Discovering a New Talent at 50

Her screenwriting career fizzled. Then she lost her house. That was the start of Meridith Baer’s home-staging business

by Margot Dougherty
Baer relaxes in one of the homes she recently staged
Photograph: The Collaborationist

Meridith Baer is barefoot, her toes sparkling with garnet polish, when she opens the gate to her canyon home in Los Angeles. Wearing a crisp white shirt and navy track pants, she leads the way through a courtyard filled with potted plants and little cement pigs (said to bring good luck when you rub their backsides). The setting exudes personality and gracious comfort, two subjects on which Baer, founder and president of a multimillion-dollar home-staging business, is an expert: Meridith Baer Home (MBH) furnishes and decorates high-end properties to make them irresistible to buyers. Baer supplies all the furnishings and rarely uses the homeowner’s belongings. MBH (meridithbaer.com) also designs and manufactures some pieces: sofas (most often white because, she says, “that color is peaceful, unifying and flexible”), drapes, artwork and accents—like the little cement pigs. “I bought one at an estate sale,” she says, “and then I had thousands made.”

Baer, 66, mixes traditional pieces with modern, European with Asian, serious with whimsical. Home buyers are often so taken with the result that they purchase the furnishings along with the property. Baer and her team of 130 employees complete their decorating makeovers in a few days, with about six people assigned to each project. Her inventory, stored in three warehouses, is worth an estimated $70 million. On average, she puts $150,000 worth of products into each home—and sometimes up to $1 million into the superluxury residences. Her staging fees, usually between $8,000 and $75,000, depend on the square footage, the neighborhood and the market (0.5 to 1 percent of list price is the industry average).

Baer started her business when she was a 50-year-old screenwriter struggling to find work. She’d taken a two-year hiatus while in a relationship with the English actor Patrick Stewart, whom she met on a blind date in 1991. “In order to be with him, I had to travel,” she says, “and you can’t have a career if you’re on the road. It was the only time in my life I’d done that, given myself away.” When the couple split, Baer, who had all but depleted her savings, returned to L.A., rented a cottage and tried to get back into the Hollywood rhythm. “But what you want to write about in your twenties and thirties is different from what you want to write about in your fifties,” she says. “I couldn’t connect to the 12-year-olds who were running the studios.”

When the muse was elusive, she distracted herself by gardening and decorating. “I kept buying more and more pots so I could have more and more plants,” she says. “Soon I had 250, inside and out. The cottage became prettier and prettier.” In January 1998, her landlord dropped in for a visit and was so impressed with the improvements that he decided he could make good money if he sold the property. Baer got the boot.

Where to put the plants? She asked a friend who had an empty spec house on the market if she could arrange them in the courtyard. She moved in all her furniture, too: “It’ll show lifestyle.” The house sold in a few days—for $500,000 over the asking price, which was upwards of $3 million. The agents for both the buyer and the seller asked Baer if she could perform more of her magic on other properties. “Sure,” she said, “if you pay me and let me live there while the house is on the market.” They agreed.

Baer pulled in $5,000 for her first gig, then started upping her fees. After completing her third installation, she knew she’d found her new career. Strictly on word of mouth, she went from staging one house at a time to doing two, then five, making $10,000 to $20,000 on each. In
2000, when she did 15 houses and her company was worth nearly $2 million, “I thought I had it made in the shade,” she says.

Baer relished the appreciation and respect her work elicited. As a screenwriter, she remembers, “I would spill out my guts, and the result was an occasional sale and a lot of criticism. I’d put my heart and soul into a script, and they’d say, ‘I don’t really love this character.’ When I started staging homes, I could move a coffee cup an inch and everyone thought I was a genius! I loved not having to rely on someone to tell me what to do. I insisted on complete design control, and every day I felt realized.”

The autonomy is hard-won. The middle of three children, Baer grew up in San Quentin, California, with parents who were “very, very strict, controlling people with high expectations,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to date.” She rebelled, marrying at 19 during her sophomore year at the University of Colorado Boulder, and was divorced by the time she graduated at 21. En route to the registrar to switch her diploma to her maiden name, she ran into a young ad exec named Jerry Bruckheimer—who went on to become one of the world’s most successful movie producers—and he cast her in a series of the now iconic “You’ve got a lot to live” Pepsi commercials. In 1971 she followed a boyfriend to New York and appeared in print ads for major brands like Levi’s, M&M’s, Chevy and Ford as well as several cigarette companies. “I was the Winston girl and the Kent girl,” she says.

Returning to L.A. to try her hand at acting, Baer landed a plum role on the TV comedy Eight Is Enough, only to be fired after the first episode. She was nonetheless paid for the run of the season, and the money gave her time to write her first movie script, a star-crossed romance called Prisoners. “All the good things in my life have come from devastation,” she says. The film was never released, but Baer made $250,000 and it led to more screenwriting jobs. Over the next 18 years, she wrote or was hired to rewrite and develop a few dozen film scripts, averaging $125,000 each. Aside from 1992’s Unbecoming Age, starring George Clooney, none ever made it to the screen.

During low times, Baer was “tough and resilient,” she says, and those qualities propelled her out of screenwriting. As one of the first stagers in L.A., she inspired others to take up the profession, but they didn’t all play nice. A competitor tried to convince real estate agents that Baer didn’t have enough furniture to take on more projects. A wealthy showbiz client stiffed her after she’d done an extensive makeover on his home.

A more serious setback came in 2002, when Baer was diagnosed with colon cancer. “They took out a foot of my colon,” she says. At the time, she was in the throes of renovating her own home, so it was essentially a construction site without so much as a kitchen. Her older brother, Marc, flew in from Michigan, and her younger, Bart, came from San Francisco to care for her. After returning home, Marc asked his son, Brett Baer, who has an MBA and was working in software sales, to go to L.A. and help his aunt with her business. “I’d come out and do little pieces of the puzzle,” says Brett, who had been living in Boulder. “You could feel the energy in her studio.” Soon he moved to L.A. full time and dedicated himself to growing the company.

Baer wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of getting bigger. “I was already working 24/7,” she says. “I thought, How can we do it?” More projects meant more designers, more furniture, more trucks. But the growth happened incrementally. “Brett is fun and confident and funny and I kept shopping!” she says.  

In 2008, when the economy tanked, MBH lost some $1 million in uncollected fees. The damage would have been worse had Brett not developed relationships with groups that were buying and flipping distressed properties. The jobs paid only $6,000 to $7,000—less than Baer’s traditional minimum of $10,000—but the properties moved quickly. As the economy recovered, MBH emerged with a new set of partners, and Baer’s team now stages houses in five other states.

Baer’s own home, bought in 2000, is warm and lived-in. One of Hockney’s Celias hangs near the entryway, and a first-edition SUMO, the giant $15,000 Helmut Newton photography book published by Taschen, is open on a stand; she got it in a trade for work she did for a cash-poor client. Shelves are decorated with books and objets: an iridescent glass vase that belonged to her mother and a grouping of what appear to be antique wooden deities. “I collect figures that are about worship or have been worshipped,” Baer says. “They’re like little symbols of prayer, from different countries and civilizations. They mean freedom of belief to me.”

Baer personally stages about six projects a year, working with one of her staff. “You’ll never see me happier,” she says, “than when I’m moving furniture around.” But she delegates most of the homes to her designers. Fifteen percent of the projects—mostly homes purchased by overseas buyers—are bought fully furnished, Baer estimates. For sellers, she has a few tips: “White paint makes a room look fresh and larger, and white sofas allow you to change the color scheme easily; just change the pillows, throws, rugs and art! People have trouble imagining how they’d live in your home, so spell it out for them. Open a cookbook on the counter or put a carafe of water and a novel by the bed. When showing the property during the day, turn on all the lights to make it look even brighter, and for evening showings, dim the lights to give the room a soft, inviting glow.”

Friends have suggested she cash in—sell the company and retire—but “I can’t wait to get to work each morning,” Baer says. She spends much of her time shopping for furniture and accessories, scouring flea markets and estate sales. On a recent visit to Bali, she filled two 50-foot shipping containers with furniture, fabrics, art and objects. “Having more money isn’t going to make me happy,” she says. “I love what I do.”

Next: A Magazine Editor Takes a Chance on a Bed and Breakfast

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First Published Thu, 2014-05-08 11:50

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http://www.more.com/reinvention-money/second-acts/discovering-a-new-talent-at-50