An Elle Decor A-Lister, a recent author, and a well-known tastemaker on the Houston design scene — Paloma Contreras has a number of titles to her name. This year she’s able to add one more: Honorary Chair of the esteemed Lake Forest Showhouse (open this year through August 9).

We spoke with Contreras about what it means to be the event’s honorary chair, how she put her spectacular space together, and what it was like to work on a showhouse in the unexpected era of COVID-19 in which we all find ourselves. See what she had to say, and be sure to get your tickets if you’re in the Chicago area (social distancing and mask requirements naturally apply). And if you can’t attend and would like to donate to the beneficiary of this year’s showhouse, the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, click here.

Blue dining room with upholstered dining chair and gold chandelier
The dining room of the Lake Forest Infant Welfare Showhouse, designed by Paloma Contreras

How did you first get involved with the Lake Forest Infant Welfare Showhouse? 

I was approached to be the Honorary Chair a couple of years ago — it turned out that the right house didn’t materialize that year. Fast forward to Fall 2019 and I was thrilled to get on board as the Honorary Chair for 2020. The showhouse raises funds for the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago, which provides a broad array of healthcare services to Chicago’s most medically underserved community, so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to raise awareness for such a worthy cause. Additionally, I love Chicago and the long history of beautiful architecture in Lake Forest, so it was personally very fulfilling as well.

What’s your favorite thing about designing a dining room as opposed to other rooms in the home?

I love dining rooms because they can be more formal and can have a lot of personality — much more so than rooms you spend time in every day. I had previously designed a bedroom for the inaugural Southern Style Now Showhouse in 2016 and a study for the 2019 Kips Bay Showhouse in New York, so I wanted to tackle a space I hadn’t already designed in a showhouse setting.

Blue dining room with geometric blue couch and wicker planter
A closer view of Contreras’s work at the Lake Forest Showhouse

Do you have any favorite rooms in the home other than your own?

There are so many lovely spaces — all 39 are really beautiful and inspiring! The first floor feels really nice in that the rooms relate well with one another. The transition between rooms isn’t as jarring as it can sometimes be in a showhouse.

What are your favorite elements in the dining room you designed? What was your inspiration in putting it together?

I was inspired by the house itself, which feels rather cozy in spite of its very large size. The dining room has a wonderful view of the gardens, so I felt compelled to bring the outdoors in. In that spirit, I fell in love with Iksel’s “Eastern Eden” wallcovering, which served as the overall impetus for the space. 

I also thought of David Adler, who is one of my favorite architects. He and his sister Frances Elkins (one of the first professional female decorators) worked on several commissions together in Lake Forest and were my muses in this room. I wanted it to be timeless and beautiful with some unexpected touches. As a nod to Mrs. Elkins, I selected a pair of Loop Armchairs from Bungalow 5. I am known for my way of fusing modern and traditional elements, so while the furniture is rather traditional (antique Louis XVI dining chairs, an English flame mahogany dining table, and a 19th-century Louis XVI ebonized buffet from Old Plank Antiques), I layered in bold, graphic textiles including the Schumacher “Legere” fabric on the custom roman shades and Miles Redd for Schumacher’s “Cubist” fabric on the loop chairs and on a custom-designed skirted settee. Contemporary art, including a Josef Albers print, a Hunt Slonem bunny, and an abstract mixed-media piece by Jane Timberlake Cooper create tension and interest in the space. The jute rug by Patterson Flynn Martin grounds the room. 

Built-in cabinet has dark blue shelves and assorted glassware.
A vignette of Contreras’s dining room, including a Hunt Slonem bunny

How has COVID affected the creation of the showhouse, and your experience in particular? 

Working on a showhouse in the midst of a global pandemic is not for the faint of heart! My hats off to the chairs and organizers who worked tirelessly to ensure that the show(house) could go on! This showhouse in particular already had a very generous timeline. The designers were assigned their rooms in November and the house was originally scheduled to open in late April. I’ve worked on other showhouses where you have just over two months from the moment you see your room for the first time until opening night! The challenge here lies in the unknown. We couldn’t anticipate what the new opening date would be for a while, so during that time, antique pieces we had hoped to use had already sold and we had to pivot. In the end, it was truly a blessing because my room came together even better than I had hoped it would. Thankfully, tickets have been selling out every weekend, so people are able to see the showhouse while practicing social distancing and supporting the charity as well.

Table scape with brass candlesticks and pink china, and floral arrangement
A tabletop view of the dining table

What was the biggest surprise in the process of putting together your space, and in your role as the honorary chair?

I fell in love with Lake Forest and all of the people here. My husband came up for the installation with me in June so that I wouldn’t have to make my team travel and he concurs with me… Lake Forest is the most charming, idyllic town. Everyone involved with the showhouse absolutely went above and beyond to help us with whatever we needed, from overseeing our drapery installation and the construction effort in my room right down to making us feel special during our visit. I was looking at real estate in Lake Forest on the way back! 

Carved white armed dining chair with floral blue wallpaper
A vignette of one of the Loop Chairs in Contreras’s dining room

What advice would you give designers who are considering participating in a showhouse? 

Showhouses are a wonderful way to flex your creative muscles and to have your work seen by a broader audience. That being said, you have to be prepared for a huge commitment in terms of your time, your team’s focus and energy, and last but not least, your marketing budget. Even in the event that you are able to borrow pieces or have them donated, you still have to account for the expense of labor, freight, installation, travel, and so on. If it makes fiscal sense for you that year, you should absolutely go for it! I love the camaraderie of a showhouse and have made some great friends during my experiences working on them. I also love the challenge of executing a high-level design in a short timespan and proving to yourself that you were able to pull it off!

All photos by Aimee Mazzenga


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July 30, 2020

Dennis Sarlo is the executive editor of Chairish and a lover of all things design-related. Prior to joining the team, he served as the executive editor of Dering Hall and was the first site director of Architectural Digest. He was also part of the founding team of travel startup Jetsetter. He lives in New York.