A League of Their Own: 5 Buzzworthy Interior Designers
With an artistic bent and an eye for details, these MVPs of the residential interior designer scene are transforming Pittsburgh.
Let’s face it — HGTV, Instagram and Pinterest have changed the game. People see the beautiful homes, the amazing kitchen transformations and the decadent bathrooms on television and social media and they want it — but they probably need help achieving it.
After all, who among us knows the most advantageous kitchen layout, or where that new bathroom sink should really go? Is that risque large-scale floral wallpaper for the powder room going to be a hit or miss? And are you really willing to try that trendy dark hue on the living room wall without a second, professional opinion?
That’s where these designers come in.
For the first time, Pittsburgh Magazine HOME is rounding up some of the area’s most influential residential interior designers, whose hard work — and talent — are making the Pittsburgh area a more beautiful place, one room at a time.
Black Cherry Design
Say Black Cherry a few times out loud. It’s fun, right? Lauren Piasecki thought so. It rolls off the tongue a lot easier than her or design partner Stan Adamik’s Polish last names, and the black cherry tree is native to Pennsylvania.
“I thought, what a great name for a design company, but I also thought it was a great name for a store,” Piasecki says. “I think it’s very memorable.”
Adamik agreed, and in 2014 they launched Black Cherry Design in Lawrenceville. Although the company was their first official business together, it wasn’t their first collaboration. Piasecki, who has a Bachelor of Science in interior design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and Adamik, who earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in interior design from Georgia State University, had known each other for years, starting when Adamik hired Piasecki during his years at Weisshouse furniture and design in Shadyside.
“She was my intern and that’s how we became friends,” Adamik, 53, says.
They also had other things in common. Both lived for a time in Atlanta, both are parents (Piasecki has a 13-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter; Adamik has a 2-year-old daughter) and, of course, great style.
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When working with clients, they often play off of each other’s skill sets. Stan has a passion for line and scale paired with beautiful fabric while Piasecki brings a certain edginess to her design.
“I’m more like the foundations of designs — and she comes in and zhooshes it up,” Adamik explains. “It always helps to have a fresh set of eyes. When we bounce things off of one another, it allows us to see things we may not have recognized or visualized.”
“I think both of us have a good push and pull of masculine and feminine,” Piasecki, 37, adds. “Neither of us is super masculine or feminine in our design, but I think we bring both of those elements into each design we do.”
When Black Cherry started it also included an online store, which the duo phased out as they began to take on more and more design work. Within two years, they outgrew the space they rented at Blackbird Artist Studios in Lawrenceville.
Near the end of May 2017, they opened their brick-and-mortar Black Cherry Design and retail store at the former Shining Light Prenatal Education center along Butler Street.
Although they carry a curated selection of pieces — including upholstery, lighting, rugs and artwork — the space, with its high ceilings and abundance of natural light, mainly functions as the duo’s design space.
“We get retail traffic, but this really helps to showcase us as designers,” Adamik says. “It’s more of a showroom.”
While they do some corporate jobs — their portfolio includes Southern Tier Brewing Company on the North Side — their passion is residential design. As far as style goes, Adamik and Piasecki agree their focus is on deciphering what their clients like — and building a beautiful room around it.
“We do everything from very contemporary to very traditional to period stuff,” Adamik says. “People say, ‘What’s your specialty?’ and it’s just good design.”
3701 Butler St., Lawrenceville; blackcherrypgh.com
Alisha Gwen Interior Design
You could say Alisha Gwen always wanted to be an interior designer, and it was evident even in early childhood.
As a little girl growing up in Vienna, W.Va., Gwen would rearrange the furniture in her bedroom without asking permission from her parents. The felt of the family’s pool table became the green “lawn” for the imaginative houses she would construct for her Barbies dolls. As a teen, she discovered her grandparents’ subscription to Southern Living magazine.
“It always had a floor plan section in the back that I was obsessed with,” Gwen says. “I would tear it out and redraw in ways I thought could be better.”
Drawing inspiration from the generic house plan books found in the local Lowe’s Home Improvement store, she soon graduated to using an old T-square and drawing board sourced from an uncle to create her own floor plans.
She attended nearby West Virginia University, which has an accredited interior design program. After school, she worked for two years in a hometown furniture design showroom before making the bold decision to move to Pittsburgh with no job — and very little in her bank account.
“I signed a lease with my friend who had gotten a job here, and I got a job two months later,” she says. “It was hard for a few years, but I came out on the other end of it.”
Then reality television came knocking.
While working for a Pittsburgh interior design firm in the South Hills, Gwen applied for and won a slot on the short-lived HGTV series “Showhouse Showdown.” The program pitted two interior designers against each other in making over two unfurnished show houses with the public choosing the winning design.
At 25, Gwen was the show’s youngest contestant.
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“I was like OK, I’m young and I have a fresh perspective and I have some recent portfolio pictures that feel fun and modern,” she says. “I just was like, ‘We got this.’”
While she didn’t win the contest (which was filmed in Cranberry Township), she gained something more valuable — an influx of clients.
Four years ago, she launched her own design firm, which first operated out the loft of her Shadyside townhouse. In September 2016, she opened the Alisha Gwen Interior Design studio along Ellsworth Avenue.
Although she’s not opposed to neutrals, Gwen, 33, says she’s most known for her ability to mix color, pattern and texture into a sophisticated, yet playful, palette. Like any good HGTV alum, she gives her clients the full-service treatment on “installation day,” making them leave the house while she fills the fully decorated home with fresh flowers and candles. The reaction she gets most is happy tears.
“They just walk around like, ‘I can’t believe this is my house,’” she says. “It feels really good to be able to give them that experience.”
Her work also has been featured nationally in HGTV magazine, including an upcoming spread set to be published in the spring. Her hope is to one day open her own home decor and furnishings store.
5823 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside; alishagwen.com
Lauren Levant Interior
Lauren Levant knows what it’s like to be a transplant to Pittsburgh. The designer, who grew up in Connecticut, spent time in New York City and Washington, D.C., before marriage brought her to Pittsburgh, a city she had never even visited.
“Moving to Pittsburgh was really an unplanned circumstance,” Levant says. “I said, ‘I don’t know what kind of design appetite Pittsburgh has, but we’re going to find out.’”
That was in 2014 and, after starting her own design firm, she quickly discovered what it’s like to fall in love with the city. Levant’s design work, which she describe as artistic and eclectic, continually strives to highlight local artisans.
“A big part of what my mission is as a designer is to give my client a unique experience of creativity and also to be able to support really talented local artisans and craftsman that are here in Pittsburgh,” she says.
Acting as general contractor, Levant’s first project in Pittsburgh was to overhaul her century-old row house in Lawrenceville. The innovative gut-and-remodel job — which included adding a 3-D wall-panel system in the first-floor hallway that’s made from vegetative fiber — was named Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2016 Home of the Year winner in the Renovation category.
Among her many honors, Levant was named one of HGTV’s Top 10 Under 35 Fresh Faces of Design in 2014. The following year, she was honored as the Viking brand’s Designer of Distinction and Designer of the Year.
The clients began to pile up, as did local and national accolades — particularly for Levant’s high-end kitchen designs.
More recently, a kitchen she designed was deemed Best New Kitchen winner in Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2018 Best of Design contest; she also won Best Bathroom Renovation. Earlier in 2018, she beat other, larger, firms across the nation to win the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s Remodeler of the Year award. Levant calls it a huge honor.
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“Because I’m a trained interior designer, and not a kitchen person necessarily in a traditional sense, I think our kitchens tend to be more artistic and more creative looking than conventional kitchen design might call for,” she says. “When people hire us to do a kitchen, it’s because they’ve seen our designs and want that kind of approach.”
A graduate of Arizona State University’s rigorous interior design program, Levant, 36, moved her business out of her home studio and into a three-story Victorian building on Ellsworth Avenue last spring. The building is a work in progress. While the third floor is an open-concept library of materials, and also features eight workstations, the second level functions as a conference space with cutting-edge telecommunication abilities. A showroom, which Levant hopes to have open by the end of the year, is in the works for the first floor.
“It will be completely dedicated to showing, in tangible terms, what we can do with luxury kitchen and luxury bath,” she says. “It’s something I will be proud for Pittsburgh to see, as well as designers from all over the world.”
In addition to her signature line of custom cabinetry, Levant says her studio will continue to design and produce small batch, artisan-crafted products lines for the kitchen, bath and home. The first collection, a seating line, is scheduled for release this spring.
“This initial collection will have a very eclectic and elegant modern vibe,” Levant says.
5888 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside; laurenlevant.com
Vicci Franz Interior Design
For Vicci Franz, design is all about the details.
“I do a lot of very custom design elements in my projects — specialty ceiling elements, custom wall coverings, millwork, the woodwork and the molding, and how you detail all of that out,” Franz says. “That is something I’m really good at.”
Growing up, Franz, a graduate of La Roche College’s interior design program, says she also was really good at art — and really good at math. When a neighbor suggested she look into interior design as a career path, Franz was intrigued.
“I went to LaRoche and sat in on a class,” she recalls. “It was like you were taking geometry and mixing it with a creative aspect because you had to take all of these different spaces and fit them into a floor plan. You’re constantly massaging spaces. It really appealed to me.”
Flash forward to the present and Franz, 49, has been in the interior design world for more than 27 years. Her background includes working for large architecture firms designing commercial, hospitality, education, retail and healthcare projects.
Her real love, though, was residential design, something she decided to pursue by opening her own business when she was pregnant with her daughter Angalina, now 12.
“I also wanted the freedom of more time. I was having my first child,” she says. “I just knew I couldn’t keep up with the schedule that’s required when you work for the big firms. I’ve had some amazing projects, which I’m so thankful for.”
One of her more innovative projects was designing a four-story light fixture for a couple on the South Side that was featured in Pittsburgh Magazine HOME. She also coordinated the furnishings for the magazine’s 2015 Ultimate House project.
photos by chuck beard
“With commercial, you need a huge team of people to make the project successful in a short time period,” she says. “With residential, I can do a lot of that myself.”
Franz, who describes her style as transitional — a compromise between traditional and modern — points out that many people associate contemporary design with coldness. Her specialty is making rooms look up-to-date, but not so trendy that they’re out of style by the next year.
“I’ll do whatever the clients wants,” she says. “Some of my clients are very traditional and some of them knew what they like, but they don’t know how to describe it. I would say that’s 90 percent of the people. I love taking a lot of the traditional details and modernizing them.”
Throughout the years, Franz has retained many clients, who keep seeking out her work again and again.
“What I try to do is pinpoint what really speaks to you — and then give that to you,” she says.
Allison Park; viccifranz.com