This exlusive interview with legendary interior designer Mario Buatta was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in New York during March 2011
Interview with Mario Buatta
Tell us why you chose to be an interior decorator and how you started your career.
I grew up in an English Tudor style 1940's house on Staten Island which my parents had built to their specs and decorated in 1930's Art Moderne and Deco. The interiors were painted off white and colours were related to that period. Chartreuse, rust, browns, silver, tans, beige, soft greens, browns, rosey rust and browns and oh, my room had Mondrian design beige and browns design rug and pale blue walls with a fake Santa Claus proof mantel and all the maple furniture that could be found that filled the room corner to corner! I was not a happy camper and when I turned murkey 16, I was able to decorate it to my liking. I selected chocolate pudding (my-t-fine) for the walls and woodwork with a crème ceiling and the interior of the closet in red. The 'Mondrian' and the summer cool switch plaid sisal went to an attik bedroom and wall to wall hunter green replaced them. Since I was 11 I began collecting antique furniture and objects that caught my fancy. The painter thought I was a little nutty but, I was told that the room would look like the inside of a barn to which I replied that's the look I want.
I never took to my parent’s ideas in decoration and so I fell into the lap of my mothers' sister, Aunt Mary (more like an Auntie Mame) whose also 1940's English style hose was decorated, every square foot, with summer and winter chintzes, Hecklewhite, drunken Phyfe, Chickendale antiques, and the latest that Baker and John Widdicomb had to offer. Also in sight my first glimpses of Chinooserie decorated pieces, porcelains, and Chinese murals on the walls of the entrance hall. I shopped with her accompanied by her W&J Sloane's decorator to locate the next bit of decorative history to fill her never ending quest to have finished rooms. I was her Patrick and she the fun Aunt!
Now consider that their father built private homes on the island and their brother Uncle Salvatore was the architect. He died when I was 5. My grandfather saw me following in his footsteps. After two years of Liberal Arts college studies, I went Cooper Union in N.Y. to study architecture but I wasn't liking the math and thinking where a pipe or other necessary things went. My interests were in finished houses, how to then improve on them and decorate them to my likes. My studies were interrupted in the third month when my Mother suddenly took ill and died. Luckily after being out for two months I was asked to start over the next semester.
A year later I found an assistant decorating position at the then very popular decorating dept. of B.Altman and Co. in the city. After two years there, I attended the Parson's School of Design in Paris for the summer and stayed on through the year to reaquaint myself with European and English houses that I liked. I returned to New York and took a job with Elisabeth Draper, (the socially connected one who decorated primarily residential projects for old New York families,) and then took a job with Keith Irvine.
Mr. Irvine came to New York from having been the assistant to John Fowler to the employ of Mrs. Henry Parish II he started his firm in about 1959. It was under his employ that I became enamored of the Colefax & Fowler look. It was primarily the famous "buttah yellar" room of Mrs. Claude Lancaster otherwise known as Nancy. I came across the room in a book of English interiors published by House& Garden.
I couldn't wait to arrive in London ASAP to see it person and I did in 1964. I visited C & F and was introduced to Mr. Fowler who arranged for a visit to the B.Y. room. It was magical- a room filled with memorabilia and furnishings of houses past and present- a "scrapbook" of their life. I was a very changed person in my point of view of decoration and the use of colour in England. Although I was always in love with my Aunts' house and beautiful garden (she was the prizewinner here too!) I was a changed person. Many trips to London shopping for jobs etc. And bringing back ideas that whetted my appetite.
In 1968, I moved into a parlour floor of a brownstone which afforded me two large rooms, lots of light and sunshine and a canvas to paint my own English style a la Nancy L. and John Fowler. I planned the room on paper doing a maquette of the four walls and floor plans. It was published in 1976 in Architectural Digest. I showed it to J.F. during a subsequent visit and reply was ..."Dear boy, if you wanted to copy my work, you could have done a better job!" Whereupon I replied that I was not trying to copy him but, that I was inspired by him.
How do you choose your clients?
I try to meet them on their own turf. That gives me an idea of how they live etc. If it is a house in the making we might meet at my office or with their architect. Most prospective clients call having seen work you have done for their friends or in periodicals. It is important to find out the beginnings as in any other relationship as the client-decorator can go on for decades with other family members and other residences . You become like a member of their family. I have a dictum that goes - to be a decorator - you have to be an actor, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer! An actor to make them believe you, their spouse, children ...their house and furnishings; a psychiatrist to figure out their likes and the why of their dislikes and; a lawyer to collect monies due! First meetings are important.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration came to me in the paintings of Matisse, Bonnard, Kenneth Noland and Vuillard with their use of colour and shadow lines and romance. Also Morris Lewis, and a few fifties modernists. Not much now. They call everything art these days!
Rooms in European and English houses too with their decoration and generations of added objects and artworks. Chateau Groussay in France, Charles de Beistegui, and works of Jansen - Stephane Boudin, Billy Baldwin, Michael Taylor, Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster, George Stacey etc. They don't make ‘em like that anymore- history in design has been thrown by the wayside by too many since 1971 in the schools today.
How would you describe your personal style?
Personal style- "undecorated look" rooms that don't look as if they were put together in the last six months. A house is like a garden - it grows with u all during your lifetime. One adds and make changes as new things come into your life. It is an unfinished canvas.
I like to use the best quality soft goods and furniture that you like and is appropriate for the room and semi- antique (or the real thing) depending on one’s budget. Here, the best thing is to realize it will take a while to collect all the things u need or want until u can afford the best.
I think comfort, colours ( in different rooms- be they night or day rooms), proportion, and suitability must be taken into consideration first. Decorating a room the way an artist paints a canvas- a little at a time and the rest when the spirit moves you is how I think. Nothing is ever finished until you say your final goodbye.. I have been told that my oldest work is very much viable for today. I take it as a great compliment as I strive to make rooms that have a touch of the past with nuances of the present. No shocks or obvious trendy tricks-I hope!
If you could choose any painter in the world (living or dead) to make a painting of a favorite room you've designed, who would it be?
Matisse, Bonnard, or Vuillard.
You've been featured in many magazines over the years, what is your view on current lifestyle magazines for men?
I think most magazines geared to and for men today rely on the notion that you are not a man if u haven't developed your abs. Very much like it is for women re: breast size, hair, weight- to me superficial and not anything to do with the real values of and in life. Hair grooming is another superficiality especially the balding head- most women find the Yul Brunner look very appealing. And tattoos... Yuk!
Looking at people in the streets and the way they dress down makes u wonder what happened to civilization. Was I away and returned to find what happened to ties? Your lady friends knock themselves out (more evident these days) and the guys go tieless- open shirted or out of their trousers- unkempt hair and unshaven !!!
Why is it hard to find sophistication these days?
Sophistication? Out the window and in with blue jeans! It's funny to have people stare you down in the street if you wear traditional garb.
I've worn the older preppie look all my life and feel comfortable in it. I've never owned a pair of jeans- not they can't look good mixed with tweeds but, it's not my thing. In the interior design business it is important to give your client the background that represents their lifestyle. In other words we set the stage for our clients to live their life against. In other words I wouldn't decorate a room or house with silks and damasks and satins if the client wore basic outfits of cottons, denim etc. It is not to say that you have to dress up to be sophisticated. Basically sophistication is a bad word today to some in this new world of the melting pot look.
It is 1970 and we are meeting in Rome for a private party hosted by Luchino Visconti. What are you wearing? In addition, whom do you want to meet?
1970.....in Rome, Italy....35 years old and at a party with Sig. Visconti in his casa ....I am wearing a blue linen blazer , striped blue and white shirt, white linen trousers and yellow slippers from Morocco-- and hoping to visit the famous fountain that Anita Ekberg splashed about in and to meet her there by chance! I was in Rome years earlier when they were filming "La Dolce Vita" - great memories!
The above interview with Mario Buatta © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.