Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Mario Buatta, and I am delighted to share highlights today. Known as the “Prince of Chintz,” Buatta is a legend in the design world who has been designing homes for the elite for over fifty years. He was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 1985. I have been in love with Buatta’s romantic chintz-filled rooms ever since I was a young girl, and his work has been most influential in cultivating my passion for interior design. So when he agreed to visit with me, thanks to Patricia Altschul, I was thrilled! Buatta immediately put me at ease with his famous charm, wit, and warmth. Two-and-a-half hours later, I felt as if we had been friends forever! I realized that Buatta’s interiors are indeed a reflection of his warm and gracious nature. They are always elegant and refined, yet cozy and comfortable with a dash of whimsy. They immediately draw you in for a nice long chat.
If you haven’t yet read Mario Buatta – Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration, it is simply a must. What strikes me most is the timelessness of the rooms. Of course photo quality will date any image, but if it weren’t for that, you would be hard-pressed to determine which rooms were designed in the 1960s and which are from today. In fact, Buatta told me, “I look at my book, and I look at my past jobs and they all look the same to me because they all have the same feeling – they don’t have the feeling of having been done yesterday. You can’t put a date on them. There is something in my brain that works that way.” Intrigued, I was determined to learn more. Buatta has been credited for bringing English country style to America. What I didn’t realize is that he quite literally did so, mentored directly by John Fowler, the British designer who invented the look.
Since Buatta and I both share a passion for history and appreciate the importance of historic reference in interior design, today I will focus on his early history and how other legendary designers helped influence and shape his career. Below are excerpts from my interview with Mario Buatta…
I asked Buatta if he has a formula for the “Mario Buatta” look that has withstood the last 50 years, and he answered, “I have a wonderful gift, and I don’t know who gave it to me, whether it was my mother or my father, but I can see years ahead what’s happening, and in another maybe 20 years, chintz will be forgotten.” I was on the edge of my chair!! And then, in classic Buatta style he said, “I’m teasing… I have no idea. But I have always loved traditional decoration.”
Ironically, Buatta grew up in a home on New York’s Staten Island that was entirely white and art deco in style. It was “a very cold house – a beautiful house right out of the deco period – but I just never felt comfortable in it,” he said. “My mother and father thought of antiques as second hand furniture.” He then shared the following stories:
“I bought my first antique when I was 11 years old. For $12 I bought an 18th century English writing box with a flat top and inlay on the front…. The inside was all drawers and nooks with pink paper, it was lovely. I brought it home and paid for it on a layaway plan – 50 cents a week – and my father said ‘Where are you going with that’ and I said my room, he said ‘No you’re not, I don’t where that came from or who had that before you.’ So I had to put it in the garage for three days, and I think more things crawled into it than crawled out of it! So then I put it in my room and started eliminating all of my maple boys room furniture.”
“All of my friends at school were mostly WASP-ish, and I would go to their houses and see they way they lived. They always had fresh flowers and magazines and books, and I’d say to my Mom ‘Why don’t we live like that with magazines and books?’ And she would say, ‘Well we have plants. Flowers make a mess and they don’t last long.'”
Buatta credits his Aunt Mary, whose home was “cozy and full of flowers with beautiful colors,” for inspiring his love of traditional style…
“My Aunt Mary was my mother’s sister, and she had the most beautiful house. It was like a show house because every year when she received the latest House & Garden, which was the Bible in those days, or House Beautiful, she would redo a room to whatever style they were pushing that season. So each room looked like you were in a different house! She was terrific and had a wonderful eye,” he said. “My Aunt Mary always had beautiful gardens and a decorated house that was cozy and comfortable. I used to love to go there… That’s how it all came about. She was constantly doing things and I was fascinated by it all.”
Even in his childhood, Buatta was intrigued by homes and design. “I was always drawing up houses back then. I used to draw all the time in my books at school. I wouldn’t listen to the teacher, I was drawing houses,” he said. “Anyways, I always had a mind for beauty, and I loved England. I loved the way the English lived, I loved the way they decorated… so that all happened when I was young.”
At 23, Buatta went to Europe for a year with the Parsons School upon the recommendation of Albert Hadley. “When I came back, I worked for B. Altman & Company Department store in the decorating department store where I was made a junior decorator. It was great, but I still wasn’t that inspired until I went to London in 1963 on my own and walked into Colefax & Fowler. I had seen in House & Garden the ‘buttah yellow’ room of Nancy Lancaster, and I wanted to see that room in person” he said.
Buatta had previously worked for Keith Irvine who came to the United states in 1957 after having been trained by John Fowler. As fate would have it, Buatta’s visit to Colefax & Fowler led him to meet Fowler, the man who would ultimately hold the most influence over his career. The legendary Fowler, also known as the “Prince of Decorators,” created The English country house style with Sibyl Colefax and Nancy Lancaster. And soon, Buatta would bring his signature interpretation of the style across the pond, forever transforming American interior design.
“He had a wonderful sense of humor and he could also be very professorial,” said Buatta of Fowler. Buatta then shared that during their first meeting, “he was laughing at me, and I thought ‘what is he laughing at?’ Well that day I had stopped by the men’s store on Bond Street and I bought a pocket square for my suit. And he had the same one on!”
Fowler then invited Buatta to join him in visiting Nancy Lancaster the following night for her birthday. Lancaster received them in her bedroom as she had the vapors, and she was complaining about the “bloody Americans” invading their country. Buatta asked, “Where did you say this lady is from?” Fowler responded, “She’s American,” and pulled him out by his ear. Lancaster’s secretary came running out saying “This young man is rude! He insulted Mrs. Lancaster!” The next day, Buatta sent her a box of her favorite chocolates. That weekend, Fowler invited Buatta to visit Lancaster at her country home, Hasley Court. Lancaster came running out to the car asking Fowler, “Why did you bring this dreadful man to my house?” Meaning Buatta. “So I didn’t turn off the motor, I thought we were leaving right away. John said, ‘Get out of the car you damn fool!’ And so she started to show me the house, and she said ‘You’re not interested in this, you’re not interested in that.’ And John said, ‘Oh yes he wants to see every nook and cranny!’ So she went about it, and I was just so amazed… just the way she kept everything, and it didn’t look decorated, it just looked cozy and lived in with beautiful things,” said Buatta who enjoyed staying at Lancaster’s country home two subsequent times.
From 1964 to 1976, Buatta’s Christmases were spent in England. Fowler would take him to clients’ homes and he met curtain makers, lamp shade makers, antique dealers, and other inspiring people. “I used to go to John’s every year at Christmas for about 12 years, and I would go over three times a year on buying trips. He would often invite me to stay in the country. Those weekends were always a lot of fun – the gardens were beautiful, the food was delicious. I learned everything from him. He had a wonderful sense of this ‘undecorated look’ as I called it. When I got a new apartment, I wanted to do yellow walls like Mrs. Lancaster, and so he gave me a chip of paint, but when I got it back to New York it didn’t look right, so I made it even darker. When it was done and printed in House & Garden magazine, I showed it to him and looked at it with squinted eyes and said, ‘Young man if you’re going to copy me you could do a better job!’ And I said, ‘Oh no Mr. Fowler, I didn’t copy you, I was inspired by you.’ And that was that.”
The legendary American designer Sister Parish was also friends with Lancaster and Fowler, and she would visit occasionally while in London. “Sister had an amazing eye for creating rooms that looked like they had always been that way. I learned a lot from her and I learned a lot from John, more than from any other decorators. I loved the shops in Paris and various other design firms, and I appreciated what that they did. I would pick up little things here and there and ask the decorators all about it. Things that you store in your brain, and then you put it together your way,” Buatta said.
“So that was my beginning. Also in my beginning was Keith Irvine who worked for John Fowler for nine years as his assistant. He came to America to work for Mrs. Parish for a year and then started his own business. When I came back from London in ’61 from the Parsons School, I was called by a friend who wanted me to meet Keith Irvine. He offered me a salary of $40 a week, but I was making $140 a week with Mrs. Elizabeth Draper. So I didn’t leave. I should have because a month later I was fired because my hair was too long. It was almost a crew cut, that’s how long it was! She was very sweet to me all through the years, calling to check on how I was doing. But Irvine then hired me for $40. It was amazing. I walked into his office and showroom, and I was just so bowled over by the look – It was that English look of everything looking as though it had been collected over many, many years. So that’s how I learned really through Keith and Fowler. Not any Americans really, except for Mrs. Parish and Albert Hadley who encouraged me to go to Parsons and Europe – he was very helpful to get me on the right track. Whatever it was that I had in me, I think it was that I always admired people who had furniture that looked like it had landed there for years. And I think that is what got me my start. I never liked modern, I never liked contemporary. I just like old. The older it looks the more I like it. Antiques have charm and they have a sense of history. They are romantic, there is something about them,” said Buatta.
ON THE FUTURE:
Mario and I commiserated on the state of interior design today. “Everything is a display,” he said. “It doesn’t look like anyone lives there. So many people don’t know what they are doing, and they place furniture in the weirdest ways. They become decorators over night, and they don’t know the history. They don’t know what was made in 195o or 1850. They don’t learn it and they don’t study it. Young people today have no reference. They don’t want Grandma’s furniture, they don’t want anything brown, they don’t want anything old. It’s weird, it’s very weird. I think it will come back, although not as big as it was like in the ’80s when everything was chintz, chintz, and more chintz.”
Regardless of what the future holds, one thing is certain and that is the lasting impact Mario Buatta has made within the world of interior design and the legacy he will leave. For more on Buatta’s work and his fascinating life, I cannot more highly recommend his book, Mario Buatta – Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration by Mario Buatta with Emily Evans Eerdmans. Some of my favorite images from Buatta’s expansive portfolio are below, along with original artwork by Jennifer Ashley depicting the origins of his magnificent career.