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Design contest will help those in need

February 21, 2014 

I have gotten dressed up, teetered around a party in too-high heels and written a check to help improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. I also have put on old jeans and a baseball cap, rolled paint and hung blinds.

And I will tell you which one is better. Hands down, it’s hands-on. Los Angeles designer Mark Brunetz and I think alike.

“Designers get a little weary of always dealing with the luxury market,” he told me recently, “but that’s the nature of the business.”

He was referring to clients whose biggest problems are whether they want granite or marble, leather or suede, 5- or 6-inch moldings. Meanwhile, others are worrying about where they will sleep: bed or sidewalk?

To help offset that, Brunetz is championing Design for a Difference, a national contest for professional and amateur designers who want to make over spaces that serve those in need.

“There’s a legitimate perception that design is for the affluent,” said Brunetz, whom many know as the former TV host of Style Network’s “Clean House.” “But I have always been a big fan of designing for the masses.”

The winner of this year’s Design for a Difference will get $25,000 to invest in the project, as well as a team of volunteers, including Brunetz, to get the job done. International Design Guild, an alliance of floor covering companies with 100 showrooms in North America, puts up the money.

The first renovation last year went to Transitions for Women, a center in Spokane, Wash., that helps low-income and homeless women and their children.

Several regional winners received smaller sums, which helped them make over a food pantry in Indiana, a human rights center for refugees in Utah, and a therapeutic horseback riding center for at-risk youths in Kansas.

As I watched a video of the Transitions project, I recalled a few years ago when I walked into a woman’s shelter in Denver that was filled to capacity with a wait list. The staff was doing the important work of giving abused women and their children shelter, food, protection, and a way out. However, the decor, sadly, was worn out and beaten down.

Brunetz has reminded me of what I – and we all – can do: We can better serve the underserved by improving the spaces that heal them.

“Improving your exterior space improves your interior space,” he said.

You don’t have to be a designer to make someone else’s space more uplifting. Here are some ways you, too, can make a design difference:

•  Enter the contest ( Design for a Difference is accepting entries through June 1. To enter, propose a community service center in your area that could use a facelift. Winners will be announced Aug. 1.

•  Be part of a project. Many churches have missions that build homes or schools for families in need. Habitat for Humanity builds houses in many cities across the country and welcomes volunteer labor. If one of this year’s five winners of the Design for a Difference contest is in your town, offer to pitch in.

•  Donate items. When you give your unused or unwanted household items to a yard sale or to Habitat, they can have a new purposeful life. Put in the right hands (designers or those who have an eye and a knack) they can make a huge difference, said Brunetz.

•  Start small. Just because you can’t make over an entire room, don’t get overwhelmed and walk away. Spend an afternoon repainting an accent wall, add a bright area rug, create a computer station, set up a small reading library or rearrange the space to make it more functional and inviting.

•  Spread the word. When you find an opportunity to make a place better, let others know. Making the world more beautiful for those in need is even more rewarding – and a lot more fun – when you work with a team.


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