from Home Electronic Ideas interview with Scott Varn, Harmony Interiors
by Steve Castle, Senior Editor of Electronic House magazine
Designing the Dream
Harmony Interiors knows how to balance decor and performance needs. Often when a custom electronics company and an interior designer begin collaborating on a room for home theater, there are … to be polite … conflicts. Scott Varn's company, Harmony Interiors of Asheville, NC, keeps all of that in-house. That's because Harmony Interiors offers both electronic system installation and interior design services. Varn understands both the need for fantastic audio/video performance and impressive aesthetics. So we thought it would be interesting to pick his brain about achieving a great performing home theater—and a great looking room.
Settle the household dispute: What's more important, home theater performance or the aesthetic design?
The importance lies in the goal of the homeowner. More often, people have the dream that both can be accomplished. My task is to find the balance that is comfortable for them. What compromises are they willing to make? Often the husband leans toward performance while the wife wants the A/V equipment to be invisible. I have to illustrate the compromises of each and teach couples to work together.
But a dynamic home theater and a pleasing room design can be in constant conflict.
It is a difficult challenge, but to me, having both is what defines a dynamic theater. Some might say they want a home theater for the sound and picture, so why care about the design of the room? Other customers perceive having a great design is possible but feel it's terribly expensive. They think aesthetics means grand, dramatic, themed theater rooms. In fact, it really should mean a blend of your existing decor and a simple reduction of obtrusive audio and video components.
What's the first thing a homeowner should do when considering the design of a home theater space?
Don't start by thinking about the equipment. Think about what will be happening in the room. Who will be in the theater, and what will they be eating? Some will have a family of four, no guests and popcorn only, while others will have twelve guys, Monday Night Football, a poker table and beer. The design depends on the purpose. From there, I can determine how to maximize the space while maintaining the audio and video goals. Also consider what the room may become. I have had people say “it's just me and the wife, no guests,” only to discover later they want to share the experience with several others.
What are the most common design mistakes people make?
In a dedicated theater, there are several. First, some put seating too close to the side or back walls; a dedicated theater should only have two types of seating—perfect and damned close. Second, they try to put everything in the same room. In highly social theaters, or in families with lots of kids, the entertainment is often disturbed by chatter and refreshment breaks. A refrigerator, bar, popcorn machine or even a pool table are good ideas, but only if you don't mind the distractions. The easy solution is to create a lobby so that those who are more into the social aspects can keep the bar stools warm and the conversation away from the movie.
For a small room, everyone thinks a plasma monitor over the fireplace is the way to go, but more often than not, it will destroy the look of the room. Sure, they're a lot better looking than those old tube TVs, but if you look at flat-panels from the side, they can be rather unattractive and often stick out over six inches from the wall. And most people never consider the mounting brackets, the half-dozen ugly wires or the fact that it takes two men to hang the beast. We often recess them into walls or create interesting coverings for them.
What are the common trouble spots you find in designing home theater spaces?
Lighting and acoustics. Many people have an unrealistic concept of both. They want the room brighter, and they do not want to do what is necessary to soften sound reflection. Here's the bottom line: If you are not willing to do this, then there is no need to buy a quality projector or audio gear. Even the best electronics cannot compensate for a poor room acoustics.
What innovation most enhances the design of home theaters today?
The single largest revolution has been the reduced size and increased quality of digital projection. Today projectors for around $10,000 outperform projectors that were over $50,000 just eight years ago. They are easier to install and calibrate, and their reduced size and weight allows us to create decorative solutions to make them disappear.
Many people are “hiding” their home theaters today. Everything can be concealed in cabinetry. Do you think we will move to having everything out in the open?
Yes, I'm seeing more people who have the desire to show off the gear. It's easy to say we will hide it, but it is not always the wisest course of action. Even though in-wall speakers and retracting screens have come a long way, quality can be compromised for the sake of invisibility. Stand-alone speakers and fixed screens still produce the best results and with substantial savings in installation costs. In addition, style has become as important to speaker manufacturers as sound reproduction. And more people are dedicating one room to sight and sound, thereby reducing the multi-functionality of the room and making it less necessary to hide the speakers.
Is there a movement toward using natural materials, such as real woods, in components such as loudspeakers and room designs in general?
Yes, mainly because we have all grown up with the standard black speakers. Unless you have a very contemporary room, wood can help the design, but only if you use real hardwoods. A simulated cherry finish just makes you look like you're trying to be uptown. Keep it simple. Electronics, especially speakers, don't need to be high-tech black and silver to sound good. They can have matching wood finishes, edges and shapes that complement the room design. Some of the speakers we've sold have so much style that they became the guiding theme for the rooms.
Many people today love bringing the outdoors indoors. They want to use beautiful woods or have floor-to-ceiling windows, but these reflective surfaces aren't very good for audio and video performance. How do you deal with that?
These are our biggest design challenges. Many people still believe that a room with lots of echo, like a dramatic stage theater, has great acoustics. But this doesn't work in home theater. What people forget is that music and movie sound is mixed in a controlled environment, and mimicking that environment is critical to good sound. If someone is unwilling to control the acoustics in the room, then they might as well get cheap speakers. But if they are willing to fix it, the critical areas that reflect too much, for instance, can be treated with heavy drapes and rugs with heavy padding. The most common objection is to the drapes blocking their great view, to which I say, “When you're done enjoying the trees, close the drapes.” Both the nature outside and the movie inside deserve your full attention.
How can you prevent the interior designer and the home theater guy from fighting?
It is a matter of respect. Often, they start as adversaries, declaring that the other will not change their plans. The homeowner should insist that they work together or not be allowed to continue working on the project. Our solution has been to have both audio/video engineers and interior designers on the same staff. We have design-conscious geeks and technically savvy designers, so it can work.
What are some of the design trends you're seeing in home theater today?
Comfortable seating and a casual environment. Now that quality home theaters are affordable, the show-off factor has faded. Clients want a more inviting room, not a space where everyone faces forward. We're creating rooms where the chairs can be rotated or reconfigured for other activities.
What rooms are people using most for home theaters?
Traditionally, it has been the living [or family] room. But unless you have no other choice, this is a bad idea. Converting bonus rooms, basements or even garages into dedicated theater rooms allows you the flexibility to get it right rather than spend time and money minimizing the shortcomings of the living room. Many people are building houses with dedicated spaces or what real estate agents like to call “media rooms.”
What do you think of home theaters outside—on patios and in cabanas? What should people think about when planning these spaces?
Don't consider them to be serious high-end theaters, but they are a lot of fun and don't have to be expensive. They can also give you that drive-in feel. Just make sure your neighbors are always invited to the party, and keep the subwoofer effect to a minimum.
How about your dream home theater design client?
I enjoy clients who are involved in the process. They specify the features they desire and state the importance of each. But a customer should not be fixated on a product based on a magazine review or an opinion of a friend with a completely different room. Instead, the client should rely on the company's skill in picking the right speakers from a large pool of products.
Clients should also recognize that the surroundings are an important part of the experience. I hate it when the husband says, “Talk to my wife about that.” If they are both going to enjoy the room, they both need to be part of the process.
An interactive customer knows why I made every decision and that it was based on their input. I am happy because they are pleased with the result. That's because they know the room limitations, budget, acoustics and aesthetics have all been considered in helping them achieve their dream. HEI