Home: Design Central: Class Act

“Welcome to Shangri-la,” says Shelley Reibstein as she turns the key and swings open the door to one of her current projects, an apartment in one of the oldest buildings on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. By nature of its location alone, the place is an urban paradise, but right now it’s nothing compared to what it will be after a dozen more visits from Reibstein.

Her delivery of this one-liner is dryer than her usual brand of girlish humor, but after more than 20 years of before-and-afters, it’s easy for her to be blasé. After all, she has tackled hundreds of projects: historic renovations, offices, even multi-generational design for the adult children of couples whose family homes she decorated years earlier. (“I am kind of proud of that,” she says. “That their kid would go into their parents’ house and like it.”)

More likely, though, Reibstein is looking at the apartment with a world of possibilities swimming in her mind, already envisioning spaces as they will eventually be — her client’s personal Shangri-la.

To do what Reibstein does for a living, to do it for as long as she has and to be as successful, takes a certain kind of personality. She refers to it as a “mosaic personality,” and that’s as good a way as any to define the many different roles she has to play: teacher, critic, problem solver, counselor and cheerleader. One, though, stands out foremost in her mind. “My job,” she says over and over, “is not to let you make a mistake.”

That might not sound difficult, but this is a woman who, if you hire her, has the power to knock down walls, strip away tile, repurpose rooms. A slash on a piece of her graph paper and, poof! — a formal dining room becomes a family room. Even small decisions can cause homeowner hysterics; one client burst into tears when her wall unit turned out to be the wrong color and had to be taken out and refinished. Considering that every project she has ever done has been referred by word-of-mouth, though, Reibstein seems to be a natural at avoiding mistakes.

She credits her intuition. Trusting it usually pays off — it did when she attended Philadelphia University, and, on her first day, in her first class, sat next to her future husband. When, years later, friends admired the decorating job Reibstein did on her home and began asking for help with theirs, she knew her business, S.R. Interiors, was the next step.

Reibstein runs the business from her Elkins Park home, and though she works with a devoted team of subcontractors, she has no staff of her own. Managing three or more projects at a time solo is no small feat, but Reibstein relies on experience, honesty and a sense of humor to handle the perpetual balancing act. For a first-time meeting with a potential client, she’s dressed in a green-gray suit over an olive sweater, brown rectangular frames perched on her nose and a strand of tigereye beads she bought on a recent trip to China looped around her neck. “I dressed up like a decorator today,” she says.

She spews ideas and enthusiasm as they walk through the house, gushing over an antique armoire, pointing out an overlarge doorway, suggesting shutters for one room and an allover patterned fabric for the sofa because it won’t show dog hair as much. It’s clear when she sees something she doesn’t like because she’ll delicately ask, “Are you married to that piece?” It’s a favorite question, one she occasionally follows up with, “Would you consider a divorce?”

When they reach the master bath, Reibstein walks over to the toilet and sits. “You have to try out toilet seats,” she says. “I’ve climbed into a bathtub with a client to make sure two [people] could fit.” She leans back a moment on the toilet, then says, “It’s not bad. Whose is it?”

It would be hard not to trust someone who’s so cheerfully upfront, not to mention thorough enough to test-drive commodes for you. But part of Reibstein’s appeal is her ability to know when to tread lightly. “You have to be able to read a person, kind of be able to read their minds, look at their faces and see their body language,” she says.

Through a combination of patience, tact and persistence, she has convinced homeowners that it’s okay to paint a brick fireplace (and less messy and expensive than removing it); that different-colored woods can coexist in the same room; that framing is an art that can transform a mediocre painting; that every room should have books to add warmth.

Still, there’s always a certain amount of give-and-take between decorator and client. “I like to ask ‘What colors are you attracted to?’ and hopefully they won’t say bubble-
gum pink,” says Reibstein. If they do, she’s prepared: “Colors like that you use in a pillowcase so you can change it,” she says. Although she discourages micromanaging, she’ll try to work with almost any aesthetic, save one: “If you want glitzy, don’t hire me,” she says. Her preferred style is quietly elegant, though you’d be hard-pressed to identify rooms she’s designed because no two look the same. “I don’t do one general motif,” she says. “And I don’t buy things and store them because someday I’m going to use this somewhere. I have each individual client in mind.”

She does borrow, and widely, from England, “whether it’s minimalism in some fabulous place or a castle somewhere.” A committed Anglophile since she was five and saw Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, she has been to England at least 25 times, visiting favorite haunts like Alfie’s Market on Church Street and Portobello Road in Notting Hill (“Before the movie,” she says).

The end results are always worth the nail-biting journey. “What stands out in my mind are the tremendous transformations homes can go through,” says Reibstein. She recalls a home she worked on that had been previously owned by an animal lover. “Every single room was done in a different animal print: leopard, tiger, zebra. It looked like a menagerie,” she says. “But the house had good bones. It was a great house. You wouldn’t even believe what it looked like at the end. Such a transformation. You’re really helping people to transform their lives.”

And she’s there, making sure there are no mistakes.