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Confusion or Fusion

Private theaters boasting stunning interiors and exceptional performance can be realized with planning, cooperation, and collaboration. Unfortunately this does not always come easily or naturally.

Private theaters boasting stunning interiors and exceptional performance can be realized with planning, cooperation, and collaboration. Unfortunately this does not always come easily or naturally.

Sam Cavitt ( is president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, Hawaii, and Carlsbad, California.

Often various members of a theater project may have different and opposing objectives. The theater designer may be focused on the acoustical environment, the integrator most concerned with the equipment, the interior designer has a style and finish palate in mind, and the clients may even have differing opinions. At some point these disparate objectives must become aligned.

Private theater projects come about in many ways and team members get involved at different stages. Many times a theater project is initiated by an interior design professional. This makes a lot of sense, because interior designers are involved in creating a living environment that enhances the client’s lifestyle.

Protecting the Interior Designer Relationship

Interior designers are an important ally to system integrators and can be a significant source of business. There are, however, some scenarios that can turn an ideal relationship contentious. I recall a particular instance where an interior designer contacted us saying that she “finally had a project where our expertise was needed.” When we met at the site, we were surprised to find a finished room featuring a front wall with niches for speakers and screen (all in the wrong sizes and locations), a domed ceiling, and a concave rear wall. Fortunately, the client and the designer permitted us to make the necessary modifications, and the project came out very well.

Unfortunately, many similar scenarios do not end well. Let’s examine a couple of such risky scenarios and how they were resolved.

This home theater is the final result of a project that the author’s company designed on the Big Island of Hawaii, where collaboration with the interior designer was excellent.

Risky project scenario #1. The theater design is well underway and is heavily oriented to decor. This type of project embodies two likely points of contention. Either the interior designer has already performed a significant amount of work, or the design will need to be modified to deliver good audio and video.

If the interior designer already has developed the design that means valuable time has been invested. If the interior designer is billing hourly, which is typical for many professional design firms, the client will have incurred some cost. The interior designer may not have realized the impact of their design on the performance of the room. Also, the designer will fear potentially negative impact on their creative work due to suggestions by other parties. These reasons and others cause a natural tendency for the designer to be defensive and much less open to suggestions.

On a recent project the architectural firm’s inhouse designer had developed the theater design. Seating positions, screen size, front wall detail, sidewall details and millwork, lighting, everything short of the equipment list had been designed before we were hired to design the theater. Fortunately, the room required studio-level acoustical isolation.

We were instructed that the interior was designed to conform with the rest of the home and was not to be touched. After modeling the space, however, we learned that the seats were improperly placed, the screen was the wrong size and shape, millwork interfered with placement of acoustical devices, and the list went on. We spoke with the designer confidentially and, in a non-threatening manner, described the issues. We were very clear that we had not raised these issues with others yet as we felt it best to work collaboratively. We then explained our confidence in being able to modify their concept in such a way to maintain its integrity. Furthermore, we assured the designer that we would present the modification for their review first.

This approach allowed the designer to work with us without being threatened. Also, to their credit, they demonstrated a good collaborative tendency. The resulting theater performed on all levels, even winning an AIA award, and the collaboration has resulted in an ongoing professional relationship.

Risky project scenario #2. The interior designer has created a theater concept featuring products that do not work. Additionally, the interior designer may have specified many products for the project, such as furnishings, fabrics, draperies, fixtures, and art. The designer has either sold or purchased the items and/or a significant portion of their revenue is based on the sale of these items.

In one such case, an interior designer and integrator had reached an absolute impasse. The room design featured custom trompe l’oeil murals. These murals were placed in exactly the wrong locations, making them acoustically incorrect and visually distracting and light reflective. The integrator recommended abandoning them but the designer, and consequentially the client, had already purchased them. Both parties dug in their heels. Fortunately, we were able to offer a compromise that served everyone’s interest. The front wall was recessed to separate the screen and mural, a curved 2.40:1 screen replaced the original, which helped focus the light off the sidewall, and the murals were acoustically perforated to enable the broadband acoustical devices to perform.

We were lucky to have come out unscathed on the two projects described above, however we do not want to depend on luck to be successful. So, if we want to maintain positive relationships with our interior design friends what should we do?

1 Educate. Host or sponsor educational workshops aimed at interior designers. There are some very good options available. CEDIA has the ROI program (see sidebox) and others too have developed excellent presentations that offer interior designers important information about private theater design and working with integrators.

2 Communicate. When working on a private theater with an interior designer, do not be afraid to ask questions. If we discover the interior designers objectives, we will better understand any underlying or emerging conflicts. Understanding can lead to resolution. If it is necessary to change a design, spend the time to explain exactly why so that the designer understands there is a good reason for the change.

3 Collaborate. Actively seek ways to work together. Many manufacturers of home theater furnishings offer a designer program where the integrator can resell products to the designer. Often times the conflict is based on financial considerations. Seek the designer’s involvement in finish selections. Always maintaining final review for performance but involve them in the process. Leave the door open for the designer to provide fabrics, finishes and other typical designer items, again with your approval.

4 Deliver. Provide solid design documentation and engineering. It is not enough to say, “that won’t work,” without backing it up with professionallevel solutions. Theater drawings, manufacturer specification and installation data, and finish and lighting schedules are all a necessary part of being a theater design professional.

5 Support. Discuss your solutions with the designer and be available to respond to questions. Help the designer integrate their design objectives with your solutions and modify your solutions, when necessary and possible in the interest of the best overall result.

A private theater should be a pleasurable experience from its inception to fulfillment. A design team working harmoniously to realize a client’s home theater dream is a fusion of talents and a recipe for success.