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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, May 19, 2010 10 years ago

Interior motives

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Mark Dalton swings his front door open with the vim and vigor of a man proud of his living quarters, like a lion inviting you into his lair.

As he opens the door — painted to match the burnt-orange trim around his windows and garage door — the security system speaks in a soft-spoken robotic tone. “Front door,” it says, as Dalton ushers you in and immediately offers to give you a tour.

The proposal is so enthusiastic that even the most disinterested visitor would be foolish to turn it down.
Saying no would be like walking into a chef’s kitchen and turning your nose up at his signature dish.

Dalton, the 53-year-old interior designer and founder of Chic on the Cheap, is not only contagiously passionate about his work; he lives inside it every day.

“Twenty-eight days,” he says, handing over a framed photograph of what his 1,700-square-foot home used to look like before he rehabbed it for $39,300 in 28 days.

The photograph is one of several framed images on display in the Dalton abode — a 1954 ranch house in downtown Sarasota’s Ringling Park neighborhood — capturing the house pre-makeover: Berber carpet, peel-and-stick tiles, plastic ceiling.

The “before” photographs are key to the tour. Without them, you cannot fully appreciate the penny-pinching panache that transformed the once-dated home of an 83-year-old woman into a livable showroom, a budding business model and the impetus behind a luxury-interior designer’s thrifty rebirth.

“This set me on a whole new career path,” Dalton says, gesturing in the direction of his two bedrooms and two bathrooms, all of which exude a Zen-like ambience and typify the designer’s penchant for warm, dark colors, earthy browns, olive greens and slate blues. “I never ever worked on a budget with myself or with clients. I would’ve normally pooh-poohed it.”

Now, it’s his passion.

From the acrylic lamps he purchased for $65 at HomeGoods to the vessel sink he found for $150 at a pricey downtown furniture store, Dalton’s home, which doubles as Chic on the Cheap’s headquarters, is a cozy nest, lovingly filled with the frugal finds of a patient bargain-hunter, a role with which the designer hasn’t always been comfortable.

“I was brought up a name-brand kid,” Dalton says. “My mom always said, ‘If you can’t afford the best, don’t get it.’”

A Connecticut native, the designer started his career in Sarasota 25 years ago. The residences he’s worked on are so exclusive he refrains from sharing most of his clients’ names, save for the few whose lavish estates have been featured in glossy magazine spreads.

His company began as Mark Dalton Inc. Aimed at attracting high-end homeowners with deep pockets and fine tastes, the business served him well for many years and even influenced many of his own decorating habits. (Dalton sank $75,000 into renovating his 900-square-foot Jefferson Avenue condominium.)

“I’ll never do that again,” he says of the upgrades, which cost more than the original price of the condo.
Dalton had thought he would never move out of his marble-floored bachelor pad — until he entered into a new relationship and began trolling downtown real estate for a fixer-upper with good bones.

When he came across the Ringling Park house, he vowed to renovate it on a shoestring budget. When his condo rented in just two hours on Criagslist, he realized he had no choice but to finish the project in 28 days.

“I didn’t know I was on a mission,” Dalton says, making his way past the breakfast nook he assembled using two $30 director’s chairs, a $35 stone pedestal and a $90 glass tabletop. “Because of this house, I’m going to change the course of interior design.”

Whether it was a new relationship or an economic reality check that sparked Dalton’s attitude change is irrelevant. His low-budget design concept has been such a game-changer that even his most affluent clients have become Chic on the Cheap disciples.

He says his dream is to open a Chic on the Cheap office in every major city in the United States, starting with Detroit, which he describes as the perfect market — a city that’s “starting fresh.”

He settles into a chair in his living room and launches into the fervent affirmations of a born-again discount diva, about bringing luxury design to the masses and about his newfound love affair with HomeGoods, a subsidiary of T.J. Maxx.

Over his shoulder, a painted canvas dangles from two black belts, a clever decorating idea plucked from Dalton’s own wardrobe. His world so closely resembles an HGTV reality show challenge that you almost expect to see television cameras rigged throughout the house.

“Designers as a whole have always wanted to deal with high-end clients,” Dalton says. “I was just as guilty of that. In the past, I would’ve picked out all my pieces at Robb & Stucky and not thought twice about it. Now I shop. I shop really hard.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].

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