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.