone moved them to watch the sunset. The magazines in the basket are out of order, a carefully folded newspaper rumpled.
"Somebody was in here, reading," she says, thrilled. "If people feel comfortable, they'll stay longer. In a way, they move in, mentally and emotionally."
Behind the kitchen, Pierce has turned a storage room into an office. A little cardboard pseudoplant with barbed balls like petrified dandelions -- "I made it myself," she says -- sits on the shelf. Far Side collections and John Lennon biographies are stacked on the desk.
"If possible, I choose books that have something to do with the house," she says. "If there's something special like tiered gardens, I'll try to find a book on gardening. If there's a restaurant nearby, I'll pick a cookbook from that restaurant and use it in the house. I do think houses have feelings and histories, that the people who live in them have left their mark."
A stager works hard to mask a home's little imperfections -- Pierce fixes a miniature magnetic chalkboard over some scuffs on the refrigerator -- but that's not her main priority.
"You shouldn't walk into a house and be suspicious, like, 'What are these people trying to hide?'" she says. "A good staging seeks out a house's most special features and showcases them."
Pierce recalls one house owned by an artist up in the Berkeley Hills. The artist's father had painted a mural in the bathroom, a serpentine dragon that curled around the walls and over the door. "It was playful and dramatic," she says. "And the whole house was bohemian and woodsy, so I let that dictate what I did with the house."
Today was a short day for Friedes in Rockridge. The couch is angled just right, the moss balls sized correctly, and the dragons hung by the fireplace with care. At 6 p.m., after only five hours, the house is finished and the exhausted crew is ready for the weekend. On some days, the Nest crew will work until 2 a.m., experimenting, moving things around, searching for the right look.
For Friedes, it's all worth it to see the final product.
"Homeowners are so amazed when they see how their homes look that they don't want to move," he says. "Nosy neighbors will wander by the open house sessions and say, 'Oh my God, I have the same living room.' That's the good thing about this business. It gives people ideas about what they can do with their homes."
"You have to see the potential," says mover Jeff Yee. "We help people to see that. You might even say we're really in the potential business."n
Pierce Design and Staging, Oakland
Nest Home Design, Oakland
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