In the old-money-obsessed 1980s, Mario Buatta was one of the go-to designers for the rich and famous. His love of English country decorating and glossy floral fabrics earned him the title “The Prince of Chintz.”
Buatta's luxurious interiors, with silver-leafed ceilings, glazed walls, patterned carpets, ornate antiques, elaborate draperies and all that flowery fabric, may read as blue blood indulgences today, but his skill at mixing colors, patterns and prints has influenced contemporary California decorators who attempt a similar layered look with ethnic accents and modern furniture.
And in an era defined by Belgian gray and industrial furniture, Buatta's sumptuous spaces are being reexamined by younger designers as an antidote to 21st century minimalism.
At a recent appearance as a keynote speaker during the Pacific Design Center’s Westweek, the Prince of Chintz played at being “The Joker of Décor,” rattling off one-liners like “I don’t dust. I consider it a protective coating for fine furniture.”
Wearing an obvious hairpiece and reading from a scroll of scribbled-on paper like a character created by 1950s comic Sid Caesar, the Staten Island, N.Y.-born 78-year-old led a delighted audience through a slide show of images from his first 432-page monograph, "Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration" (Rizzoli, $75).
Some of his decades-old interiors, such as the 1976 bedroom with ikat-style fabric, bamboo furniture and a taxidermy trophy head on a textured blue wall (shown on the cover of the book) looked remarkably up-to-date.
Buatta recalled famous clients, including Jacqueline Onassis, Barbara Walters and Mariah Carey. “She had a loft in Soho that we turned into a Park Avenue apartment, because they don’t like entertainers on Park Avenue,” he recalled of the pop singer. “And I put a butterfly canopy bed in her boudoir and filled the shelves with mercury glass globes. She wanted to get rid of those. She said they were spooky.”
At an autograph session afterward, Buatta made an announcement: “This is a little personal. I’d like you to meet Harold,” he said. “We’ve been together for 17 years. He’s my life partner and sleeps with me every night.” Harold, it turns out, is a plastic cockroach on a retractable fishing line that Buatta sends skittering across the desktop. But, seriously, folks: In a Q&A with L.A. at Home, the legendary decorator weighed in on design matters with humor and inspiration.
Welcome to L.A. What do you think of California decor?
It tends to be very contemporary these days and suitable for the climate. It’s not what I would call grand, but there are many decorators with style who worked here: Frances Elkins, William Haines, Tony Duquette, Michael Taylor and Jay Steffy. Of course, they’re all dead.
In your five decades of decorating, what has changed?
Everything. Today, I call it interior desecrating. Most young people who call themselves interior designers are just stylists. Everything they do looks like a window setting for a shop. They don’t know much about the classics and the history of architecture and design. They’ve never heard of the great New York decorators like Sister Parish or George Stacey. No one knows about him. He was a miserable ... but a great decorator with an amazing talent for color and arranging things. I’ve written a foreword to a book about him that’s coming out next month.
Why did it take you so long to write your own book?
I’ve been asked for years, but I think it’s the kiss of death. [Laughs] Because next month, I’ll have something in a magazine, and they’ll look at the book and say, “Oh, he’s doing the same thing he did 50 years ago. Who needs that?” But it’s the style that I’m known for.
And you’ve stuck to your guns. You’ve probably never thought of using a platform bed, have you?
Oh God, no. It has to be a four-poster with a canopy. Once you’ve slept in a canopy bed, nothing is as cozy.
After 50 years of decorating, what else endures?
Antiques. And things that have been passed down in your family give your house character. Whenever a client says, "My grandmother gave me this," I always say, "Great, let’s use that." Today, young people don't want antique things like brown wood furniture and old silver, and that’s sad because those things give rooms warmth.
How do you feel about 20th century furniture?
I suppose Knoll pieces, like the Mies van der Rohe designs, are practically antiques now, but I grew up in an English Tudor house with 1930s Art Deco and [Art] Moderne furniture — my parents thought antiques were secondhand junk — and I hated it. My mother was like Joan Crawford in the film "Harriet Craig." She had everything clean and pushed up against the wall so you couldn’t stand by a window and look outside. The living room was always ready for company. But nobody ever came. All the walls were pink and the carpet was russet. My Aunt Lily had a blue and white and yellow kitchen, and I said, ‘Why can’t we have that?’ I love color. I always have.
What about neutrals, which so many people seem to prefer?
If the 21st century is going to be known for anything so far, it’s going to be known as gray. Before that it was beige. That’s sad. I like rooms with color I can almost taste -- glazed apricot, lemon, pistachio and eggplant walls. And don’t forget the ceilings.
How can furnishings bring a space to life?
Gold and any metals pep up a room. If you are talking fabric, I love Lee Jofa Floral Bouquet. I’ve had it in seven of my apartments since 1963 and still have a big roll of it in case I need to change it. But I like it even more as it gets older. It has a black background and after years in the light it sort of melts into tans and browns.
Have any advice for people who couldn’t afford to hire Mario Buatta?
I think now is the best time for people who are decorating on their own. They can find good design at Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and in the Ballard and Neiman Marcus catalogs. I love the mirrored furniture at Horchow; you can’t beat the price. Integrating those mass-market things can make a house stylish, but not everything should be store-bought. Make sure that your home is a reflection of who you are. When people have things they have collected over the years — that gives their rooms personality. All designers are inspired by the things they see and carry with them. It’s how you put it together that makes it your own. And there’s no need to hurry. Houses come together over time; it’s like a garden that’s always growing.
So, what does your place look like?
I live in an apartment in a 1929 Federal-style town house with apricot walls and a floor painted to look like the floor of a Russian palace. I sleep in a bed from the Brighton Pavilion in England that was made for Prince Albert, but he never liked sleeping in it. I have paintings of dogs that hang on sashes of silk with bows at the top by the ceiling. And I have an octagonal dining table. I think I’ve used it twice.