When appearance is everything

How do you get people to part with money for a flat that isn't yet built? Call in the show home designers, of course. With swanky furniture, knick-knacks from Conran, bathrooms full of chi-chi cosmetics and pots of exotic flora, these artistes are creating seductive lifestyles for city-dwellers to buy into.
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Jewel-Coloured Indian cottons, suede upholstery, blond wood and lots of glass are all components, I am told, of a "very now look". Fake fur and animal prints, de rigueur six months ago, are a bit passe. And contorted willow - squiggly twigs of wood that curl from urns and vases - has had its day. "It's been seen too often," insisted interior designer Jackie Collins (no relation to Joan). "We're going to have to find something else."

By "we" she means the staff at Roomservice, a company specialising in decorating show flats for housebuilders. ("Designed to sell on site," is their catchphrase.) What they need is sculptural plant life, that won't wilt if neglected or fade into show-home fashion oblivion if the development proves slow to sell. Realistic silk flowers? Definitely not. They might look all right in an out-of-town Barratt semi but, says Jackie, you can't get away with "chocolate-box fakery" in a City apartment.

She has a hunch that topiary forms covered in moss will be the next big thing in low-maintenance display flora, but at Jacob's Island - a modern Berkeley Homes development on the south bank of the Thames, between Bermondsey and Tower Bridge - it's a couple of hardy weeping figs. She also installed blue suede-effect dining chairs, scattered Aboriginal prints over the walls and laid a table for four. Each imaginary diner was provided with a blue-frosted glass and a serving of clean mussel shells in a stainless steel bowl. The show kitchen is stocked with jars of non-perishable pasta, lentils and posh salad oils. The place would be ready to move into except the mocked-up bathroom suite isn't plumbed in.

Every new housing development shows off at least one stage-set dream home and artistes in Jackie's line of work are hired to give raw space a saleable identity which will appeal to a "target audience". They are the window dressers of property shopping; contriving homes for model buyers that exist only in the fiction of a marketing executive's Identikit profile. Market research showed that buyers at Jacob's Island are likely to be single, predominantly male, City professionals. The show home assumes their taste, aspirations and spending power. "It's about selling a lifestyle," says Jackie.

Of course, it's really about flogging units of new-build property, but the show flat's purpose is not just to seduce. "A lot of people are unable to visualise the potential of an empty room," says Fiona Naylor of interior- design consultants Johnson Naylor. "Furniture helps put space into perspective, and actually makes rooms look larger." What about all the posh smellies in the bathroom and the dinner party tableaux? "Buyers should feel like they are visiting a comfortable, inviting home, and an element of theatre gives the experience a lift."

She adds that touring show flats has become a popular weekend activity not just for property shoppers but for home-makers seeking inspiration. "For some, it's like looking at pictures of interiors in Elle Deco," says Fiona. The difference being that you don't see too many shots of simulated vegetables in glossy style magazines.

At Jacobs Island, the show flat itself is simulated. Not a real property at all, it is housed in a prefabricated "marketing suite" consisting of a sales centre with a Roomserviced apartment above. The structure looks nothing like the blocks of flats which are gradually materialising behind it, but all the room dimensions and interior finishes are exact representations of what buyers will get on completion.

"The idea is to give people the self-confidence to part with a 10 per cent deposit when the property they are buying doesn't yet exist," says the scheme's marketing manager Paul Vallone. Clearly it works because only 25 of the 110 flats released so far, are still for sale - and all purchasers have bought off plan. Berkeley Homes invested more than pounds 250,000 on the Jacobs Island marketing suite, of which pounds 35,000 was spent on decorating the show apartment. "You can't skimp on interior furnishings," says Vallone. "If people see a table is poor quality they might assume that the building's construction is shoddy, too."

The furniture and lighting is mostly Italian. "The stuff is not very high street," says Jackie. Colour schemes, however, are rather bland - except for the striking terracotta in the hall. "It's meant to linger on the retina as you go into the other paler rooms." What really lingers on the retina, however, is the breathtaking view of the Thames - barges and Butlers Wharf set against Tower Bridge - seen through a wall of sheer glass which slides open onto a balcony. The suite is perched on a jetty on the edge of the river, but only the big-spend buyers will get a similar view. The rest are advised to concentrate on the door furniture.

Despite being described as "world-class", the river views from Dundee Wharf in nearby Limehouse are not quite so in-your-face stunning but the site's two show homes sit right on the waterfront in another prefabricated marketing annex. Dundee Wharf is an ultra modern, high-rise development of luxury apartments which was designed for Ballymore Properties by the architects CZWG (Piers Gough being the best-known of the four). The aesthetics of the show flats were down to Johnson Naylor, who also worked with the architects on designing the kitchens, bathrooms and all of the interior finishes throughout the development.

In both show flats, Fiona Naylor took the views as her starting point, giving the one with the city aspect a "young, fresh style, furnished with satin stainless steel, walnut and glass"; and the one with the "sea view" a more opulent look, awash with watery blues and mint greens. Each is furnished with a variety of one-offs designed by Johnson Naylor specially for the scheme. Other pieces include leather chairs by Charles Eames and a weird string "Harp Chair" by Jorgen Hovelskov which, if nothing else, seems to entertain Ballymore's sales negotiators on a slack day.

The trickiest aspect of designing show spaces, says Fiona, is in steering the fine line between what impresses and what repels. But Gail Breen, an in-house designer for Artesian, believes it matters not whether people like her interiors as long as they make an impact. "The scheme has to be memorable, because everyone that looks at your flat is going to be seeing a lot of others," she says. A recent job was dressing an apartment at Artesian's Seven Dials House project - the conversion of a 19th-century print-works in Covent Garden into 11 loft units. The flats have a "Victorian commercial atmosphere" (sandblasted brickwork, cast-iron columns) and the target audience is once again perceived as "young, trendy, single male professionals with a lot of money."

Gail's response is a frill-free black and cream bedroom with a contemporary four-poster bed, a cherry-wood dining table with purple and burgundy-shot- silk chairs ("totally impractical in real life") and co-ordinating paintwork. A pounds 35,000 budget allowed her to buy pieces of furniture from Atrium and knick-knacks from Conran, and rent original artworks by Mark Maxwell.

Budgets don't always stretch that far. "If you can't afford classic Conran you add interest to a scheme by buying affordable imports such as ethnic prints and sculptures," says Nicky Wood of Jigsaw, whose show flat at Regalian's converted gin distillery, Gilbey House in Camden, looks vaguely out of colonial Africa but far from cheap.

Nicky is keen to point out that there is more to this job than "pushing a trolley around John Lewis". Tight schedules make some assignments stressful and demanding. One had her "struggling across Waterloo bridge with a six- foot cardboard Judy Garland". That was for Regalian's "latest epic production", Premiere Place in London's Dock-lands, in which the entire scheme, including the show flat and the King Kong sale hoarding outside, revolves around a retro movie theme. All 116 apartments are housed in blocks named after Hollywood stars. Garland and Bogart virtually sold out in only eight weeks; Welles, Rogers and Fonda have just been released as "Phase II - The Sequel"; and Kelly and Flynn are yet to be built.

Advertising refers to "the box office and show apartment" and in both (housed in a prefab bungalow) the theme is continued with pin-ups of the stars, directors chairs, clapper boards and spools of cine film spilling out of aluminium tins. Film posters, dominated by Humphrey Bogart classics, include The Big Sleep in the bedroom, Casablanca in the living room and The Wizard of 0z in the hall.

Premiere Place is fun, but unlike the dramatic show home at Great Jubilee Wharf in Wapping, it didn't make me want to move in. Billed as "Wapping's Whoppers", Galliard Homes' riverside development features 30 vast, split- level apartments in a converted Victorian warehouse. Property tourists can see a basic brick-lined "shell and core" space with nothing in it but cold air and a palatial show loft which demonstrates a finished interior without furniture. But it is the 2,168 square foot Apartment Two, at pounds 525,000 that has been transformed into a home with everything by designer Michael Cosley-White.

Michael believes in fitting show homes as though they were lived in, and when I went into his creation, I was enveloped in homely heating, soft lighting and the hi-fi voice of Dinah Washington, singing Mad About the Boy. Floral decorations are living and even some of the food is real. Unfortunately, the pineapples looked a little withered and someone has scoffed the crisps. "People will eat anything," says Michael. One even took a bite out of a lacquered croissant.

Scattered among the cast-iron columns in the beamed living room, are two denim sofas, a pair of fake leopard-skin chairs, two stone coffee tables, an original Michael Cosley-White glass-topped dining table and a set of six American chairs by Dialogica. And, aside from one-off pieces of furniture, there are lots of nice human touches such as two well-travelled leather suitcases lying at the foot of an elaborate antique French bed.

The bed (worth pounds 5,000), the white piano in the living room and some of the works of art are on loan, which means they wouldn't be included if you elected to pay an extra pounds 40,000 to buy the apartment's props and furniture. People do.

At Peninsular Heights, a Regalian office-block conversion on the Thames in which Lord Archer occupies the top floor, two sumptuous millionaire show flats have been sold since their recent release - and both buyers bought the lot: creamy carpets, gilded artefacts, OTT furniture, everything. They must have been bowled over by Verschoyle Interiors' efforts, but show homes are not always such effective seducers. Minimalist architect Mark Guard claims to have felt "physically ill" when faced with an over- stuffed developer's apartment near Oxford Street. "I wanted to throw up," he says.

Mark is responsible for designing a series of eight apartments at number 11 Pollen Street (between Mayfair and Soho) for Samuel Properties. And the show flat is truly minimalist - just a white cube with no hint of colour or texture other than various shades of pollution-stained Victorian brickwork seen through metal-framed windows.

"What you see is what you get," said estate agent Mark Myddleton of Winkworth. The finished products will feature limestone baths and underfloor heating, white-painted "furnitecture" - like huge knobless doors that swivel and turn into partitions - but most of what buyers see now is lots of building dust, plasterboard and tufts of insulating material sticking out from beneath raised floors. Four of the flats are already sold.

"This is a different animal than the average development," says Mark Guard. "Most show apartments need dressing up because they are nothing but a series of boxy rooms off a corridor. Pollen Street offers transformable space and I think it's important to allow buyers to use their own imaginations as to how they would furnish the space."

With so few flats to sell it wouldn't make economic sense to spend loads of cash on props. "Anyway," jokes Mark, "why bother? By the time people have bought one of these flats, they won't be able to afford furniture."

Jacobs Island by Berkeley Homes offers flats from pounds 150,000. Sales office: 0171 232 2225. Dundee Wharf by Ballymore, flats from pounds 115,000 to pounds 233,500. Contact Alan Selby on 0171 613 3055. Flats at Artesian's Seven Dials House are priced from pounds 190,000. Sales office: 0171 240 3110; or agent Winkworth': 0171 240 3322. Regalian's Premiere Place at West Ferry in Limehouse offers apartments from pounds 75,000. Sales centre: 0171 493 9613; or Cluttons 0171 407 3669. Warehouse apartments at Galliard Homes' Great Jubilee Wharf in Wapping are priced from pounds 215,000. Contact Savills: 0171 488 9586. Apartments at 11 Pollen Street are from pounds 245,000. Contact Winkworth's: 0171 240 3322.

For more property stories, turn to the new Spending section, launched this week.