Style icon and Bravo star Patricia Altschul knows a thing or two about interior design… She has worked with the legendary Mario Buatta in designing four homes, and her professional background as a rare art expert and dealer has taken her everywhere from Buckingham Palace and Versailles to the White House. In her book, Southern Charm, Patricia quoted Mario on his mantra that decorating cannot be treated as fashion. “A great room is an investment of time and money, and if you do it correctly the first time, chances are you will never get tired of it,” he said. And Patricia agrees.
Today, I am thrilled to welcome Patricia to The Glam Pad, as she shares her insider tips on how to create a beautiful and classic home and previously unpublished pictures of her collections. Below are highlights from my interview with Patricia…
TGP: Of all the beautiful homes I have written about since beginning my blog five years ago, yours is my all-time favorite. How do you go about creating a timeless home, one that you will always love and is worth the investment?
PA: In terms of investment, first of all you have to decide what you need. There are three things that I consider “need”…
- Comfort, which a lot of people overlook. They simply go for appearance. Comfort is what really makes your house a home. Then the aesthetics. Let’s start with the living room, for example. The first thing Mario and I do is decide on color. And that dictates almost everything else. So let’s take my living room, which is apple green. He added and subtracted and customized it, but you can actually buy apple green at Benjamin Moore. He doesn’t do just a little swath… He does a huge swath of color and lets it dry and he looks at it in the different times of the day. Most people don’t do that, and you can paint a room and then realize the next day you cannot live with it. You want a color you can live with that looks good night and day. That’s your backdrop.
2. And then the next thing that I think is an investment piece is a good sofa. It should, like most upholstered furniture, have down. Most of mine is down filled except for some side chairs. So let’s say you start with the sofa… You want as good of quality as you can get. And Mario always picks a cream colored sofa as the focus.
3. Then you get a large and functional coffee table – another investment piece – not a flimsy glass coffee table as your primary coffee table. You want something where you can put heavy books, hurricane candles… And then you have a pair of club chairs. We usually buy them in muslin and then pick out fabric. Of course, I love chintz and Mario loves chintz. And I would say there are so many really pretty florals that you can choose from. I just cannot imagine not loving chintz. Whatever pattern you choose for your chairs can also be used for the curtains.
PA: That to me is your core. You also need floor lamps, and you need small tables to put drinks on. Mario usually has a skirted round table at the end of the sofa on one end, or you can have a pair. And then to add seating, he has two armchairs – usually antique – that you can rearrange. So that’s kind of a basic treatment. And then what you do is add mirrors – I like gold mirrors because it adds a little gilt – crystal sconces on the wall are always pretty, and then paintings or watercolors, depending on your taste. A covered upholstered ottoman is always nice. These are things that are kind of universal, and then you extend the same discernment to every room. Like in a bedroom, the first thing you do is get a really good quality bed and pillows. And of course you start with the color – I always start with blue because blue is serenity. I think it is nice to have a chaise, and again I always have a white sofa and armchairs, and they are all covered in the very same fabric.
PA: For a neophyte doing this on their own, I suggest you buy Mario’s book and copy his designs. Copy his curtains, copy as much as you can, and also pay attention to scale. If you look at enough pictures, you can get an idea as to proportion and scale. That is the hardest thing to get.
PA: When I was in school at GW (George Washington University), I got a Smithsonian scholarship. I worked in the history and technology building where I would help hang paintings and objects. I know there are rules about how far from the floor things should be and the ceiling, but almost all of the curators did it by eye. They never measured. So having a good eye is important and you can train yourself to have a good eye. You can read trade magazines, you can go to designer homes, and read books and monographs on decorators who have a style you like.
PA: Once you get these core pieces in place you can let the rest evolve organically. It depends on the individual and how much they can afford to spend in each room, but I think houses always evolve. Even if you work with a decorator, it is done in stages. It would be nice to walk in and have one whole room done with everything, but it doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t happen over night. And then you add things as the years go by and replace others.
TGP: How did you go about selecting the gorgeous artwork for your own home, and can you tell me more about your extensive collection?
PA: I spent many years advising clients and museums about art acquisitions. When I was a private dealer, I would have paintings in my home that I sold, and I would display them as if it were a home environment, not as a gallery. I had a lot of wall space. This was in Georgetown, and I had six floors to use. It was a large town house, and it was privately owned, so it was a conflict of interest for me to collect paintings. But I could actually live with great paintings that would ordinarily have been difficulty to collect personally… I had Monets and Renoirs, John Singer Sargents, and so forth. I did have small collections of things and I had things I had inherited that I kept in the private wing of my house.
PA: I did buy paintings for Whitney… some large paintings that he has in California and Andy Warhol silkscreens (he has about four Warhols) and other contemporary artists… he loves them. And I bought him Ansel Adams photographs. When I married my husband, he was a major art collector – always listed among the top 10 art collectors at that time… It was fantastic because I felt like I was living in a museum. He had all of my favorite artists. I was more of an Americanist but he had post-impressionist paintings, which I had never really studied to any great extent… I learned so much during the time that we were married. He was on the board of all the major museums in New York. In Paris he had paintings exhibited at the Louvre, and actually all over the world…Whenever he had a painting in a museum in Tokyo or in Milan, we always would go for the opening. I learned so much at that time, it was an incredible experience. We were always going to museums, galleries, and auctions. It would range from garage sales to Grovener House and everything in between. We were busy. We were on the go all the time, and it was always a learning experience. When he died, he left me some major post-impressionist French paintings. We collected needlework together. I loved animals and dogs, and so I have quite a few of those sprinkled throughout the house. I like sporting art. To backtrack, I did buy myself sporting art years ago because my clients didn’t collect that. And I did have a few things like dog paintings and so forth that were not considered major art investments or acquisitions.
PA: When I married Arthur, he had 700 paintings. One bedroom was nothing but racks for storage of pictures. One would go out on exhibit and another one go into the storage room. When we married, I had all these things that he thought were rather funny and laughable… All my dogs paintings, needlework, my silhouettes. So he said “I think we should have all of these things in the country house,” basically where no one else could see them. And he didn’t like contemporary art. So that’s when Whitney got everything, and from contemporary, I mean from the 1960s – on. So now I have Arthur’s important pictures mixed in with my dog paintings. (I think Mario softened him up about the dog paintings so he was a little more tolerant of my more eccentric collections.) But we both loved porcelain and silver, so we were busy collecting all of the above.
TGP: What advice would you give to someone on a limited budget who wishes to acquire fine art, whether antique or contemporary? Where can you save, and which pieces are worth an investment?
PA: If you are going to buy art, buy it from a reputable auction house. Study monographs on the artist… First of all I would go to museums and auction houses just to educate yourself. And when you decide what kind of art you like – because it should have a focus – then I would buy it from a reputable auction house because they have experts who are connoisseurs and can tell you that something is correct. That isn’t to say that they haven’t made mistakes, but very few.
PA: Instead of galleries, it is better to decide what school of art you like, find out which auction houses offer that, and I would subscribe to artnet. It tells you the prices of what every painting has realized over the last 15-20 years, and they have pictures. A lot of times, pieces come back up for auction, but even so you can get an idea for the range and quality. I would rather have one good painting in the living room and then fill in the other spaces with beautiful mirrors, sconces, and porcelain, rather than have – say four bad paintings – or rather one good one and four bad ones… It’s hard for people who haven’t studied – and really spent a lifetime studying – to go out and buy art. It’s daunting. With an auction house, you can always call up the person whose specialty is whatever it is you are trying to buy, and ask them questions about it… I always get a condition report. For buying art, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Bonhams – those are the three big ones – but if you go to some of the smaller auction houses, I buy bargains at Stair, Brunk, Doyle, Neal, Swann, Charleton Hall. You can look at catalogues online – you don’t have to buy the catalogues. Live Auctioneers (online) has all the small auction houses! I think the first tenet of buying art is that you should buy what you love… that is the most important thing… you want it to give you pleasure. Beauty is enhancing to your life, and every time you look at it you want to just be thrilled that you got it. And it does not necessarily have to be expensive. Sometimes you enjoy the bargains more because you got them at such a good price.
TGP: Mario Buatta is one of the greatest interior designers in the world. Not only is his talent legendary, but he is also known for his delightful sense of humor. Can you share one of your favorite stories about working with Mario?
PA: After Arthur died, Mario was taking me to the Met Ball, and I get into the car and he has on glasses that are 40 times larger than any normal person would wear. They were outrageous! He was always doing things like that. And he had a roach named Harold. It was rubber, and we would go to restaurants and he would put it on the counter. We went to a Southern restaurant known for its fried chicken, and the owner came over and said to Mario, “You must be a Yankee, because no Southerner eats fried chicken with a knife and fork.” So Mario decided that he would get back at her, and took Harold out – because Harold is always with him – and he put him under a plate. Then he called her over and said, “Do you usually have these in your restaurant?” And she said, “Oh yes, I just pick them up and through them out the front door.” Then someone gave Mario a Harold that was motorized. One time we went to a Mexican restaurant in New York, and Mario wanted to sit at the counter so he could wind up Harold and have him go down the length of the counter in front of all the patrons. The waiter thought it was funny, but the patrons didn’t! One Christmas he gave me earrings with plastic cockroaches.
TGP: You and Arthur also shared a passion for porcelain vegetables and antique silver. How did your love of antiques help bring you together?
PA: Well he had more of the blind earl flat leaves, and I had more of the vegetables, but they were all Chelsea porcelain. I liked so much of his art, but he liked very esoteric pictures. But we both liked and had the same kind of silver and Chelsea porcelain. Not too many people would have that much of a coincidence in terms of the things they owned. It is fun for couples to have something that they enjoy collecting because it can take you everywhere and it should be something that you can look for in any country. We used to get the Maine Antique Digest, and it would tell all of the antique shows, auctions, whatever. We had a house in Connecticut, so we used to drive to antique shows. Some of them were great, and some of them were terrible, but it was kind of the fun of the hunt. You never knew when you were going to discover a treasure.
TGP: Your home is an excellent example of how interior design and entertaining go hand-in-hand. Every piece of your furniture and each room is conducive to hospitality. What are the key elements to consider when designing a home that will make guests feel comfortable and welcome?
PA: I think flow is important… where you put pieces of furniture and where you don’t… And it has to make sense. But also, you want areas where people can congregate, and you want lightweight arm chairs that you can move around. If you have a large enough space, you want different seating areas. And you want things like ottomans and armchairs that you can move. I have two stools in my living room – a round one that is right next to the coffee table and square one that’s behind the sofa table that separates the one drawing room from the other. Many times, I have pulled armchairs, stools, and barrel chairs…. You want to have the possibility of moving things around so you can accommodate more people. Seating arrangements are important, and you should have pieces that you can move around, but I think comfort is the most important aspect of decorating. And I never get tired of these things… I’m not one of these women who always changes everything. I will never redo my home.
TGP: And that goes back to timelessness… When you follow trends, you have to constantly redo your home because it looks dated by the time you finish getting it done. But if you follow the classic, traditional approach, then it does last forever, and that is why I love your house and why I love Mario.
PA: People still say the blue room Mario did 20 or 30 years ago is one of the best rooms ever decorated, and then there is the yellow room that Nancy Lancaster did. They are iconic and beautiful. Comfortable and beautiful.
TGP: Thank you so much, Patricia, for sharing this invaluable information, and for giving us a never-before-seen glimpse into your fabulous collections! I already own Mario’s book, which is at the very top of my list of favorites, and I couldn’t agree more with Pat’s advice to copy, copy copy!
For additional reading, Patricia recommends:
- Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration
- The Great Lady Decorators: The Women Who Defined Interior Design, 1870-1955 (Mario gave her a copy!)
- Sister Parish: American Style (Sister and Mario were friends and colleagues)
- Barbara Guggenheim’s book Decorating on eBay: Fast and Stylish on a Budget
For online shopping, Patricia recommends the following websites:
For additional inspiration from Patricia Altschul, you simply must read her book The Art of Southern Charm. You will also want to follow her on Instagram along with @welovepataltschul, her official fan club, and don’t forget to check out Patricia’s Couture for fabulous custom caftans. Stay tuned to The Glam Pad, as I will be featuring a few of Patricia’s favorite things, as outlined in her book, on Monday!