Change Artist

Renovator Sally Spiegel arrived in a pre-boom Asheville, circa 1992, and soon developed a devoted following. Photo by Carrie Turner
Renovator Sally Spiegel arrived in a pre-boom Asheville, circa 1992, and soon developed a devoted following. Photo by Carrie Turner

Sally Spiegel is a one-woman design powerhouse who doesn’t so much prescribe changes for her clients’ spaces — most are historic renovations — as much as dwell in them herself, at least emotionally and aesthetically.

Then she works her magic.

Spiegel is committed to radical transformations as opposed to new construction, and relishes what she calls the “cream of the crop” professionals she works with every day.  Her current tally of 15 projects proves she’s connected and in demand.

As a busy single mom, she juggles work, raising two teens, and having a social life — no easy project.

Carolina Home + Garden: Do you have a long history of being drawn to design —  say, since childhood — or did you come to your work later on?

Sally Spiegel: I was tuned into recreating spaces since childhood, because my father was a schoolteacher who changed course, attended divinity school, and became an Episcopal priest. We moved a lot because that’s the nature of the job. Dad often volunteered to take on dwindling churches, and grew them. That meant many of our houses were not really ours; often they were rectories, and we knew we’d be there for a limited amount of time.

Still, we wanted to make them ours as much as possible. I remember being very aware of the fact that the wallpaper my art-teacher mother allowed my sister and I to pick out for our shared bathroom in one home needed to be something many who’d follow us into that home would also like. Our visual choices for our home had long-ranging ramifications. We had to be mindful.

How did you grow Sally Spiegel, Inc.?

I’ve been in Asheville since spring, 1992, so I came at a time when tumbleweeds were blowing around. I absolutely love renovating houses, so I bought, renovated, and sold several, and found I had a knack. I purposely don’t use the word “flip” because it implies lesser quality and a hurried job; I take the opposite approach. Then an architect gave my name to a wonderful family in Kenilworth who enlisted my help when I wasn’t even sure what I could do. It ended up being an amazing project.

How do you balance everyone’s needs? It sounds like you answer to everyone during the often-stressful renovation process.

It’s true, but I love it. Sometimes all clients need is someone to help the contractor bring the architect’s vision to fruition. I might go in and do a consult while a job is already happening.

The meat of what we do is sitting down with the clients and helping them dream about what a space could be, what are the “must haves,” “hope to haves,” etc. Whether it’s a precious North Asheville bungalow or a lovely, rambling Grove Park home or anything in between, we talk about how we can make that house function at its best.

We do this within the context of the home’s original bones, the budget, and how we can achieve the dream without having the neighbors hate us at the end of it all!

I want to give clients a finished space that will not only work for them now, but in five or 10 years, and when they go to sell it.

Sounds like you play so many roles during the course of a typical project.

You bet. I have to be an effective project manager, fiscally adept, an excellent designer, a constant juggler, and a keen listener — for what is and isn’t said. I also have to be a mediator and therapist at times — between couples, clients and contractors, and others. I’m more of an orchestra director, and I keep everyone humming the same tune.

What’s some universal advice you offer all clients from the get-go, no matter what their project is?

That there a many players involved in even a “simple” renovation — a community, really: contractors, subcontractors, tradesmen, architects, artists, neighbors, and of course, the clients. I balance the fine details of a renovation with the constant communications needed with all these players.

I reached out in writing recently to all the client’s neighbors for a project in a downtown building, and said: “I’m Sally, and I’ll be making your life a little noisier and dirtier for a while, but I’m available at any time to help with inconveniences that may arise from the project.”

What’s a trend — whether in floorplans, color, or furniture — that you’re totally over?

I have a few: I would likely pick hippie beads in a doorway over a hollow-core door. If I never see a “wannabe oiled-rubbed-bronze” faucet again, it would be too soon. Fake worked for Dolly Parton; it does not work for plumbing fixtures. If I find a floor plan I am “totally over,” we change it. That’s what we do.

On the flip side, what’s an underappreciated design practice that’s your go-to? 

When managing a renovation, I like to remind folks to “Stop, drop, and roll.” If you think that you absolutely, positively, gotta, must, OMG, make a decision right now — you are in renovation 911 trouble. It’s time to stop what you are doing. Drop the displaced anxiety. And roll out the yoga mat. Deep breath — it’s just a house. And we’re going to be okay.

What’s your fave design feature in your own home? 

Although we’re in transitional housing, aka renting, I fell in love with an old built-in seating area in the kitchen. The nook has a bench on each side, a hearty table in the middle, and a set of double windows overlooking the back yard. The bench tops lift for great storage. I had durable custom bench cushions made for comfort and a few happy throw pillows designed to personalize the space for our little fam.

This is the children’s live-work area — eating, games, homework, and streaming a flick or two. We spend more time here than we do in the living room.