I am delighted to welcome Luzanne Otte back to The Glam Pad today for week five of our of our six-week series on Patricia Altschul. Today, Luzanne is analyzing the life and legend of Mario Buatta, one of the greatest interior decoratvors in history who just so happens to have decorated four of Patricia’s homes over the course of their 35-year friendship. Luzanne will also take us inside Patricia’s iconic Charleston home with before-and-after images illustrating Mario’s magic touch, and Patricia graciously offers tips on how we can all bring a little of that Mario magic into our own homes. Welcome back, Luzanne!
By Luzanne Otte
When I bought my first home, my mother asked if, in selecting household furnishings, I had attempted to channel Deeda Blair. The vision of Blair in Restoration Hardware on the 3rd Street Promenade amused me for a moment until I was brought back to reality. “You cannot live on a blank canvas of white on white. You need add a pop of color.” As I brainstormed achromatic color options to punctuate the space without disrupting feng shui, as if reading my mind, she clarified, “No beige. No gray.” The first time Patricia viewed my linear color palette and sparse surroundings, she offered a mystified, “I’ve heard of you people.” I proudly peeled back a white duvet to uncover a white coverlet by Léron and reveal color by way of D.Porthault fleurs des champs sheets and chardons Luzerne pillowcases. This infusion of color with mixed patterns did not impress Patricia as much as I had hoped.
Despite gravitating toward minimalist meets mid-century modern for my living environment, I appreciate magnificent interiors without discrimination to the particular style (unlike some people I know. See above). Blatant personal bias notwithstanding, the Isaac Jenkins Mikell House (herein “Mikell House”) is the most breathtaking home I have ever had the privilege of visiting. Photographs capture an imposing estate but the inherent limitations of the medium fail to communicate that it’s inviting and comfortable, too. The first part of the article provides an introduction for some and a refresher course for others on interior designer, Mario Buatta. In the second part, Patricia offers design instruction informed by her longstanding partnership with Buatta and how to cultivate coziness on every scale.
Marvelous Mario in a Nutshell for Fellow Design Heretics and Infidels
Who is the aesthete whose éclat and unerring attention to detail animates the timeless elegance of Patricia’s home? The Prince of Chintz and purveyor English country interior design reinvented for an American audience, Mario Buatta. When a decorator’s name is employed by Architectural Digest parlance as a verb (“Buattafied”) and an adjective (“Buattaful”), they have achieved impressive renown. When the invocation is positive and occurs during their lifetime, they have indubitably earned the status of icon.
Please do not misconstrue the aforementioned facts as my drinking the cult of Buatta Kool-Aid. I acknowledge and respect his status as a premier decorator but, as an adherent of a function over form ethos, I have questions. For instance, is the haphazard draping of blankets really necessary to cultivating the undecorated look? Why does a man purported to be a color composition genius insist on referring to the yellow paint in Patricia’s double-drawing room as “apple-green”? Perhaps my issue would be more appropriately directed toward Benjamin Moore, but Buatta is in a position to effect change and does nothing more than perpetuate the misnomer. But hey, we all have our faults. My unpardonable offense, according to Buatta, might be contributing to the popularity of the Albert Hadley beige home furnishings that plagued his childhood.
After ingesting the entirety of the Buatta digital archive, I have extrapolated two inarguable conclusions:
(1) the mere sight of a Pottery Barn catalogue could spell his imminent end; and (2) he is a master of interior design from whom valuable lessons may be derived.
- Born in 1935 in Staten Island
- Childhood home was contemporary; absent limited exceptions for family heirlooms, anything old was considered second-hand
- At age 11, he purchased an 18th century Sheraton writing box on layaway
- Studied architecture at Cooper Union, and took evening courses at Pratt and Columbia
- Two years after his mother’s death, enrolled at Parsons School of Design’s summer session in London
- Key personal influencer – Aunt Mary, his mother’s sister, who decorated every room in a different style and constantly evolving designs
- Key professional influencers – John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster of Colefax and Fowler, Billy Baldwin, Keith Irvine, Sister Parish
- Professional career began at B. Altman & Co. and Elizabeth Draper, Inc. as a junior decorator
- The moment of inspiration occurred upon viewing Nancy Lancaster’s yellow drawing room in 1963
- Local news reporter, Chauncey Howell, bestowed the sobriquet, “Prince of Chintz, ” in 1984
- Noteworthy clients include Patricia Altschul, Mariah Carey, Nelson Doubleday, Malcolm Forbes, Henry Ford II, Billy Joel, Ann Johnson, Geraldine Stutz, Barbara Walters
- Arguably, the love of his life is a plastic cockroach, Harold
The name “Buatta” is inexorably linked to cozy opulence and cheerful color, unerring attention to detail, a keen eye for scale and proportion, and capturing the essence of a client in a way that tells their story. Neophyte and seasoned decorators alike would be wise to invest in his monograph, coauthored by Emily Evans Eerdmans, “Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration.”
At 432 pages, it’s alotta Buatta! (my apologies for the lack of impulse control) Upon reviewing the Buattapedia, decorative elements emerge that inform his signature style: mixed prints and patterns, overstuffed chintz sofas, Chinese secretaries, canopy and/or four-poster beds with D. Porthault linens, infusions of whimsy in unexpected places, hand-painted silk pillows, confectionary curtains with fanciful trimmings hung from custom pelmets, round dining tables.
My library includes no less than 50 so-called “books” on interior design, but this is the only one that reads like an actual book. The tome goes beyond the traditional coffee table book with inspirational images from Buatta’s oeuvre into the genre of autobiography. Much like the decorator himself, the book is an anomaly. It includes tales from the field, rules to consider when approaching a design project, and insight into Buatta’s particular process.
As I read the book and culled interior design archives for interviews, I wondered how many times Buatta has answered the same question in exactly the same way. Why doesn’t an interviewer go rogue and ask about his favorite food? Favorite historical period? Favorite book? I would be bored senseless. It’s no wonder he took up with Harold. Or could it be that the repetition was a strategic move by Buatta to develop a brand?
Buatta’s esteemed coauthor, Emily Evans Eerdmans, was kind enough to respond to these musings. Eerdmans remarked, “You are very perceptive to see [Mario] repeats the same story. He was one of the first decorators to have a clear brand. I think it was a big part of his success – aside from the natural genius, of course.” Buatta’s business acumen was manifest by at least age 13 when he advised his father, a retired bandleader for Rudy Vallee, on merchandising strategies for the Buatta Music Center. It’s no surprise that Buatta parlayed his brand into theoretically lucrative licensing deals for home furnishings, textiles, fragrance, wallpaper, etc. Beyond the personal benefits derived, Buatta made Patrician-inspired home furnishings for a Plebeian audience. This degree of commercialization runs the risk of diluting a brand but, in Buatta’s case, it appeared to have merely expanded.
The next day, I received a follow up message from Eerdmans. Buatta shared that his favorite food is “for humans” (I immediately add, “Get sassed by Mario Buatta,” to my bucket list and then crossed it off). Favorite cuisine – Italian. Favorite historical period – Regency. Favorite book – his own, the Buattapedia. Apparently, he’s not much of a reader. That comment is only partially intended to be shady. Buatta loves books, but does not identify as a reader.
Buatta’s penchant for self-promotion, sense of humor, and likability are undeniable. No personality is more seductive to the seemingly impervious high-society doyenne than the insult comic. Execute the shtick with finesse and you are in like Flynn; misstep and you risk becoming a social pariah. Many have failed where Buatta has succeeded, but let’s not take that dark turn down memory lane. Notwithstanding my lack of doyenne status or Buatta’s tacit acceptance of Benjamin Moore’s willful disregard of the color wheel, his charm makes me want to hire him for my next project. By “hire”, I mean, “graciously accept his design services gratis.” I think we can all agree that the promotion of good taste provides a compelling justification.
Buatta’s Design Philosophy
What sets Buatta leaps and bounds beyond new school designers is his mastery of architecture and history. Buatta understands how structural elements like moldings, columns and doorways not only frame a room, but are necessary to facilitating the proper progression of the rooms. Where the elements are lacking, Buatta has them reconfigured.
Buatta relies on historical reference and borrows from the Old World to imbue projects with a sense of timelessness. This timelessness first captured his attention when he laid eyes on the “buttah yellah” drawing room in Nancy Lancaster’s Avery Row flat featured in a 1969 edition of House and Garden magazine. The space instills an immediate sense of belonging because every object looks personal. Lancaster may well have bought some of the tchotchkes at the Tesco checkout the night before the shoot, but the vignette portrayed the undecorated-decorated, well-loved look that captivated Buatta and became a integral part of his signature style.
Extolling the virtues of a deliberative process, Buatta offers a poetic vision of interior decorating, “I like to think of decorating a house the way an artist paints a picture. Perhaps a dab at a time on the canvas until the composition comes together and it’s pleasing. It’s important to think about that. There’s no such thing as decorating a room in 6 weeks or 6 months and saying it’s finished because no room is ever finished.” The view of a room as a living canvas that evolves alongside its owner is key to achieving the ultimate decorated-undecorated look. Moreover, the approach provides hope for those with more taste than funds, as the scope of the project may expand or contract over time as one’s budget allows.
The quote is excerpted from an interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, “Interior Design: The New Freedom with Mario Buatta (1981),” available here on YouTube.
Buatta & Buattanista, Inc.
A mainstay of effective management is drawing upon the knowledge of experts to realize a particular goal. As Lee Iacocca once quipped, “I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.” Steve Jobs echoed the sentiment, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Patricia adopts this sage approach in all of her undertakings. Thirty-five years ago, she retained Buatta’s expertise and the two have enjoyed a fruitful partnership ever since.
When interviewers ask of which project Buatta is most proud, he cites work on the Blair House (a cluster of the President’s four guest homes) in 1988. Fair enough, it is a question aimed at securing his subjective answer. A comparison of the before-and-after photographs of the Mikell House make a strong case for it being at the pinnacle of Buatta’s transformation repertoire.
Patricia’s Shares Overarching Design Formulas
Before the restoration of the Mikell House, Buatta partnered with Patricia on her Fifth Avenue maisonette and country home on Centre Island, Southerly. Drawing upon their collective experience, Patricia has gleaned design and decorating formulas that apply irrespective of budget. These considerations include, but are not limited to: color scheme, proportion and scale, and comfort. The following is a summary of the detailed instruction provided in The Art of Southern Charm.
Every room starts with its wall color. Once you winnow the options from the paint swatches, set the cardstock aside and purchase samples of the paint. Most professional painters will give the samples to you for free. If you are the painter, it is well worth the [$5-10 per can] expense. The best way to decide which color will work best in the room is to paint the wall itself and see how it saturates. Using broad strokes, paint the color options side-by-side and leave them up for a one week. Observe how the colors transform from day-to-evening and in artificial lighting. Keep in mind the affect of the existing paint on the sample colors. The contrast of a dark background will make the samples appear lighter, whereas a light background will make the samples appear darker.
Patricia’s entrance hall and stair hall are painted in a pale faux-marble finish. The double drawing room walls are enrobed in the Benjamin Moore color discussed supra. The library features lacquered, Chinese red walls with luminous Gracie gold tea paper on the ceiling; Colefax and Fowler striped wallpaper encases the morning room; Manuel Canovas in the master bedroom; Gracie in the powder rooms; Christopher Norman in the butler’s pantry; Zuber in the dining room. Monotony is the enemy of ambiance.
Scale is the relative size or extent of any given object. In this context, scale refers to the placement of furnishings and decorations in ways that complement the particular room. Designers envision the arrangement as one unified whole, rather than disparate parts. Patricia shares a tried-and-true living room layout that has the Buatta imprimatur, “A pale sofa flanked by two club chairs with a large, low, square, Chinoiserie coffee table. Place occasional tables – garden stools work perfectly – next to the club chairs. Movable armchairs or may be added, if space allows, in order that people in conversation can move about the room. To personalize the layout for your home, host a party. See where people are standing and pay attention to where chairs wind up at the end of the evening.” If the living room is large, repeat the layout. Creating seating groups makes an immense room feel more intimate.
Once the seating group is in place, decorate the room with a mix of contemporary and antique furniture with varying heights. This keeps the eye traveling up and down, which prevents the space from looking like a flat sea. Patricia recommends a Chinese secretary with shelves to offset shorter furniture. Effective ways of opening up space are large corner banquettes and mirrors. Gilt detail catches the eye with its coruscating brilliance. Abiding by these considerations aids in effectuating stylish cohesion.
Comfort is accomplished in countless ways, creating flow between spaces being among them. Ideally, the exterior of a home complements the interior by facilitating a natural progression from one to the other. If Patricia eschewed the boxwood parterre garden in favor of a landscape of bamboo and cacti, a visitor would have no choice but to turn around and leave the property with haste. This is not to say that there is not a time and a place for succulents, but it would serve as a nonsensical introduction to the Greco-Roman architecture. Gas lanterns, the boxwood parterre, piazza with original Minton tiles, all set the stage for what lies within this quintessentially Southern estate.
When a visitor enters the Mikell House, their eyes are drawn right due to the natural light flowing in from the piazza. The observant will notice a seamless transition between the exterior light buff Minton-tiles with four-sided dark brown tiles at the intersection and the Haleh Atabeigi hand-painted floors of the interior.
Other instances of stimulating flow by bringing the outside in are in the double drawing room and dining room. In the same way that the Lee Jofa Hollyhock patterned chintz acts as a visual extension of the lush garden, so too do the Revolutionary War panels by Zuber.
Where the furniture is formal, such as Patricia’s 18thcentury English dining room set, Buatta suggests adding a sisal rug and ebullient curtains to prevent the room from becoming too grand. Integrating whimsical pieces, as well as mixing prints and patterns, are surefire ways to offset the formality of a room.
Attention to lighting schemes (overhead lighting is the enemy) and olfactory senses contribute to creating an inviting space. Furniture that is, in fact, comfortable is a sensible means of promoting comfort. Perhaps the easiest way to engender comfort is to decorate with cherished objects – stacks of books, family heirlooms, beautifully displayed collections.
A home is a multi-dimensional construct with an internal unity determined by the interplay of biological, physical and psychosocial constructs. All of these complex layers lead to the inevitable conclusion that the understanding of what constitutes a home is something more than mere brick-and-mortar. Whether you are designing the interior of a mansion with Mario Buatta or a yurt with an Ikea associate, remember that the coziest home is the one that tells your story to all who enter.
Thank you Luzanne for this fascinating analysis of Buatta’s work, and his “Buattafication” of Patricia Altschul’s home. They make an incredible team, and what wonderful lessons for us all! If you missed the first four weeks of The Glam Pad’s six-part series of guest posts from Luzanne Otte, links to get caught up are below:
- WEEK ONE: INSIDER SECRETS FROM PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S HOUSEGUEST
- WEEK TWO: THE HISTORY OF SILHOUETTES AND AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA ALTSCHUL ABOUT HER COLLECTION
- WEEK THREE: THE INSIDE SCOOP FROM PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S BUTLER, MICHAEL KELCOURSE
- WEEK FOUR: PATRICIA ALTSCHUL DISHES ABOUT HER FAVORITE TABLE LINENS
For additional information, please consider A Day in the Life of Southern Charm’s Patricia Altschul by Luzanne Otte for Town & Country, Patricia’s book, The Art of Southern Charm, and past features on Patricia and Mario Buatta from The Glam Pad:
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S TIPS FOR CREATING A TIMELESS HOME
- 10 OF PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S FAVORITE THINGS
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S HOME IN CHARLESTON HOME + DESIGN
- MARIO BUATTA AND PATRICIA ALTSCHUL EXUDE SOUTHERN CHARM IN CHARLESTON
- SOUTHERN CHARM WITH PATRICIA ALTSCHUL
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S DERBY PARTY IS FULL OF SOUTHERN CHARM
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S MANHATTAN MAISONETTE: DESIGNED BY MARIO BUATTA
- MARIO BUATTA’S TIMELESS ALLURE
Stay tuned next Friday for the grand finale of this special series, as Patricia is answering questions from readers and followers. And if you have questions, please leave them below in the comment section!