By Louis Postel
Photography by Deirdre Matthews
Originally published in DX at Home
Here is the scene. (When you’re with Mario Buatta, there’s almost always a scene.) We’re at the Sherry Netherlands Hotel, shooting photos of a pied-à-terre belonging to clients of Mario Buatta, the aristocratic “Prince of Chintz.”
Buatta’s clients, a prominent couple from Montclair, N.J., direct descendants of Dutch settlers, are away. Their entire space is now a parade ground for our little media regiment: editors, camerawoman, art director, assistants, and interns.
Suddenly, a young and not particularly bashful editor runs from the book-lined dining nook, screaming. What could induce such a state at the incomparable Sherry Netherlands in the heart of New York chic, with Central Park across the street to the west and Bergdorf Goodman and Fifth Avenue to the south?
The voice emanating from the dining nook was filled with real terror. Was this the end of our shoot? What would happen to our cover story? Where was Buatta? Buatta, 68, had been taking his pet cockroach for a stroll. Name: Horace. On close inspection, our editor discovers that Horace is made of rubber.
We return to our media drills, shooting, re-shooting, posing, and kibitzing. “Mario, sit here. Mario, stand there. Under the chandelier by the faux painting in the hall, please. Look at those gorgeous shadows!” Horace follows his master with short, obsequious hops.
Witty, generous of heart and spirit, an exacting artist and craftsman, Mario Buatta is, perhaps, the most famous decorator in the world (along with Philip Stark, the most famous designer). Born in Staten Island, N.Y., Buatta earned his decorating “Ph.D.” in Princeton, N.J., where, starting out, he developed his first clientele. Later came the well-known bold projects for Mariah Carey and the Forbes family and the Blair-Lee House in Washington, D.C.
If minimalism and the “loft look” eclipsed Buatta’s high standing at some point, that is no longer true. Chintz is back with a vengeance. Buatta can be as refined in his materials as the latest SoHo boutique. Like most other great decorators, he knows how to edit “stuff” out. But he offers more: an emotion, a story, warmth, and flair.
Neither he nor Horace is shy about Buatta’s natural exuberance and bonhomie. For Buatta and his affluent clients, the cup is more than half full. Patterns, colors, textures, and various cultures and histories are all elements of his palette, which is grounded in English Country. But Buatta is no slave to any period or style. His touch remains light and modern.
But he is not a modernist. Having grown up in a modernist house, Buatta is a stubborn rebel. Glass and steel – all that Bauhaus gave – is too cold for Buatta, too severe and unforgiving. That is not to say Buatta is a reactionary. A reactionary wants to turn back the clock to a time that never existed. In design terms, a reactionary design is like a bad museum replica. No, Buatta is a true rebel. With the world going modernist, he hears a different drummer and sets off to explore a different direction.
Generosity of spirit seems to be key for the success of any rebellion. My friend the architect and yachtsman Clement Van Buren points to the giant Newport, R.I., “cottages” as example number one. Despite the incredible fortunes and talent that went into them, they are ugly. From the Astors to the Vanderbilts, there was plenty of pretax money and more than enough pretension to go around, but there was not a lot of spirit. And that is where Buatta often succeeds with wit and kindness, one might say, in spite of the giant budgets.
As we’re shooting at the Sherry Netherlands apartment, Buatta can’t help straightening up a little. He’s a tactile man, a visual man. He plumps the couch pillows and adds a little crease. “This is the crease that Donghia used,” Buatta says, referring to the founder of the famous furnishings company.
If minimalism is fatigued at 60 years old, Buatta, at approximately the same age, is all bounce. He touches and adjusts, evaluates and turns every object. There’s a tea set on a side table that Buatta clearly doesn’t approve of. “Who would use a tea set out here? It’s pretentious. It just invites thieves.”
Looking from the hotel window, south down Fifth Avenue, one can almost picture the old Altman’s department store where Buatta started out as an assistant to the 30 staff decorators in 1955. There he met two important designers, Albert Hadley Albert Hadley and George Schryer, who patronized Altman’s celebrated antiques department. Hadley went on to become Sister Parish’s partner in Parish-Hadley and, as many will agree, the ultimate post-War decorator’s decorator.
Schryer took Buatta under his wing, finding him work with Keith Irvine, another famous decorator. In 1962, Buatta started working with Schryer, who was terminally ill. And two months later, after Schryer died, his mother contacted Buatta, asking whether Buatta would be able to serve her son’s many clients in Princeton.
New Jersey was the site of another of Buatta’s defining moments. Five years ago, he got an opportunity to work with Michael Graves, the world-renowned architect, and Princeton University professor. Graves, working in partnership with Target stores, spearheaded the movement to democratize design. Starting with his now well-known teakettle, which he introduced in 1985, Graves made good design affordable to the middle class. Now, there are thousands of design products available from such retail sources as Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and Ikea.
Despite Grave’s commitment to democratization, the Princeton house on which he and Buatta collaborated was far from middle-class, project. When Graves completed the design of the New Jersey house, Buatta decorated its interior. Linking Buatta to the elite, their collaboration has a thrilling irony to it. If this irony bothered Buatta, he doesn’t mention it. The underside of the design world, like the hidden world of Hollywood, is hardly glamorous. All the little devils – envy, greed, and malice – are always waiting to spring. But Buatta stood aside for Graves, waited his turn, and went about his business.
Check the definition of dashing in an unabridged dictionary. You might find a picture of Buatta: tall and brave with mischievous, laughing eyes. He has the aspect of being, perhaps, a bit of black sheep or roué. His demeanor is a good match for this moment in time. His devil-may-care attitude seems a good antidote to the face of terrorism and other threats.
Our discussion turns to Mark Hampton, the great decorator who collaborated with Buatta on the Blair-Lee House, the official guest house of the President of the United States. The goal was to show the best the country has to offer.
I wonder, what about Hampton’s reputed quip that it was the main task of decorators to keep their rich clients from doing anything vulgar? Aren’t understatement and reserve the unmistakable signs of Old Money? And isn’t a low-key manner required of those aspiring to achieve the Old Money look? Although Buatta was a friend and admirer of Hampton, he dismisses this out of hand. “What’s wrong,” he asks, with going over the top now and then? We don’t always have to be so staid.” For Buatta, reserve about one’s good fortune projects a kind of inverse snobbery.
The Winter Antiques Show, for example, has become much too reserved and serious for Buatta. As its one-time chairman, Buatta had turned the show into an international design even for New York City. He describes it as a festival and a “three-ring circus with Lee Radziwill doing a room and all those people lined up to see it. . . I couldn’t have cared less about the antiques as long as they were of good quality. Now there is all this vetting. The show, “he says with a sigh, “is losing its glamour.”
For many observers, the design world has become more accessible and democratic (thanks to Graves and others), but it’s also missing something, a kind of joie de vivre that Buatta represents. And for many in this milieu, this absence of glamour is the result of losing a generation of artists to AIDS. Buatta feels this loss acutely. There is no generation right behind him ready to take over. Although the obituaries list any cause of death other than AIDS – pneumonia and “unspecified causes” – the design world is very aware of what has caused this great loss for which there is no possible compensation.
The photographers wind up their work, and we find ourselves the last stragglers hanging about in the Sherry Netherlands lobby. Buatta has one of those trick $20 bills on a string: it jumps off the floor as soon as a victim stoops to pick it up, and a number of victims pass through the revolving doors.
We notice a sign that says “The Club” in an understated Old Money way. According to the doorman, Mayor Bloomberg was there last night. Today a steady trickle of kids and moms dressed for a Valentine’s Day party enter The Club. Buatta urges me to check out the room without him. “I can’t stand those red stripes on the walls,” he says.
Finally, we head up Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf where a nattily dressed man, a stranger who recognizes Buatta, insists that the decorator did the place of friend of his. Buatta is straining to be polite and shop at the same time. Clearly, he has no idea who the man is describing.
Straightening his $800 Armani cashmere sweater, the fellow tells Buatta that this own decorator is good but ”may not be up to the task of doing my place, which is huge.” Buatta declines to take the bait; he has been here before. He recommends a well-known designer whose office is in the man’s hometown. Not willing to be dismissed so easily, the natty dresser returns to the subject of his mystery friend whose place he insists Buatta decorated. Disengaging himself, Buatta says, “Please send me your friend’s name and address. I’ll send him an invoice.”
We turn east, making our way to the Decoration and Design Building on Third Avenue. Such design luminaries and Brunschwig & Fils and Christopher Norman have exclusive showrooms in the D&D Building. A number of champagne events are scheduled there this evening, and, of course, Horace, a party animal, comes alongOn the way, we greet D&D owner Charles Cohen as he strides and cell-phones his way up Lexington. He seems headed away from the party, not toward it. We step into Darius Antique & Decorative Rugs to check on an order, and then we’re off to Samuel & Sons to find some trim. Work before play.
There’s an infinity of colors and materials, but nothing is quite the right length. “I don’t want my clients tripping over this. Don’t you have anything shorter in jute?” Buatta demands. “Oh well. I will just have this one trimmed.” What is clearly routine for him, strikes me as an awesome display of knowledge and savvy.
In the world of high design, every mistake costs a fortune. It’s fair to advise readers, “Don’t try this at home. Hire a good decorator and save yourself some money.” The complications involved in simple selecting the right trim should serve a sobering warning to any do-it-yourselfer.
Our first stop at the D&D’s Astra Café is a reception for Ann Omvig Maine, editor-in-chief of Traditional Home. Buatta professes to “hate these kind of events, but Ann supports me, and I want to support her.”
John Rosselli, of the legendary antiques showroom, is here, and there seems to be some kind of play rivalry between Rosselli and Buatta. In this crowd, they are the leading lights of the senior generation. The generation of design professionals who should be in their 40s and 50s is glaringly absent, and today’s young designers look like Gen Xers in their 20s.
Exceptions are Roderick N. Shade who just did the room next to Buatta’s at the Architectural Digest show house and is justly renowned for founding the Harlem United Show House, and Jeffrey Bilhuber, whose meteoric rise in the design industry is well deserved and brings even greater crowds to his book signings. His Greek-god looks and good humor just add to the evening’s luster.
Horace trails after us as we make our way through the D&D to the Pollack showroom, where the beautiful designer Victoria Hagan is holding court. Her new line of fabrics radiates her wit and status. Hagan’s client list includes Jack Welch, formerly of General Electric, Ron Perelman of Revlon, assorted Bronfmans, and movie director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose credits include The Addams Family, Men in Black, and For Love or Money.
We move on. Buatta has a theater tickets, and time is short. We rush to the Four Seasons, where design diva Chris Madden is introducing her new line for JCPenney. CEO Allen Questrom, who previously ran Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus, is cordial but not inclined to respond to questions that ask him to compare what Michael Graves is doing for Target with what Chris is doing for JCPenny .Cocktail parties such as these are truly for small talk, and Buatta is the master here, surrounded by admirers.
After a while, Buatta says it’s time that he and Horace leave for the theater, adding that “the Bergdorf bag in the coatroom is for you.” In the bag, I find a deep-purple knit tie by Garrick Anderson. The gift, a gesture that is both royal and lighthearted, is, indeed, very Buattaesque.