High Times at Target

It seems impossible, but Bennett Weinstock, the Rittenhouse Square decorator of mansions from the Main Line to Palm Beach, a man who shops for antiques in Europe as often as most people call for pizza delivery, didn’t hesitate when we urged him to spend just $300 — at Ikea. He was eager to go: “I’ve never been to Ikea,” he admitted, sounding intrigued.

Along with Weinstock, we asked two more Rittenhouse Square-based designers, Barbara Eberlein of Eberlein Design Consultants and Creg Oosterhart of Creg Richard Design, to choose the most chic items they could find for under $300 at two establishments where they’d normally never shop for clients: Eberlein at the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop, and Oosterhart at Target. And while Eberlein decorated what may be the most expensive house in all the Main Line, and Oosterhart is accustomed to outfitting Delancey Street mansions from top to bottom, the two were just as enthusiastic about their budget shopping sprees as their colleague. Now we were intrigued: What would they find?

Shopping Mission #1
Creg Oosterhart Does Target

“You don’t want to dick it up,” explains Creg Oosterhart matter-of-factly, holding an offending bath mat at arm’s length. This bath mat is fluffy, with a geometric black-and-beige-square pattern, and Oosterhart gazes at it in horror in a rear aisle of the Cherry Hill Target, as one might recoil at a dark, curly hair sitting atop a truffled risotto in the restaurant at the Ritz in Paris. Clearly, the bath mat qualifies as dicked-up (overly complicated, in layman’s terms), so back it goes on its lowly shelf, whereupon Oosterhart selects a plain white mat that looks positively Bergdorfian in comparison, and throws it in our large orange Target shopping cart.

Oosterhart looks as sleek as his winter-in-Oslo name suggests; he is normally found at places like Rouge and Amada dressed in perfect sport coats, his longish mane of blond hair expensively glossy. He’s the sort of designer who has clients with both a private plane (two planes, actually) and a yacht. But Oosterhart, it turns out, is a man who’s as comfortable in the aisles of Target as he is flying on a GV. (Today, just after installing a bar in a new restaurant he helped design near Cherry Hill, he’s nearly unrecognizable in a backward baseball cap, an orange fleece jacket, and cool-looking loose jeans.) Of his design style, Oosterhart says, “I like to mix stuff up,” and settles on “eclectic transitionalism,” meaning he uses pieces from various periods, tending toward a more modern, clean sensibility (though he’s done houses filled with antiques for more traditional clients).

Rather than being snooty, Oosterhart says he’s absolutely shopped Target before, helping friends and family outfit apartments on a budget. Plus, he buys his dog food here. Anyway, Oosterhart heads directly to the rear of the store, to a beige ultra-suede-and-dark-wood chair, the Milano lounger.

The Milano, boxy and simple in shape, is basically so bland and inoffensive that it would work in any bedroom or library, Oosterhart explains; indeed, you can easily imagine the modern-influenced chair in an upscale hotel room. “If you’re on a budget, the best way to go is furniture that’s transitional,” says the designer, explaining that a budget-conscious piece will probably look better if it’s not trying to be, say, Federal, or Deco, or Chippendale. “This chair doesn’t commit to any direction — all it says is, ‘I have a nice line, I’m comfortable,’” he adds. Oosterhart is also impressed by a console table just down the aisle, the Georgetown, in a glossy black with matte silver drawer pulls. “This looks great,” he said, running his finger over the braided wood trim. “I’m surprised they took the time to do this detail.”

Oosterhart designed the chic lifestyle store Town Home, near Rittenhouse Square, and while Town Home and Target could not be more different, Oosterhart gamely begins to weed through $4 towels, then stops at a white marble-looking soap dish, which is $9.99. “This is actually marble,” he notes, inspecting it closely. “For the money, the look is not bad.” Mere inches down the shelf, though, is a faux-mother-of-pearl-encrusted toothbrush cup that looks, in a word, cheap. And in another word, fake. “You want to avoid anything dicked-up,” warns the designer, “like this kind of thing. Even in the high end, you can dick it up.”

With the marble soap dish in the cart, the designer grabs a clear-plastic-and-­stainless-steel bathroom trash can, which he says looks like a Waterworks knockoff. It looks cool with the soap dish, and it’s $24.99, so it goes into the cart. Ten minutes later, he has the makings of a bathroom decor: white bath rug, white towels with a funky patterned trim, the marble dish, and the Waterworks-esque clear trash can and accessories.

In bedding, one aisle over, he gravitates toward the simple look of Target’s in-house designer, Thomas O’Brien, whose sheets and duvets, Oosterhart says, are “way Calvin Klein.” He combines a selection of gray and taupe linens with a crisp white sheet, and envisions a double-top-sheeted bed. It would work with the bathroom look he’s created, and it would be simple, neat, and not, well — you know.

Three hundred and eighty-six dollars later (we blew past our $300 budget, but since when do designers adhere to budgets?), Oosterhart leaves Target, followed by his towels, sheets, duvets and trash cans. On the way out, we stop for a bottle of water in the snack bar, and it costs 84 cents. Even the water is cheap at Target!

Target Cherry Hill, 2137 Route 38 East, Cherry Hill, 856-317-1445; Target Plymouth Meeting, 2250 Chemical Road, Plymouth Meeting, 610-276-0042; other area locations: target.com.

Creg’s Credos

1. Avoid embroidery, lace and the like. Especially at Target.

2. Don’t match everything. None of Oosterhart’s white-on-white bathroom items were from the same line, but they shared a clean, crisp white sensibility. “I’m not really big on matchy-matchy,” he explains. “These all work — they’re clean, they don’t look goofy.”

3. Don’t dick up your home. (See above.)

Shopping Mission #2: St. Bart’s. Paris. Ikea?

Bennett Weinstock’s fashion-icon status on the Square is nonpareil, and even at Ikea, he wears the right color — his raincoat on the dreary afternoon that he makes his shopping foray there is vibrant Ikea-yellow, the same color as the plastic tote bags you can stuff with $1 place mats and 75-cent soup bowls as you browse the store. As we trot into the South Philadelphia branch of the Swedish giga-store, Weinstock looks unfazed by the crying baby at our left and the giant poster touting macaroni and cheese for 99 cents (fountain drink included) in the upstairs restaurant. He is, in fact, ready to shop.

“This looks young and fun,” says Weinstock approvingly, as he rides up the escalator and spies the stylish-looking mock “rooms” Ikea has created surrounding the showroom. The first room, a casual living area set atop a sisal rug, features a red rocking horse that Weinstock likes — as a drinks table. “I did a beach house in Longport last year that was all red, white and blue,” he says. “That rocking horse could work there.” And so could the child’s red wooden chair that stands next to it: “I’d use that near a fireplace — you could put a tray on top of it,” he adds.

Next, we enter a room fashioned as a cool young-guy-in-the-city living room, with leather sofas, minimal accessories, and black-and-white photographs framed on the walls. “This is kind of a stunning look,” Weinstock marvels. But still, he isn’t interested in applying any of his $300 budget here, so we move on to an all-white study, where the organization-loving designer pounces on neat white storage boxes trimmed in silver that are stacked on the white shelves. “I really like these boxes for storing photos and letters,” he says. “They’re terrific.” We end up with four, especially when we discover they’re two for $9.99. “They’re really very nicely priced,” notes the decorator, who adds that the boxes could also be used to store sweaters in a closet.

We wander into an ersatz dining room where Weinstock is taken by brown and black china that is mixed to cool effect: brown large plate under small black plate, topped by a small brown bowl. “These are very smart,” he says, and adds up the cost of two plates and a bowl: “Thirteen dollars for a place setting — you can’t beat that! And it’s more stunning than some of the plates I’ve been served on at the Shore!” He smiles, and we move on, until he stops short at a very Ligne Roset-looking leather chaise, the $699 Kramfors chaise.

“Take this, the matching [Kramfors] sofa, put it on a sisal carpet with some photos on the walls, and you have a stunning room,” he offers. “It doesn’t reek of being cheap, either,” he adds. Just then, the designer’s cell phone rings.

“Hello! How are you?!” he says happily into his phone. “Are you in Paris or St. Bart’s?” (One guesses that this question is not frequently asked at Ikea, but is a standard one in the life of Bennett W.) The conversation continues for a few minutes in the sofa department (it turns out that the caller is an executive at Hermès, a close friend of the Hermès-loving interior designer) before Weinstock rings off and becomes totally focused on the task at hand. We walk past a few kitchen vignettes, until Weinstock stops short in the Tidaholm kitchen. “These happen to be stunning cabinets,” he says of the sleek wooden facades, with their matte nickel accents. “The hardware looks costly, and the wood is dovetailed.” He nods approvingly at the $2,800 price tag for the entire kitchen.

After a quick coffee in the mod second-floor restaurant, we make our way to the housewares section downstairs, where Weinstock loves the Arv Ros pink, white and green earthenware, which evokes an English luncheon in the country — and is decidedly un-Ikea. Then we run into Heidi, Weinstock’s favorite person at the high-end George Baker florist. She looks startled, understandably, to see Weinstock at Ikea, but recovers, and they chat briefly. And as we check out, Weinstock beautifully wraps up his plates in the Ikea self-serve paper.

“They do a very nice job,” says the designer, who approves of the organization and overall sleekness of the megastore. While this might surprise those who have heard of Weinstock’s clients splurging all over the globe on $100,000 dining room tables, the designer says it’s not so much that he guides them to the most expensive items, but rather that once they’ve been exposed to beautiful furniture and accessories, the clients’ own taste levels ratchet up.

Weinstock comes in well under budget on his Ikea spree, spending only $128. “I can stick scrupulously to a budget,” says the designer, with a smile.

Ikea Conshohocken, 400 Alan Wood Road, Conshohocken, 610-834-1520; Ikea Philadelphia, 2206 South Columbus Boulevard, 215-551-4532; ikea.com.

Weinstock’s Bargain Basics

1. Taste trumps money. “I have a woman friend who doesn’t spend a lot, she always waits for sales, but she always has a nice pair of shoes and a handbag, and she stops traffic,” says the designer. “And I have friends who get talked into Chanel and Armani, and they don’t look like my friend who has taste. I’ve always believed that if you have taste, you don’t need to spend a lot of money.” A few great pieces of furniture or particularly stylish accessories, similarly, can define a room.

2. Keep it simple. When on a budget, you’ll be much better off with a spare look than with a room that’s overaccessorized with cheapo items.

Shopping Mission #3: Main Line Markdowns

“I love it,” says Barbara Eberlein, looking at a folkish painted chest, a happy-looking piece adorned with flowers and fruit, at the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop. The shop, a long, narrow old white-clapboard building with a perilously tiny parking area in front, is the repository for Main Line furniture that isn’t good enough to auction and has been spurned by relatives and grandchildren. But the store is usually chockablock with pieces that might look chic, or at least cozy, given the right setting, and it’s possible to get a very nice 1940s chest of drawers here for $200 or less, as well as great vintage silver and china, sometimes for under $10.

Eberlein, as slim and elegant as one of the silver candlesticks that are sitting in the china case, glides on, past the painted cabinet (she decides it doesn’t quite work, plus it is $400) to a rustic tall cabinet with dozens of tiny drawers; it might have once been an apothecary’s chest. “I could think of a hundred uses for that!” says Eberlein, who has translucent-fair skin, bright blue eyes and long dark hair. “I sew, so I would use it for that, and I am a high-volume photographer, so I could store photographs in it.” (This glamorous person sews?!) She adds that the chest could easily be refinished by an expert, or at home, if you’re the DIY type. “It’s $450. Can I negotiate?” she asks with a laugh, but instead elects to move on to a dining room corner cabinet, painted a country-French blue, but priced at a shockingly high (for this store) $950.

A slightly tattered but well-shaped oversize wing chair, the kind of thing that would look very cool reupholstered in a sleek fabric, also catches her eye, as does its price tag. “Oh my God, it’s $165,” says the designer. “I just bought one of these for $1,100.” Still, though, she shops on, briefly pausing at a tiny $35 stool embroidered with a parrot, which she thinks might be nice in a child’s room.

Suddenly, over by the china case, Eberlein comes to a halt at a pair of mid-century side tables. “We might have to do these,” she says.

The tables are dark and slim and have curvy legs, each with a small shelf underneath the tabletop; you can picture them having held lamps, canapes and cocktails in, say, Frank Sinatra’s house. Their surfaces are inlaid with embossed red leather that is tooled with gold. “These are a very beautiful shape, a really, really useable size, and incredibly serviceable,” marvels Eberlein. “This mid-height shelf is so useful.” Though the red leather is slightly worn, and marked where lamps once sat, she deems that easy to repair, saying that oiling the leather might make the surface more uniform. The tables are also $145 each. “They have a contemporary twist, they’re not taking themselves too seriously, and they don’t look like Granny’s,” the designer says. “If you put them in a chic room, people would ask, ‘How much did you pay for these at Christie’s?’”

That said, Eberlein glides out of the Bryn Mawr thrift shop. Her decision has taken less than 30 minutes, and her tables — well, they’ll be delivered, of course.

Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop, 801 County Line Road, Bryn Mawr; 610-525-4888.

Barbara’s Top Tips

1. Be unique. While waiting for her end tables to be rung up, the designer saw a beautiful vintage gold-toned powder-and-lipstick compact for $18, which she bought to take to the Academy Ball. “This would be great on a dressing table,” she says. “If you went out to find an accessory for $18, you’d end up with something plastic.”

2. Be confident. Eberlein is a fan of Pottery Barn and Ikea for their brilliant marketing and for bringing good design to all, but she also advocates shopping for pieces that no one else has at places like the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop.

3. Be educated. Read design books and magazines to learn about scale, proportion, and other details that designers spend their lives obsessing over, and your rooms will reflect your studies.