Good designers, especially residential designers, are a personable bunch. After all, they design living spaces for people. To be effective, they have to understand their clients’ tastes and personalities, as well as how they function within their environment. This understanding can only be obtained through personable communication.

I believe that great designers go a step further. They seek out quality products for their clients because they know that although the costs might be higher in the beginning, in the long view it actually saves the client money (as they won't need to replace broken or prematurely worn items)—not to mention that it is also good for our planet, which all designers should be thinking about.

Great designers also seek and hire skilled craftsmen and artisans to work with them on their projects. For them it is as much about creating quality designs for their clients as it is about nurturing working relationships; I believe it is a testament to their personable nature and motivation to foster sustainability.

Lori is one of the latter designers, and for that reason, we have another interview for you. Lori met Christine Allen because Lori admired the drapery hanging in one of her new client's home some time ago...

Christine in her studio.

Lori: Thanks for meeting with us, Christine. So let's start at the beginning: How did you get started and why?

Christine: I do it because I can do it, basically. I've always wanted to be creative, but there are venues for being creative that don't make any money. I can't do that. It puts you in that continuum of people who are very creative and can think of the original idea and then the people that can make that idea happen. I can look at a window and say, "well you need to do blah, blah, blah," and I'm pretty sure I'm right...most of the time.

But I have never thought of a way of doing something that I have not already seen a picture of. I saw it somewhere and do it my way; but to be a real artist you need to come up with the original way of looking at it. I can do the planning, do the work, and I can even put my two cents in there, but I get my satisfaction out of making something--trying to make it look beautiful, to make it look a lot better than it was before, and then have it last.

Lori: That's a huge talent, even if you don't have the original idea. The person with the original idea may not know how to actually get it done, but you can look at something and figure out how to do it in a high-quality way.

Spools ready for duty.

Lori: When did you start sewing?

Christine: I learned how to sew in the eighth grade in Miss Atkin's class.
Sewing was something I could hang my hat on; "I can do this."

I worked in retail clothing and was really good at that. People needed alterations and from there I moved on to doing shades.

We had a building that had a little space downstairs in the back. I commandeered that. We've owned that building since '78. I had a big table made and I basically recreated that space everywhere I moved. I have the same table. It works.

Janelle: Yes, why re-invent the wheel?

Lori: So, most of the time when you're sewing, you're making drapes?

Christine: It depends really; cushions, drapery...

The workshop.

Lori: Do you have your secret sources for fabrics?

Christine: I'm totally amazed when I go into Discount Fabrics; you just never know what you're going to find there.

Lori: The one on San Pablo [in Berkeley]?

Christine: That one and the one in San Francisco on 11th; it's huge! I see people walking out of there, and I ask, "Where was that? I didn't see that! How come you found that?" And also, I love Henry Calvin [to the trade only] because their fabric is so durable. They have beautiful linen, and I really like the cleanness of linen. Those are my two favorite places. Mostly I make my clients buy the fabric. I try not to get involved in that aspect. That's also a special talent, looking for fabric.

Janelle: I love fabric, and when I moved back [to the Bay Area] I was very disappointed to find that Poppy Fabric went out of business.

Christine: It's Piedmont Fabric now, on Piedmont Ave. [in Oakland]. Those are the women from Poppy.

Janelle: That’s fantastic news!

Lori: Poppy Fabric was always the go-to place when I needed something and I didn't want to drive all over the place. Do they still have a decent selection of fabric?

Christine: It's small, but yes.

Janelle: Who are your clients? Home owners?

Christine: Yes...

Janelle: Designers? What's the ratio [designers to residential clients]?

Christine: If you knock on my door, I'll try to help you. I have worked with designers before and I like working with designers; it's really fun. There's no ratio. Whatever happens, happens.

Lori: Christine likes to keep things in the community! I don't like to work with the large factories that make drapes and pillows; it's fine if you have to, but I much prefer to work with and develop relationships with people.

Lori: Tell us about some projects you're currently working on, Christine.

Christine: I'm working with a client who hates to throw anything out--it pains her. Also, she loves old things. So, we remade her sheer drapes into roman shades.

She had drapes made of fabric that was very expensive, along the lines of Fortuny, with the silk screening. Well, her dog peed on them, along the bottom.

I took them apart. The lining was too stiff, they didn't give it a nice side hem, and they didn't clip the tops or pleat the tops. I remade them with a self-valence and I put a trim on it--the trim I got at Discount Fabrics, by the way, so it didn't cost an arm-and-a-leg. So we were able to save and reuse this $300 a yard fabric.

Lori: Do you prefer rods or tracks for draperies ?

Christine: Well, it depends on what I want to do. I think rods are very beautiful, although I don't have them because I don't have high ceilings. So I have tracks, because they create the illusion of height. Tracks also work well if there is a lot going on in a room.

In some spaces metal rods work well because the space needs the definition. I love metal rods too.

Some of Christine Allen's creations.

Janelle: Do you have any suggestions for somebody who knows they want to change out their drapes, but doesn't know where to start? What would you recommend?

Christine: I think it's really important to dive into the water and just do it! There is nothing in this line of business that can't be fixed...and it might be fabulous!

First, you have to look at the room, look at the light, and figure out if you want to paint it . You want to do that first because you never want to go from fabric to paint. You could, if you absolutely loved a particular fabric, but it's easier to start with the paint.

Then lighting is the next thing that's really important. If you don't have a fabric based on what's really happening in the room it can look horrible. So those are the two basics.

Then, take a look at what you have. People should try to keep what they have...well, not always, depending. See what can be saved, even if it's just one thing.

Lori: ...and the chances are if you have had it for a while it is of much better quality than what you will be replacing it with.

Christine: Right. Drapes should be at the end.

Lori: Yes, they are more like the accessories that tie everything together.

Christine: And also, I don't think people realize that drapery is an important thing. It protects your furniture. It helps with the heat, heat loss, and insulation. I remember installing drapes one hot afternoon and the room dropped 15 degrees after I was finished. Drapes are a really important part of the house, but they don't have to be overwhelming or frou-frou. They can be very plain.

Lori: They're functional.

Christine: Right, they're functional. As a manufacturer you have to have a real sense of what that particular fabric will do, or not.

Janelle: Yes, when you were talking earlier about the problems with your client's old drapery--the backing was too stiff, it didn't have good side hems--I thought to myself: "Wow, I never thought about that before. You can have very expensive, beautiful looking fabric, but if you don't have somebody who is skilled, who knows fabric, it can go to waste."

Christine: You also need a good installer. A bad installer can ruin a job. Or they can make it look beautiful. They can save you!

Lori: Christine does her own installation.

Janelle: Why? Is it because you trust and know that you'll do it right, rather than...?

Christine: Well, because several of the installers I've known have retired. It is difficult to find good installers. Installing takes skill and experience, and also knowing when a job is finished. Sometimes people stop before it is completely finished. It's better to be slow and careful.

Janelle: That is good advice that has universal applications.

Lori: Thank you for meeting with us, Christine!

Christine Allen

Christine's "secret" fabric sources:

Discount Fabrics, Berkeley
3006 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley
(510) 548-2981 -

Discount Fabrics, San Francisco
201 11th St, San Francisco
(415) 495-4201

Henry Calvin Fabrics (to the trade only)
151 Vermont St # 2, San Francisco
(415) 565-1981

Piedmont Fabric
3858 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland
(510) 655-1213