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Meet Mario Buatta

One of America's most popular decorators -- Mario Buatta, the "king of chintz" -- shares his tips on how to "undecorate" your home, and much more.

When you hear the word "chintz," it’s highly likely that the name Mario Buatta, ASID, isn’t far behind. The New York decorator is the well-known "king of chintz" and has a long-reported love of the floral fabric—and all things English. But one word can’t define a talent such as Buatta, who has a long resume in the design world. After studying architecture at Cooper Union in New York and attending Parsons School of Design in Europe, Buatta began an apprenticeship in the decorating department of B. Altman and Company, a famous New York City department store. He went on to work with several decorating firms, including Elizabeth Draper, Inc., and started his own firm in 1963.

Buatta has created his own unmistakable style, which he calls, "The Undecorated Look." His general approach is to provide a maximum of comfort by using a balanced mixture of contemporary and antique furnishings. He has performed his magic for a wide variety of clients, including Mariah Carey, Billy Joel, Henry Ford II, the late actress Elaine Strich, Malcom Forbes and Nelson Doubleday. His designs have also been featured in the Kips Bay Show House in New York.

HGTV.com’s roving designer, Mark McCauley, ASID, recently spoke with Mario Buatta:

What is your general design philosophy and how did you develop it?
I was brought up in a very contemporary 1930's Deco Moderne home, but I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Mary, who was a real Auntie Mame. She was terrific; I learned a great deal from her. When I went to her house she always had these great cakes and things and she was always decorating something.

I would go to town with my aunt and her decorator and that’s how I got interested in decorating and in the English style. She had her "summer chintzs" and her "winter chintzs," and her Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture. I loved it all.

I began collecting when I was 11 years old but my father wouldn’t let me bring what he called "antiques" into the house because he felt they would be full of germs and dirty. So I took my collections into the garage. The first thing I bought was an 18th-century box, for $12, and I have been collecting ever since.

You’re well known for combining fabrics in a room—any tips you can share?
When we went to Paris with the professors from Parsons School, they took us through the great museums of Paris, and our professor told us that if we did not understand these paintings we would never be a good interior designer. It was then that I saw paintings en masse by Edouard Vuillard, Matisse and the like and I was just crazy about the use of color by these great painters. The pattern and the texture of their paintings and how they put it all together simply intrigued me.

What I usually do is create a floor plan with the seating areas first, then do all the hard goods—tables, end tables, chests and the like. Afterwards I will take fabrics and place them around the room. We will put a particular fabric in an area and then repeat it on the other side of the room, so that the fabrics are in balance.

Then we will, off of this basic start, put a plaid here, a stripe over there, a checkered pattern, a smaller figured pattern and little by little it all comes together. It’s the easiest way to do it, create the floor plan, start with a particular fabric and then surround it with a variety of other fabrics and patterns. I usually start with a biggest pattern first and then add all the other elements based off of the colors in the largest pattern chosen.

How do you explain your design philosophy of "the undecorated look"?
When putting fabrics together you really want it to look like it isn’t studied, that it was effortless. It is a composition as an artist paints a canvas, something that is very pleasing to the eye—not something that jumps right into your face.

A room shouldn’t look as if the decorator just left, that everything is perfect. There should be minor imperfections. Not big things, mind you. Perhaps a piece of furniture that is left over in the room.

Are there rules of decorating that you use, or break?
There are certain rules that we use, but there are rules that you should break at times, too. You want a little sense of surprise when you walk into a room, I feel very strongly about this.

If, let’s say, the sofa is hidden somewhat, the people who walk into the room experience a bit of surprise when they turn the corner. Also, in a bedroom you don’t necessarily want to see the bed right off. The bed should be perpendicular to the doorway, so that upon walking into the room you are not faced with the side of the bed.

I find one of the biggest mistakes that people make is in terms of scale. The consumer has to be careful about putting chairs that are too small next to a large sofas, or, say, a chair that is too big next to a smallish table, cocktail tables that are either too big or too small in front of the sofa.

You’ve said, "If you can't hide it, decorate it." Can you elaborate on that?
You can fix up a space to great advantage, perhaps even an apartment to which you cannot make structural changes. The cabinets, for example, are not to your liking. Placing a huge armoire in a little tiny room will make the room look bigger and distract the viewer from the cabinets they don't particularly like. So you hid things through distraction, too.

You can hide a multitude of things in a piece of furniture like that. Use drawers underneath the bed, hidden by the dust ruffle, for extra storage. If you have a window that is in the wrong place, consider putting a screen in front of it.

In fact, I feel that you should always have a screen coming into a living room for that element of surprise. If you have a long tedious wall with all the furniture lined up along it, a screen someplace will help to break up that up and give you another feeling of surprise as you pass by it to see what is on the other side.

How important do you feel about the historical "story" of a room?
It’s very important that a room looks as if it has been created over time. You can’t do twentieth-century design without being cognizant of what went on before in terms of nineteenth-, eighteenth- and seventeenth-century interiors. That’s why the furniture from Italy is so great, they understand the styles of the past. The French, the English all have that expertise in historical styles.

It isn’t all about matching; everything should not look like it all arrived yesterday. The whole idea is that a well-decorated room looks like it happened over a period of years of your lifetime. That’s the way rooms should look, filled with things you love, things you have collected. Undecorated is basically that all of it isn’t matchy-matchy, which is part of my whole thing with the use of many patterns.

Your room can be complete, but nothing is complete in life—a garden grows, your room grows. A good designer can create a space that looks like it has grown over the years. You want to create a background that the client can live their life against. It should look like something that relates to the client, not something that looks like it came out of a movie.

Do you have any money-saving tips for the readers?
You can change the entire look of a room with paint. I had a client that told me all of her fabrics were fading and tired looking. So I said, Ok, let’s paint the walls a dark green glaze. The whole room came back to life, the tired looking fabrics took on a fresh, new look. All from a simple can of paint.

Slipcovers made of sheets are also a great way to decorate, and a way to change the look of a room during the course of the year. Perhaps a quilt thrown over a sofa. If you have guests coming, you can use a king-size sheet draped and tucked around an old guest chair and in thirty minutes you can have a whole new look.

One of the things you accomplish in a space is a certain glow based on all of the fabric various combinations. How do you go about creating this glow to a room?
That’s from using interior design composition as in a painting. If you look at the way painters use color, you will get a good idea of painterly technique. It’s a matter of getting it to the point where you have something that doesn’t just pop out at you. What you want to pop out at you in a room is the client. It’s similar to a set for an actor, the set is there to make the actors stand out more.

Finally, I’d like to add one more thing, and that is, as [famous designer] Elizabeth Draper said, decorating is fun. You should always keep that spirit of fun in your interiors, never forget that!

Mark McCauley, ASID, has been an interior designer in the Chicago area for longer than he wishes to reveal. He can be reached at colortherapy@aol.com.

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