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To Create Timeless Decor, Simply Acquire Taste

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles plays periodic host to leading figures in the field of interior design. When such an expert comes to town, the House Guest column is our opportunity to sit down in a nice, comfortable chair and have a chat.

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New York-based Mario Buatta designs for such rich and famous clients as Barbara Walters, Henry Ford II and Billy Joel and such high-level public spaces as the Blair House in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Opera House offices.

A major player on the international design scene, Buatta, dubbed the “Prince of Chintz,” chaired the New York Winter Antiques Show for 17 years. He now is chairman of the collectors and connoisseurs committee of the 2-year-old Palm Beach International Art & Antique Fair, and held the same position at fall’s first Beverly Hills Art & Antique Fair.

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Famed for his irreverence (for his fall lecture here, titled “If You Can’t Hide It, Decorate It,” he stepped to the podium wearing a scraggly black wig over his balding head), Buatta sat down to discuss today’s design scene.

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Question: You love designing with floral chintz--what’s the appeal?

Answer: It cozies up a room and makes it homey. I don’t think you should use it in every room, but it does add color and if you have to depend on cut flowers for color it can get very expensive. Chintz is coming back into vogue, by the way.

Q: Is interior design subject to trends?

A: Yes, but I’m not. I have been doing English country style since 1963. By that I don’t mean 5,000 ruffles and buffles, but subdued opulence. I’ve done modern houses too, but my heart is with old English painted furniture, cozy chintzes, color and late 18th- and early 19th-century painted furniture of Italy, incredible florid, painted pieces.

Q: Pieces like we’re seeing at this antiques fair--what compels dealers to bring a billion dollars’ worth of silver and furniture all the way across the Atlantic to these shows, which they increasingly are willing to do?

A: The dealers want to meet audiences because the audiences aren’t coming to them now. You have people today with newfound money from Wall Street or business who’ve built these huge houses, and now have to furnish them. They don’t know what dealer to go to in Paris, but they can discover one here, then next time they’ll know where to go. And for beginners, these shows can serve as educational museums, a good place to train the eye, and the dealers are always happy to answer questions.

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Q: You are saying that beginners should not be intimidated by an array of elegant Regency silver or Louis XVI fluted mahogany cabinets?

A: They should never hesitate to ask questions. Most dealers are delighted to help you--they have no idea how big your pocketbook is. This is how you can train your eye.

Q: What’s the advantage of a trained eye if a young couple is on a tight budget?

A: It helps them develop a blueprint--a plan for what this room will look like eventually--and go at it slowly. With stores like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel, you can get good design for a low price. Then you can start going to antique shows and developing an eye. And you can do a great transformation with a can of paint.

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Q: What advice do you have about actual purchases?

A: Decorating today is a major investment, so don’t buy something just to fill the space. You need to shop intellectually, not emotionally. Even when you do have a good budget, you don’t find all these pieces overnight. Buy the best possible upholstery, starting with a good custom-made mattress and box springs. You will have good upholstered pieces such as chairs and sofas forever. Then start filling in the spaces with side tables and that sort of thing.

Q: What about getting ideas from shelter magazines?

A: Except for Architectural Digest, the magazines feature rooms that look like movie sets. I call it “dysfunctional"--no lamps, no table to place your drink, no place to read. Who lives here? A house should be a melting pot of things that happened over your lifetime--things that become a scrapbook of your life. Europeans understand this more than Americans, who tend to move five or six times and throw away everything. Too many design schools today just address the 20th century. Some of the young designers have never been in a pretty house, a fine house filled with antiques.

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