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
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
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?
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
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
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.