Working with the Best, Pt. 4: Maria Deschamps
For the fourth installment in our series on the premier artisans of luxury home entertainment, we talked to Canadian home theater designer Maria Deschamps. While Theo Kalomirakis has become synonymous with luxury theaters, there are other designers who almost exclusively cater to that segment of the market. And while Maria does also do commercial and residential work, she freely admits that home theaters are where her passion lies.
While many designers base their theaters on the iconic palaces from the golden age of moviegoing or lean on a more restrained, agnostic approach, Maria tends to go for playful designs with a distinctly modern flair. We talked to her about her transition from retail design to home theater, her unusual, gutsy strategy for breaking into the field, and how she gets a bead on what her clients are looking for so she can provide them with a unique home entertainment space.
(The text below is a slightly abridged version of the podcast,
which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page.)
It’s rare to come across a designer who just focuses on home theaters. What path led you to that?
It was a long path for me. When a designer finishes their education, we have to choose between commercial and residential design, and I chose commercial. I really loved the development that’s part of commercial design, and I loved all the big spaces and all the intricate details. But, after designing several hundred retail spaces all over the world, my work became really embedded in me; it took over my life. It was difficult for a woman with a family. So I started considering changing careers, but I didn’t want to lose all the knowledge and experience I had acquired.
And that’s when I designed and built my own home theater—you know, a typical theater, no windows, the perfect size, and I think we had a 110-inch screen and three rows of seating. We designed the space so the ceiling was high enough so we had no ducts or obstructions to deal with. I loved that theater. I spent every free moment I had in it. It was my “escape from reality” room.
Then one day, it just hit me. I realized I could pivot my career and go from being a commercial designer to being a custom home theater designer. But I knew I had to learn more, and also knew I needed allies. I went to a local trade show in Montreal and just introduced myself as a home theater designer, even though I had never designed home theaters before.
Then an editor convinced me to advertise in his magazine, and he introduced me to a high-end audio/video store here.
So I designed a prototype, which was inspired by some photos I saw in another magazine I picked up at the show. And it was a theater designed by the one and only Theo Kalomirakis. I then met with the owners of the store and presented the design. I was honest with them and told them I had never done a home theater before except for my own, and I would offer my services to one of their clients free of charge, but only for the first stage of the design, the concept. If the client liked the concept, I’d work with them on the next phase and only bill for that phase.
They found me the perfect client, who was willing to accept this. Believe me, I put my heart into that project—blood, sweat, and tears—everything I could do. The client was super delighted and the integrator was really impressed. And of course I was very fulfilled. And, even though it was the first home theater I designed, it was published in the magazine and featured on the cover. So it was really, really amazing. That trade show was extremely beneficial and rewarding. I met the right people. I discovered Theo Kalomirakis and his career. So now I had like a new idol to follow, right? That’s how my path led to me specializing is this. It’s passion. I just love it.
Why are you so strongly drawn toward home theater?
I just found that I had a love for the total experience, being able to close that door and immerse yourself. You don’t have to go out. You can go in your PJs with a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn or whatever. And I wanted to share that.
What influence has your commercial experience had on your home theater design?
I was designing for medium- to high-end retail. We designed everything from handrails to hang clothing on to shelves and brackets and displays. We designed custom
lighting. We really went all the way. With that background, I felt like I had the knowledge and the skills, and the resources. With all due respect to residential designers, I don’t think I would have had the success at the beginning if I didn’t have that background. I would have had to develop it a lot over time.
What do you think you bring to creating a home theater that a typical residential designer doesn’t?
Experience, of course, because I’ve been doing it for quite a while. Passion—you have to be passionate about your work. You have to want it. It’s been over 20 years since I designed my first theater, and I have learned a lot along the way. And luckily I’ve had the opportunity to work with high-end audio/video integrators and acoustic specialists and engineers. That taught me a lot, and I was willing to learn. I was there wide-eyed and bushy tailed, like, “Teach me! Teach me!”
You have to wear many hats. You have to be conscious of many different materials and finishes. You have to address building-code compliances, accessibilities, handicap needs. And you have to be able to properly lay out a space. You have to
draft proposals and present design concepts to the clients.
Then you have to follow through with the execution. Even though you’re not building it yourself, you have to be there every step of the way. You can’t just do the plans and then hand them off and say, “You build it—goodbye.”
You have to have all of the skills of an interior designer plus the technical attributes that are specific to theater design. You have to be able to integrate the equipment in the space—that’s the most important thing. You can’t place speakers anywhere.
You need to determine the sweet spot for everyone in the room, and you have to make sure the screen is installed at the right height. And obviously the seating has to be situated appropriately. Then there’s the whole “What kind of materials do we use?” which is extremely important. You can’t use hard surfaces like ceramic and glass, and you have to stay away from marbles and granites. Then you have to add soft absorptive materials, but not too much, because you don’t want the sound to be too flat or dull.
And don’t forget about the lighting. I love, love, love lighting. And I really love indirect lighting. Lighting is technical. You have to consider the light output, the wattage; but also the photometrics of the light and the kelvin temperature and the color-rendering index. The beam spread—what light do you put at 10 feet, and there’s a different beam spread you would use at seven feet. Typical designers just aren’t aware of all that. You don’t learn this in school. It’s experience and asking questions.
So there’s a lot to consider. Basically, a home theater designer will bring all the experience a typical designer has and then have the ability to integrate with the appropriate equipment and speakers. And you have to be able to work parallel with the integrator because they’re the ones who’ll propose the equipment, so you have to follow their lead. At the same time, you have to please the clients and follow their vision, and maximize their entertainment experience.
How do people find out about you? Is it mainly by word of mouth? And if it is, who is passing those referrals along?
I have to admit, I never really keep track of how my clients come to me. And luckily, knock on wood, I’ve always been busy. Although business sometimes has its highs and lows, I’ve never had a dry period. That being said, I do realize that I get a lot
of referrals from clients and integrators. I’ve worked with previous clients more than once, and it’s really amazing when they call me back. It’s the ultimate compliment when they refer me to their best friend or their friends or sister-in-law or brother-in-law or whoever—which has happened like four times in just the past few months.
Besides referrals, I receive the majority of my clients through my website—like people searching for
“home theater designer”—and through social media. I would say the best social-media platforms are LinkedIn and then Houzz, which is pretty good for residential design. Social media in general is really great for branding. You have to be out there.
Walk me through how it goes for you when you when you’re working with a client for the first time. Is there a typical meeting or does it tend to be very much driven by that individual and their needs?
It’s a little of both. On one hand, I like to go with the flow—especially during a first meeting. You’ve got to get a feel for the client. But on the other hand, we really have to establish the process.
There’s always a first telephone call before the first meeting. During the call, I have the opportunity to explain the process and talk about my fee, and I’ll set the tone for our meeting. I’ll tell the client I’m going to come and measure the space, present my portfolio, and review my services with them, and then I’ll go over the mandate.
One of the most important things for me to do in the first meeting is listen and observe. It’s really, really important to understand what the client’s expectations are. I almost have to be the client and know what they like and what they want. At the same time, I have to utilize my experience and share my expertise.
Often when I meet a client, it’s the first time this person or this family has ever had a home theater. So they really need someone to help them through it. They’re going to ask a lot of questions, and I have to take the time to answer them. Sometimes they expect me to have all the answers right away, but it’s not always possible to give specific solutions in a first meeting. You really have to sit down and prepare space-planning studies and determine what works best in a specific space, because every room is different. When we’re designing a home theater, it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle. You have to
make sure you’ve included all the pieces and you’ve put them in the right spot.
How aware are clients of what their options are? Do you usually have to do a lot of educating early on?
I’d say maybe half of my clients are aware of the options and half are not. If the client is referred to me by an integrator, they’re usually pretty aware of the options because the integrator has already started the process. It
often happens that they’ve already selected their equipment and their screen before they even meet me, so they’ve got a really good head start. When that’s the case, I often enhance what the integrator recommends, so I’ll usually add things like lighting systems to their plan—which sometimes they don’t even think about—or motorized drapes. Sometimes, I’ll suggest an extra subwoofer or a bigger screen.
Whether you’re a designer or an integrator, you have to let the clients know what is available. Show them the best of the best, and let them choose. I never assume the client can’t afford anything—unless they give me a set budget. I don’t base solutions or proposals on price. It’s really up to the client.
Many people don’t think they have the space for a dedicated theater, but I think they just don’t have the ability to see the opportunities. Some people just can’t visualize. When you have a new home, it’s different because you plan for it in advance, but if you have an existing home and you want to put in a theater, and they’ve finished all the rooms, they kind of see the home for what it is, not for what it could be. It’s hard for them to see how they could renovate it. And this is where my space-planning skills really help. We take the existing plan and move around a few walls or add a few walls to make it happen.
I know that when Theo designs a theater room, he doesn’t feel an obligation to take the rest of the decor of the home into account. What is your approach to that? Is there a conversation early on about whether this is going to follow the style of the rest of the home, or do you make a case for this being a world onto itself?
There definitely is that conversation, and that’s why I think it’s really important to meet with the client in the home to see what they have. I always ask them, “Do you want to carry the design of your home into the home theater?” And I cross my fingers and hope they say no because I have always felt a theater is an escape, not only from the rest of the home but from your life and your work and the stress. So I like to be able to create something new and totally different that’s not like the rest of the
home. And, nine times out of ten, it is different—like they’ll put a color in the home theater they won’t use in the rest of the home. I have this famous purple home theater I designed [shown above] that everybody loves. But you wouldn’t put that much purple in the rest of your home. It’s a special space and it should be treated that way.
Coming out of the ’08 recession, a lot of designers were convinced home theater had had its day and the market was gravitating toward media rooms. But when the pandemic started, we saw a reversal take place, because people suddenly appreciated having someplace to escape to. Now the commissions are back and there’s a new appreciation for home theater. What has been your experience over the past 10 to 15 months?
O my—yes, yes, yes. The pandemic has really revitalized the home theater market. Private, dedicated home theaters are back. Seriously, can you blame us? We were forced to stay home, and be saturated with these news programs and social distancing. So what better way to escape that mass information than to immerse ourselves in watching movies or binging on TV series? For me, there’s no better way to do it than in a dedicated room where you can just close the door and really, really just get away. I have designed twice as many home theaters in this past year—at least twice as many. And they keep coming.
Do you think it’s going to last? Do you think we’re into another golden age here?
I do—I really do. And I really hope it does. Home theater has evolved, and a lot of people don’t necessarily want the standard theater seats. We’re changing the look a little. It’s not as palace-y as it used to be. The designs are still very luxurious, but they’re more lounge-y—more relaxed, more modern. We’re going to see bars coming back into home theaters and much more casual types of seating. But for me the upturn in business didn’t start right away. It took several months. But now, seriously—wow, wow, wow. People are really spending money on their homes. And they want it to be spectacular. And they want it now.
Is there anything else important you wanted to cover that I didn’t ask about?
I love educating people on designers and how designers can help them. One thing, though, that’s very important to mention is that what’s important for a successful design is to get started, first of all, way ahead of time and plan for it in advance, especially if you’re building a new home. Like, we really need to have the high ceilings.
A lot of designers talk about how, to this day, entertainment spaces tend to be treated as an afterthought.
Exactly. I had a recent client who has had his home under renovation for two years. They knew they wanted a home theater and they kind of had a space for it, but when I came into the equation, it was already too late to make changes. And it was rush, rush, rush—like, “We need it now, and we can’t make any changes”—so there was no flexibility, and it was really disappointing. Although the theater turned out beautiful—don’t get me wrong—it could have been so much better. So that’s really important. Get us involved early on and let’s plan for it properly.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.
PODCAST EP. 22
0:35 Maria’s early experiences with commercial
1:28 The transition to home theater design
2:28 Designing her own home theater
3:25 Launching her home theater design career
4:41 Designing her first theater for a client
7:24 Why she’s drawn toward home theater
8:05 The influence of her commercial design
work on her theaters
9:57 What she brings to a theater design that a
typical interior designer doesn’t
15:05 Why she’s more comfortable with
technology than most designers
16:48 How clients find out about her
18:54 The first meeting with a new client
21:21 Clients’ awareness of their technology
23:10 People who don’t think they have the room
for a theater when they actually do
24:43 Whether a theater should have the same
look as the rest of the home
26:09 The importance of direct interaction with the
27:49 Is home theater entering a second golden
29:08 The evolving styles of home theater
30:44 The importance of planning for a theater
early in the designing of a home