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Stager Leslie Donovan, A Hamptons House Whisperer

Originally Posted: August 31, 2010

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

  |   8 Comments · Print Article

A Southampton kitchen after Leslie Tarbell Donovan has done her stage whispering. (Leslie Tarbell Donovan)

Stager Leslie Tarbell Donovan. (Art Donovan)

Southampton - Interior designers have long been an integral part of living and lifestyle in the glorious paradise we call the Hamptons. Iconic names like Dorothy Draper, Mark Hampton, Carlton Varney, Nancy Corzine and Jamie Drake have left their design imprints throughout the estates and mansions of the Hamptons for decades. Recently a new type of design professional has emerged on the East End with a slightly different purpose and skill, the Stager.

One such stager and perhaps one of the most experienced in the Hamptons is Leslie Tarbell Donovan of Staging Places of Southampton. Explaining her craft Donovan said, "I stage, which is different than interior design. Staging is using what exists, editing it, reworking it, possibly adding to it, mostly deleting from it. You are not starting from the beginning; you are using what the client already owns."

Originally a set stylish in fashion and at major publications like House Beautiful and New York Magazine, eight years ago, having already made the permanent move to the Hamptons, Donovan was managing a store called Tabletop on Jobs Lane in Southampton. As she puts it, "Women would come in and buy $20,000 worth of fine china and ask me if I could come to their house and make it look like it had been there forever. So I would go, I would putz and make it look like they owned it forever with the rest of their pieces. I would integrate them so that they would not stand out and look new."

The same Southampton kitchen before staging.

She went on to explain, "I then found out there was actually a name for that process of putzing and it was called staging. It started in California about 35 years ago." The original stager was a real estate agent who was trying to sell homes, some really ugly homes it would seem. No one selling their home was about to invest in major interior design changes, so she used what existed but restaged the pieces of furniture to be more appealing to potential buyers. This realtor, Barb Schwarz, went on to teach staging to others in a school she established on the West Coast.

Water Mill living room before Donovan's staging.

Donovan flew to California and took the course, but not so much to learn the craft as she said, "I went there to figure out how to price myself, as I felt I already knew I had the skills to do this. So I started doing it and by word of mouth I have been successfully staging in the Hamptons now for almost nine years."

The same Water Mill living room after Donovan's staging.

Explaining her clients' needs, Donovan noted, "They say, 'I have furniture I like but it doesn't look right.' They say. 'I don't know what I am doing or I don't have the talent or I don't have the time.' They tell me that they have gone through X amount of interior designers and they don't have the money to go through it again and it is their last stretch."

Donovan joked, "I say, 'I restage the Hamptons one room at a time.' Basically I go into a room, take everything out and start over." After an initial consultation Donovan takes a series of photographs and studies them on her computer and approaches the room as if she were once again staging a set for a magazine shoot. Although she has restaged entire homes, she does indeed take it one room at a time.

Donovan with her mother Liz Tarbell in Havana, Cuba in 1952.

According to Donovan the clients that use her skills as a stager fall into three categories, people who have been unsuccessful in selling their home, a landlord unsuccessful in renting their property or someone who wants to improve the home they are living in, but does not know how to go about doing it. In the case of a family trying to sell their home, Donovan can literally make all the difference as the visual first impression can make or break the sale for the potential buyer.

The expression of "taking something old and making it new again" comes to mind when one witnesses the transformations that Donovan is capable of performing. A chair that stood alone in a corner coupled with a table unnoticed by the door can be transformed into a fireplace companion combination that can stir the buyer's imagination to see the perfect spot to read the latest bestseller by Nelson DeMille.

The different placement of a couch, the coupling of paintings joined on a common wall, bookshelves moved and books rearranged, a lamp restaged and a coffee table eliminated, all can transform a bland room into a space spectacular. The gift comes in having the vision to see it, a gift Donovan clearly possesses.

There are the occasional additions and, yes, there are the occasional reconstructions like re-surfacing an avocado bathtub, but generally the cost of hiring a stager is far less than the cost of bringing in an interior designer. Again, Donovan does not redecorate, she restages.

NYC loft bedroom after staging.

As Donovan said, "Lots of times the houses will tell you, they will talk to you. They talk to me!" In her lifetime many homes have talked to Donovan, as she grew up in 14 different addresses. Her mother, Liz Tarbell, was one of the first female horse trainers in the country and she moved constantly as a child from furnished residence to furnished residence with a single trunk that held their most precious possessions of books and artwork. Her mother gave her permission very young to "make it feel like home." That Donovan did, incorporating their own treasures with what existed in their rented homes.

Donovan is now sought out by landlords, realtors and individual homeowners throughout the Northeast. Her gift to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, a dark corner in need of a lamp, a bare wall in need of a painting or a wide beamed living room floor in need of the rug forgotten in the hallway has made her one of the Hamptons most successful stagers. Considering her gift, perhaps she would be better described as the "house whisperer."

For more information go to www.stagingplacessouthampton.com.

Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

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Guest (anthony russo) from valleystreamny says::
We have a long admirer of leslies she is the best when it comes to updating houses
Mar 18, 2012 10:53 pm

Guest (Guest) from longbeachny says::
Iam her mother and i approve these comments
Nov 5, 2010 4:45 am

Guest (Guest) from Janet from Southampton says::
I have had the oppotunity to work with Leslie as she selects the right item/s for her clients. She is total professional, creative and inspiring individual. I know she can make a difference for anyone that would consider her services.
Sep 12, 2010 9:10 pm

Guest (Guest) from Erica NYC/Southampton says::
The "window" above the bed & the lighting gives the room the perception of "natural light" I am familiar with this particular room and such a great improvement from the "before" Great job Leslie!
Sep 2, 2010 2:26 pm

Guest (Guest) from Southampton says::
Hi, Everyone, Leslie here! Here is my email and phone: ph/fx: 631.283.8175 email: LTDonovan@optonline.net Thank you all for your kind words. Leslie Donovan
Sep 1, 2010 6:37 pm

Guest (Guest) from SH and NY says::
You have a spectacular eye for this. I will contact the "house whisperer" as I need some help with both homes. Great article!
Sep 1, 2010 10:58 am

Guest (Guest) from Sag Harbor says::
That's a really cool approach to interiors. And I love the "House Whisperer" title :)
Aug 31, 2010 11:15 pm

Guest (Guest) from liz says::
how very true she is such a talent
Aug 31, 2010 10:29 am


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