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Homeowners turn to design professionals to transform blueprints into practical and beautiful interiors. But where do the designers go for collaboration, resources and advice about the latest innovations in home furnishings? They go to DCOTA in Dania Beach (just south of the Fort Lauderdale Airport.)DCOTA, which stands for Design Center of the Americas, consists of a fully enclosed four-story mall of connected buildings that currently houses upwards of 150 showrooms representing approximately 5,000 lines of products.

Design categories include furniture (juvenile and adult), fabric, flooring, kitchen, bath, garden, lighting, art, antiques, accessories, decorative hardware and more. There are even things especially designed and manufactured for outfitting yachts. DCOTA provides additional amenities for the public and for trade professionals such as restaurants, party and exhibition space, and conference areas where designers and clients can plot their strategy. More showrooms are on the way because DCOTA is not yet completely built out.

DCOTA began in 1985 as the brainchild of Michigan real estate developer and furniture retailer Marvin Danto, who currently makes his winter home is Sarasota. He conceived DCOTA as a four phase project that would provide a one-stop shopping center for new collections from manufacturers all over the world. Some of the prestige tags say Versace, Ralph Lauren, Paloma Picasso, Fortuny and Valentino. When Phase III is completed in April, DCOTA will offer more than 775,000 square feet devoted to design options, making DCOTA the largest, free-standing interior design campus in the world.

Naples and Fort Myers-based interior designers use DCOTA all the time. They go alone or sometimes take their clients. DCOTA is about an hour and a half drive from Naples across Alligator Alley. L. Reese Cumming makes the DCOTA trip two or three times a month. The designer has owned his own firm in Naples for six years and specializes in high-end residential projects. He says he never shops DCOTA with clients because, frankly, that's part of what they are paying him to do.

"I start out early in the morning so that I can be there when DCOTA opens," says the design professional. "I try to make my selections in one day and I generally shop for one client at a time since things get less confusing that way. If I'm buying for two clients, I'll stay two days. There's a Sheraton Hotel right there."

Cumming says that on the drive over, he'll make his phone calls to confirm appointments and plan his strategy for visiting the manufacturers likely to have what he needs. Cumming has favorite showrooms, among them Jerry Pair, Pranich, Nessen, Design West and Today's Custom Designs/Jaime Perczek. "My clients tend to need custom innovative items and these showrooms don't fail me. The staff people know me and shopping is usually efficient and pleasant. Actually, DCOTA is like shopping a high-end mall. It's climate controlled, attractive, well laid out. I'm able to get in and get out with what I need. It's a great convenience to have it so near."

Fort Myers designer Nora Price is another local designer sold on DCOTA. She and another staff member of Nora Price Interiors strategically plan for their quarterly trips to DCOTA. They usually stay at the Sheraton Hotel for two days and split up the DCOTA assignments. "One of us will do the fabric showrooms while the other will hit the furniture places," she says. "When we shop for our clients, we bring lists as well as floor plans and even blueprints of the house if we have it. DCOTA is so vast, you can never shop every showroom in two days, so we have to be really focused." Like most designers, Price has her favorite haunts.

She visits Unique Masterpieces for unusual iron staircase railings and high quality hand-carved furniture from Mexico. L'Excellence is the place for Italian chandeliers. Price always makes a stop at Trinity Designs which specializes in custom kitchen cabinetry and imported British accent furniture. "Over time I've gotten to know the staff experts in the showrooms and they help narrow the process for me," says the design professional. "My clients want unusual objects that are extremely well crafted. That's never a problem when I shop DCOTA. I know I'm coming back to Fort Myers with what will please them."

DCOTA is definitely organized to make a designer's life easier. But, DCOTA has a unique feature that interests the non-professional. Unlike most "to the trade" markets, DCOTA is open to the public as well as to design professionals. Designers shop DCOTA alone, designers and their clients shop there, and ordinary consumers are welcome too.

While many design-savvy homeowners can evaluate their options at DCOTA successfully, it's not as easy for the "civilian" as you might think. First, there is the pricing structure. Tags are printed with two prices, list and net. The list is what a civilian pays and the net is offered to a design professional. If a civilian is accompanied by a design pro, the civilian gets the net price. The cost difference is significant so no one wants to pay list.

If you come to DCOTA alone, how do you get the good price and how do you navigate the vast emporium in a way that maximizes your budget and supports the look you want to achieve with what you purchase? You access the Designer On Call (DOC) service of DCOTA. This DOC/DCOTA amenity matches up consumers with one of 45 professional designers at the center. You get both the professional's advice and navigation skills for two hours free. You can buy net at the showrooms through that designer and you get free consultation.

When the two hours are up, the designer withdraws or you may ask to retain the designer's services in a mutually agreed upon financial way. You can pay by the hour, by the project, or on a cost-plus basis. All the designers in the DOC corps are established local professionals with their own successful businesses who sign up to spend one or two days a month at DCOTA to provide on-call help.

You especially need an interior designer if you intend to shop for fabrics-upholstery or window treatments. The fabric representatives in the various showrooms do not want to deal with the uninformed consumer. You need exact measurements, you must know about repeats in the pattern, and there's the task of narrowing down thousands of choices in prints and material to just the right one for your particular project. Walk into the fabric showrooms with an interior designer or expect a chilly reception.

Many of the showrooms have what you'd expect to find-elegant Sherle Wagner bathroom fixtures, Pierre Deux Country French furniture or SieMatic kitchens. But there are some unusual emporiums that feature grandiose items that you probably didn't even know you should be coveting. A favorite with browsers is Maximilliaan's, an amazing Old World shop that deals in 19th and 20th century art-case pianos.

Maximilliaan Rutten (himself a pianist) scours the globe for grand pianos that have been neglected. He restores them inside and out and offers them as fine vintage instruments and extraordinary art for luxury homes worldwide. You can find dazzling pianos with Victorian marquetry inlay, Louis XV bronze mounts, as well as a Cubist painter's take on what a piano should look like. The Art Deco ones have a swanky-glossy nightclub glamour that is irresistible. Many of Maximilliaan's instruments have been owned by famous people and you get the piano's provenance when you buy. Some homeowners fall in love with a grand piano and then just design a room around it.

DCOTA is close enough for non-design professionals to consider it as a frequent shopping venue, and DCOTA staffers organize appealing events throughout the year to make sure you want to go. It is worth getting on the mailing list for the semi-annual floor sample sales. One day is reserved just for the trade and two for the public to scrounge for bargains of up to 70 percent off. A two-day pass can be purchased for $15. A portion of the proceeds goes to support Gilda's Club of South Florida, a free non-profit cancer support community.

Complimentary DOC/DCOTA purchasing assistance is offered as part of the admission price so take advantage of the professional advice during floor sample days. Children under 12 (including infants) are not allowed. The next public floor sample sale is Saturday, March 24 (9 a.m.-5 p.m.) and Sunday, March 25 (noon-5 p.m.). Mark it down as a good weekend to discover DCOTA and there's a hotel right on the property!


1855 Griffin Road (corner of I-95 and Griffin Road)

Dania Beach, Florida

(954) 920-7997 

* * *

Tips for civilians shopping DCOTA

* Come prepared. Consider bringing photos, room measurements, pages from magazines, fabric swatches-anything that will help DCOTA pros get the picture of what you want or need.

* Determine your maximum budget and advise your designer and showroom representatives. They'll help you get the absolute best quality for your dollar.

* Understand that you will be overwhelmed by so many choices and possibilities, so come with a designer or access the Designer on Call (DOC) option. They will help you focus and can take you directly to the showrooms that can help you most.

* Realize that DCOTA showrooms are not set up as "vignettes," such as rooms or scenes. You will need to visualize how the piece will fit into the scale and style of your room at home.

* Wear comfortable shoes and take breaks every so often to rest, clear your mind, have something to eat or drink. All of DCOTA is wheelchair accessible.

* Realize that every piece of furniture you see can be custom covered in hundreds of different fabrics and finished in many different woods or paint treatments. DCOTA suppliers can even adjust the sizes of furniture, making them larger or smaller to suit your own space. What you see on display is only a tiny glimpse of what you can actually have.

* Consider your lifestyle when selecting upholstery and window treatments. Maybe you want silk but you have children and dogs. A design pro can suggest new microfibers that have the look of silk but are family-friendly and are less expensive too.

* If possible, start the design process while your home is being built or remodeled. Ordering custom furniture, fabric, etc. takes time.

* Don't be intimidated. If you love bright colors and bold patterns or you want Asian strict minimalism, stick with your style. The design professionals will help you make the most of it.

* Know your own attention span. When you're tired, quit. Bad decisions are made by worn-out shoppers. DCOTA isn't going anywhere. You can come back. 

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