When it comes to interior designer Sallie Giordano’s impeccable classic style, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree… Sallie’s mother is the illustrious Leta Austin Foster, so she learned from the best. Educated at Georgetown University and the New York School of Interior Design, Sallie brings a keen awareness of history to her projects, blending an appreciation for tradition with a youthful spirit and a fresh use of the unexpected detail.
Sallie joined the New York office of Leta Austin Foster & Associates in 1994, and she is faithful to the firm’s philosophy that every project should have its own individual personality. An accurate reading of a client’s vision along with an attention to planning and a focus on quality construction are hallmarks of her design work and ensure that each and every room is beautiful, comfortable and unique. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, House Beautiful, Traditional Home, and House & Garden. Today, I am delighted to welcome Sallie for a Q&A. Welcome, Sallie!
Q: What was it like growing up with an accomplished interior designer as a mother?
A: Perhaps everyone thinks their mother has good taste when they are younger, but my mother always had style in everything she did, from her clothes to her dinner parties to her homes, of course. She didn’t really become a professional decorator, however, until I was about 9 or 10, after the umpteenth person asked her for advise on their own homes. But once she decided to do it, she jumped wholeheartedly, turning this tiny garage store room into her office. I remember she kept that same office until her first million-dollar job was well under way. I also remember having to type for her because, of course, she didn’t know how. She was dictating a letter to a partner of hers, and I just remember she kept saying, “decorating is not glamorous; it is hard work. Decorating is not glamorous; it is measuring and following up and following up some more. Decorating is not glamorous; it is not going out to lunch every day.” And finally, I was like, “do you know how many times you’ve said, ‘Decorating is not glamorous?’ And she answered, ‘type it again because it’s not.’
Q: And when did you know this was your calling too?
A: I don’t know if I ever saw interior design as a calling. I had always thought I would be a journalist, but after six years as a magazine editor and 2 lonely years as a free-lance writer, I realized that staying up late and smoking away my writer’s block was not going to be any way to be a mother, so I decided to join my mother’s firm when I got engaged. I do remember that it was quite the challenge to transform what had essentially been an aural creativity to a visual creativity. In fact, years later, one of my first clients took me back to his apartment to show how proud he still was of the work I had done, and I was horrified. But my interest in journalism had involved a catholic interest in all of the arts and travel, and I think that interior design appeals to many of those same interests. You can never stop learning about how different cultures and different generations choose to live. The possibilities for growth and change and new visions are endless.
Q: What is your working relationship like today, and how are your styles the same and different?
A: We are both independent and stubborn but we respect each other’s perspective so much that we always listen to each other’s opinion. I do think we have a different sensibility in terms of palette sometimes. Hers comes from a very sun-drenched background. Having spent most of my years up north, and in New York City specifically, I have more of a penchant for greyer colors which can get washed out by the sun… grey-blues, grey-greens, off-whites.
Q: How did your upbringing in Palm Beach influence your design aesthetic?
A: Well, the Palm Beach of the 70s and 80s was very glamorous, not in a gaudy way, but in a very chic way. Everyone had a sense of carefree chic. I always said that all you needed to live in Palm Beach back then was an old Mercedes convertible, a pair of sharkskin pants or shorts, Belgian shoes and a great scarf. People threw together wonderfully eclectic furnishing and art with such confidence. There was the sense of breaking the rules but only because you knew exactly what they were.
Q: Besides Leta of course, who are your favorite designers, past and present?
A: Living: David Kleinberg, Jean-Louis Denoit. Past: John Fowler, Albert Hadley, Frances Elkins
Q: Are there any signature elements you like to incorporate within your interiors?
A: I’m not sure that I personally see any elements as signature but I am sure my clients would disagree, as we all have our quirks and penchants and I am sure mine resurface more often than I realize, but I like to think that every project has its own character and distinctive personality, which almost always comes from the client.
Q: Your designs are so timeless… What is your secret to achieving timelessness?
A: Whether it be contemporary or traditional, beautiful interiors should always be timeless. One thing I do try to look out for and guard against is falling for the latest trend, which may look fabulous in a $20,000 light fixture, but is quite irritating when it’s copied by CB2, as only a small fraction of people looking at it would know the difference. Still, there is a reason for why beautiful things are copied: because everyone wants them
Q: Where do you find inspiration?
A: Travel, other people’s work, but mostly other people’s homes, especially ones that were decorated a long time ago. I love to see what has stood the test of time; generally it’s about 90% of good work, as long as enough thought was exerted to keep it from being cookie-cutter.
Q: What are the most important lessons you learned from your mother?
A: That beautiful design is usually in the details and the workmanship. With good workmanship, you can make a fabulous curtain out of an inexpensive fabric, but it is impossible to turn an expensive piece of fabric into a beautiful curtain if you don’t use a quality workroom.
Q: What does the future hold for Leta Austin Foster & Associates?
A: I think the core of our business will always be custom, individual-focussed design. We pride ourselves on really coming to understand our clients, to know what makes them happy and comfortable but also inspired. Then we take their vision and translate it into something that is tasteful and that works. I think that element of attention to each individual project is sometimes lost at the larger firms, where even if they produce super expensive product, the element of individuality is lost . That being said, we also know that not everyone is either located in an area that makes that convenient and possible or doesn’t have the time or bandwidth to focus on it. For those clients, we have launched Pretty Fabulous Rooms, which takes some of our signature looks and makes them available at a package price to anyone in the country. You get the curtains, seating, carpet, accessories, the whole shebang with just a click of a mouse. And for the interior design industry in general? I think the design industry slowly revolves in the same circles it always has. Whereas the great interior department stores that used to offer decorating services like Bloomingdales have been replaced with options like CB2 and Restoration Hardware, which offer more of a uniform aesthetic, there will always be both ground-breaking design and high-end ultra-custom classic design being done by individual designers for people who want to pay for it. Custom design is expensive; there is no getting around that. But then again, you live with it for a lot longer than you keep a dress, and you use it every day.
Q: When you aren’t busy designing, how do you enjoy spending your free time?
A: I love traveling with my two daughters, cooking and entertaining, keeping up on the art scene and playing tennis. I’ve also begun to try to learn how to kitesurf, but it’s a steep learning curve! I’ve been learning for 3 years!
Thank you, Sallie for joining us today! I am so inspired by your classic, timeless, and oh so pretty interiors. If you love Sallie Giordano’s work, please stay tuned as we will be touring her historic Oyster Bay cottage on Friday! You will also want to purchase a copy of Traditional Interiors if you don’t already own a copy. And to see my favorite highlights of Leta Austin Foster’s work, please click the links below…
- LETA AUSTIN FOSTER’S PRETTY FABULOUS ROOMS
- PALM BEACH REGENCY – AN EXCLUSIVE HOME TOUR WITH LETA AUSTIN FOSTER
- AN EXCLUSIVE HOME TOUR WITH LETA AUSTIN FOSTER
- LETA AUSTIN FOSTER’S 10 TIPS FOR TIMELESS INTERIORS
- A FLORIDA CLASSIC BY LETA AUSTIN FOSTER
- CLASSIC FLORIDA STYLE BY LETA AUSTIN FOSTER
- LETA AUSTIN FOSTER DESIGNS A 1930S OCEANFRONT MASTERPIECE
- LETA AUSTIN FOSTER REVITALIZES VIRGINIA’S HISTORIC MILBURNE
- TRADITIONAL INTERIORS BY LETA AUSTIN FOSTER
- PALM BEACH PERFECTION ON PENDLETON