Named among the 20th Century’s most influential interior designers by House Beautiful magazine, Leta Austin Foster established her design business in Palm Beach in 1975, which she expanded in the 1990s to include offices in Los Angeles and New York. Foster believes that decorating should be fun, whimsical, not taken too seriously, and that any room can be beautiful and comfortable at the same time. Foster also believes in creating interiors that will stand the test of time.
“And that brings me to my philosophy,” Foster stated on her fabulous blog, Decorating With Sheets. Houses are NOT fashion. They are not done with tricks. No matter how many cunning articles (“101 ways to Use Aqua in Your House” “Fun Tricks with Aqua as shown by a Master”), a house should be decorated to last a l-o-o-o-ng time. Decoration, especially good decoration, is just too expensive to try and be fashionable.”
I could not agree more! Foster is one of my all-time favorite designers, and today I am delighted that she is sharing with The Glam Pad her 10 tips for creating timeless interiors…
10 Tips for Creating Timeless Interiors
by Leta Austin Foster
1. I love and use wallpaper, and wallpaper is your biggest bang for the buck – and I don’t mean those plain slubbed silk or linen – those are wallcoverings, and as much as I may love and even use them at times, you still have to have pictures, architectural, and decorative elements. I mean wallpaper with lovely designs and colours. We used a beautiful Chinese flowered paper for a bedroom overlooking the sea on Jupiter Island and then literally left the walls blank. The view of the ocean and the wallpaper design was enough. It also allowed me to use a much less expensive fabric for the curtains.
2. Billy Baldwin used to stress that you should have a 60/40 rule for how furniture is finished off. What he meant was that 60% of the furniture in a room should have skirts and 40% show their legs. This new trend of having everything with legs leaves a room a little cold and does not add to the feeling of comfort. Get some skirts – and be very, very careful in their details. I interline my skirts if my fabric is not thick enough (i.e. chintz and thin silks).
3. Have books. You don’t have to be traditional to want to have books, but books add charm and add interest to a room. I have always used them – and I don’t mean fabulous incunabula or matched bound leather sets. I mean walls of books and books in heaps; I mean books people read and also books which they cherish for their illustrations (I have collected for almost 40 years books with Arthur Rackam illustrations which I look several times a month, as they intrigue me). And don’t artfully stack up the coffee table books on low table. Stacks that are too perfect discourage anyone from anyone ever picking one up and looking through it.
4. Use classical shapes in your furniture. There’s a reason people keep coming back to these beloved shapes. Not only are they immensely comfortable (if made well), but they are pleasing to the eye. Look around at your local craftsmen – there are so many good ones. You need to give them small things to do at first, learn how accomplished they can be, and then use them. Why would you order furniture from a catalogue – no matter how beautiful that catalogue may be – and then have to settle for furniture made half a world away with staples and glues which may well be poisonous. Buy local.
5. Forget the colour of the year! What an advertising gimmick that is, beloved by paint companies who would love for you to feel you needed to repaint all the time. But you want to decorate for the ages, not just today. Choose colours which you love and can live with. They needn’t match your fabrics – in fact, I almost never match fabrics to the paints, but of course, you would like them to look good together. And don’t tell your friends the colours you have chosen. Usually what is your favorite is not their favorite.
6. Have a pleasing melange of prints and weaves, not forgetting the rugs. This way you will live with these choices for a long, long time. Animal prints work very well with chintzes, and they have been around forever.
7. Put moldings up on plain bare walls to create the look of panelling. Then they can either be painted as the walls or be filled in with wallpaper or fabric or be, as the English say, “pointed” which merely means having little lines of a contrasting colour.
8. Forget your fear of brown furniture. Most antiques are brown furniture and the brown looks wonderful when it is contrasted with painted furniture. and chintz. and wallpaper. and beautiful curtains and rugs and so on and so on and so on. Look at Winterthur or the Metropolitan Museum and see how masterfully print fabrics and beautiful rugs, and painted furniture look with brown furniture. Get over it! And make friends with antique dealers. They can be such a learning experience for you, and if they are good ones, they will let you know when they get in something that would be right for you and in your budget. But do your homework too – learn about things so that when a dealer says “Hester Bateman” or “Thomas Seymour” or “Ebonite” to you, you know what in the world they are talking about.
9. Take time with your details – Don’t go cheezy with curtain trims, go for real silk rather than rayon or cotton or linen or even wool. Tapes along the bottom of skirts, lovely gimps delineating the inset fabrics of chairs and settees, contrasting welting on chair covers and upholstery, smocking on curtain tops and dressing table skirts, wonderful wastepaper baskets, thermoses by the bedside with a little tray and a glass, beautiful bedlinen – these are just some of the details that make a traditional house special.
10. Lamps and lampshades. Don’t just be generic here – You might love the single or double gourd for its organic purity, but there are tole lamps and wooden lamps, and pottery lamps and lamps made from figurines. There are lamps of decalcomania and bouillotte lamps of painted tole, big lamps and small lamps, and most of them need shades. Get a good lamp store with whom you can work so that your shades will fit your lamps perfectly. Sometimes you can buy what you need right off the floor, but sometimes you will have to make your shades, so you want your lamp store man to help you with your measurements. I love to work with a man here named Alan, and he makes sure that my lamps are wired properly for safety and fitted with the proper harps. Them we measure the lamp together, and I order my shade from one of my many different shades makers – sometimes paper, sometimes silk, sometimes pleated down the sides or ruched at the bottom, sometimes with tiny inset contrasting fabrics around the base between the bottom band and the field, sometimes smocked. Casual, very dressy, plain, or grand, lamps are one of the most important things in the room. And their light is so important too. I was once privileged to work on a beautiful large modern house with the absolute king of lighting design, and I asked him what was the best form of lighting in a room. Do you know what he told me? “A lamp with a shade.” So there.
Thank you so much Leta for these wonderful tips! As a side note, I was intrigued to learn that Foster interned with Colefax & Fowler in London in the fall of 1982. You may recall from Friday’s interview with Mario Buatta the instrumental role John Fowler played in his career. “I love Imogen Taylor [a partner with Colefax & Fowler] who still has a wonderful influence in my mind when I come to needing a decision. ‘What would Ms. Taylor do?'” Foster said. So many of my favorite designers are connected to this firm! More on Foster’s English influence can be read here.
When I think about interior design, I find myself constantly asking “What would Leta do?” She has truly created some of the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen. For more inspiration from Foster, I highly recommend her book Traditional Interiors (mine is tattered and torn from use!) in which she describes in detail the key elements for creating your own traditional, timeless rooms. The book is divided into four main subjects that illustrate and explain the often complex design process – Curtains, Walls, Upholstery and Trim, and The Details. I reviewed her book here. You can tour a classic Florida home she designed here, an ocean front home here, and a historic Virginia home here. For daily inspiration, please follow @letaaustinfoster on Instagram, and when in Palm Beach you must visit the Leta Austin Foster shop in Palm Beach, which she opened to satisfy her meticulous search for the ideal accessories such as linens, tableware, silver, and furniture.