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Cinde W. Ingram

Blanche Garcia Goes Beyond the Impossible

TV host mentors next generation of designers

Outdoor rooms are extensions of homes and hotels where relaxation rules and fun replaces formalities, according to designer Blanche Garcia, who co-hosts and is the interior designer for the Travel Channel's "Hotel Impossible" while she works to put her clients' needs first.
     In some cases, she sees an outdoor space as an opportunity that goes wasted.
     "An outdoor space is an area where you can have a little bit more fun," said Garcia, who identifies her design style as green glam. "It doesn't have to be as traditional as their interior furniture. People buy their interior furniture and say, ‘I need something chocolate or brown or neutrals' and ‘I'm going to add pops of color here and there.' That's what we've been told; that's how you get longevity out of your style. I think the outdoor is a little different in that you don't have to do that. The rules kind of go away a little bit and people can take a little more creative freedom. I think in the outdoor area people are looking for big and comfy. Sometimes, you have a client who is looking for an area that feels very traditional and natural, but then you also have the client who travels a lot to these destinations and wants to create an oasis."
     Last season on Travel Channel's "Hotel Impossible," Garcia was asked to design an outdoor gathering space in Miami for a family that had three little girls and faced losing their hotel. This year's season, being broadcast on Monday nights, will also include an outdoor space.
     "I think an outdoor area at a hotel is not only a plus for them, but they're going to try to use it to their advantage because not every hotel has that," Garcia said. "When they do, they are treating it almost better than in the indoor because that's why people go to those hotels. They want to go to the pool area. If it's a great destination, they want to see the beach or the scenery. Even if it's cold out, they are turning the outdoor area with the fireplaces and the pits even more important than the indoor area. Most people don't even stay in their rooms m

ost of the time. They either are out traveling the scenery or they are out at the pool or the bar."
     What makes selecting furnishings for outdoor spaces different is "in a sense because you have to deal with the wear and tear of the outdoor elements so it has to hold up a lot better," she said. "What's great is that nowadays, they're making outdoor furniture that looks exactly like indoor furniture. A lot of times when people walk outside, they're saying ‘Does this belong out here or should we be bringing it inside?'
     "I think there's this line being blurred between outdoor and indoor living spaces," Garcia said. "Because of economic times, people are spending time at their homes so they want it to be a destination right at home."
     Garcia thinks outdoor living spaces should be extremely comfortable, which may call for installing fire pits or other patio heating products. "Even if the client doesn't need a lot, there's so much you can do," Garcia said. "We did a space that was an outdoor pool area on the last show with this covered pod that was so cool because you can accessorize. You bring in the plants, the rugs and the lighting - and you can have a lot of fun. I did one in Miami, where we did a whole outdoor cabana and used indoor/outdoor fabric in this really cool yellow. We didn't have a lot of money; the budget was very small for that show. I added the flavor in not only the accessories, but the color was so vibrant that it's sometimes all you need. I think people need to understand that fact: You don't have to fill your space with tons of stuff , sometimes you can make it fun through color or through a fun piece of furniture. People are having a little more fantasy with it."
     Starting her own career as a designer once seemed like an unattainable fantasy for Garcia. Following her father's death about 22 years ago, she was struggling to complete high school. Her mother told her, "You're more than welcome to leave high school and get your GED, but you have to have a plan and you have to know what you want to do. You can't just quit school." While thinking that over, Garcia turned to her lifelong interests in art, drawing and sketching. When she told her mother that she wanted to become an artist, her mother's answer was sharp: "No, you'll be a starving artist. Pick something else."
     Garcia remembered that her mother's friends had always complimented the decorations she did at her mother's parties and events at their house over the years. One of her mother's friends worked at an Ethan Allen furniture store, but that was as close to the interior design industry as anyone she knew. Because of her artistic abilities, coupled with her confidence using color, Garcia focused on a career in design. Her mother said, "If you can find a school that will take you then you can do it." "So that's what I did," Garcia said. "I got my GED and I found a school that would take me, and I started my design journey."
     Garcia took classes at a small school, Willsey Institute of Interior Design, and also went to Berkley, a business school on the East Coast for design. "I went to both and it was very hard," Garcia said.
     "Then I graduated and I started working for different companies. I worked in retail, in wholesale and with an architectural firm. I went out on my own when I was about 21 and I failed miserably because I didn't know the first thing about networking or the first thing about business models. So I failed and I said, ‘OK what do I need to do to give my
clients the best possible service and the best part of design?' So I went to work for a very traditional architectural firm in Summit, N.J. for about three years. I learned a lot about business models and networking and I used it as training to go back out. Once we parted ways, I was able to go back on my own and start again, and since that it's been very successful - that was about six years ago. I joined different associations and I just made sure I used it to the best of my advantage. I took my LEED exam for the USB green buildings, and I also took my exam for the state board. I treated it as an extension of my learning."
     Learning how to network was a crucial part of Garcia's self-education. "I had a hunger, but I didn't have all the skills and everything I learned I taught myself," she said. "Even reading books, I was eager to read books about how other people did it. When I started out I wish I had known to push more, to push harder. Now, looking back, I'm a mentor to other girls. I try to give them the materials they need. I didn't have that. I was afraid to go to others because they either told me you need this in order to talk to us or to get in, you kind of need the key. I never pushed to get information, I kind of retreated and watched and read as much as I could to learn instead of pushing to get information.
     "Nowadays, I think there are so many women-owned business models and there are so many women groups that you can talk to. But back then, the only one I saw that had made it was Martha Stewart, and she wasn't even in my industry, but she was the only one really at that time who had made it and had written a book on how she got there. There was one by Dorothy Draper back in the day, which was a mentor of mine, and Sister Parrish, which were great women but there wasn't any information on how they got there, it was just showing what they produced. Now you have biographies, How-Tos and videos and you can find anything."
     She was nearing her 20s when Garcia first noticed designers on TV, doing programs similar to the one she hosts now. "The first show that really caught my attention was ‘Trading Spaces,'" she said. "When I saw that I thought, ‘This is going to be great for designers.' Peers of mine, who had been in the industry 30 or 40 years, were saying, ‘This is horrible.' I said, ‘This is an opportunity.' This is changing design and how approachable it is, and I want to be part of that."
     Garcia's career path was very different from those of her friends, but it suited her. When asked what inspires her to design, Garcia said, "I find that I have this need to be expansive and to create. For me, the way I create is not just for my own self-expression; it's only beneficial for me and it's only fulfilling to me if I help somebody else and if I meet their need. At the end of the day, I'm happy knowing that I fulfilled my client's needs - whether it's commercial or residential, whether it's a family or a little girl's room or a commercial space that thousands of people use. If I was to fulfill my own needs it wouldn't inspire me, but when I fulfill other people's needs and I'm able to find my creativity and run it in alignment with their needs and we've created something together that's what inspires me to do something else the next time."
People gatherPeople gather at a New York outdoor area Garcia designed.

     Garcia has the ability to forget her own wants and to focus on those of the end-user. "People are raising their children in these spaces," she said. "I don't want a little girl growing up in a space that she can't touch anything, her room doesn't look like what she wanted and she feels cold at home. There's a reason why children love going to their grandparents' home; there's a coziness that you want them to feel. But then you want the wife to feel a certain way and the husband to feel like it's his home and he's not just walking into a pink paradise. You want them to feel comfortable and you have to address those needs. When I leave, I give them the key; I don't live there anymore. I may be the instrument to help them put things together so that they balance each other, but I am by no means trying to replicate what I feel it should look like at all."
     When asked which materials are most satisfying for her to create designs for, Garcia said she loves what's going on with mid-century modern outdoor furniture. "Wicker, dark black wicker and resin furniture became so big a couple of years ago. We see a lot of that. It's really thick and deep and big, and I get all of that," she said. "But I think when you go to California areas, maybe Manhatt an and other cities that are a little hipper, you're seeing a mid-century modern resurgence that's been around also and it's kind of going neck and neck with that overly stuff ed Miami vibe. I like to work with form because I think it's more architectural and it shows the space a little better. You can have fun with a lot of the colors; they use a lot of primary colors and interesting architectural elements that you turn into statues or into interesting focal points. Instead of just having an outdoor living room, it turns it into art. I really think that is where I would love to see the outdoor industry go. I think an outdoor space is an opportunity that goes wasted sometimes."
     When the well runs dry, Garcia can recharge her creative spark by clearing her mind and not thinking about the specific project. "The only thing I think about is who is going to be experiencing it. I don't think about the design; I just think if I was the homeowner or if I was the hotel guest, what do I want to feel like when I come to this space? Not what the space looks li
Garcia designGarcia design for La Jolla Cove Suite.
ke, but what do I want it to feel like. And it's funny because when you think about it from that end, the answers come to you differently.
     "It has to be beautiful and comfortable and welcoming. There has to be an energy. What energy do you want? Do you want it to be a fun party zone or do you want it to be relaxing with a glass of wine? Are you going to be creating different zones? And if you're doing that, then what do the zones feel like? How many people are you going to have - 20 people that you normally entertain or do you entertain two close-knit groups? Those are the questions that you really have to ask and from there you build your design block. If you want it to be relaxing then you create sexier zones with canopies and maybe hammocks mixed in. You want to think about a lot of these things before you go into action."
     In addition to her appearances on the Travel Channel's "Hotel Impossible" on Monday nights, Garcia reaches out by maintaining a website and a fan page on Facebook. Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, US Magazine, Red Book, Small Room Decorating, Latina, Design NJ, New Jersey Countryside, New Jersey Monthly and more. She has also appeared on HGTV's "Design Star," "MTV Cribs," "Better Show," "DayTime" and "HouseSmarts."
     "I think that we are in an industry that's changing," Garcia said. "The thing we should be focused on is that it has to be acceptable to the client. The days are gone where just designers and manufacturers are one group and clients are another. It's not that way anymore. It's not exclusive anymore. Now we've all become one: the consumer, the designer and the manufacturer. You can go and make your own furniture nowadays with certain companies; you can buy it anywhere. We are all creating and we are all building. It's going in that direction. I think when the industry realizes we are all in it together and it's not just an exclusive thing with the designers and manufacturers going separately, the easier it will be to go to that next step in the design industry."

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