Design superstar Mario Buatta, the so-called "Prince of Chintz" and lover four-poster beds and 85-pound (a guesstimate) window furnishings, did not want to write a book. "Years ago, in the old days, decorators did not do books," Buatta, now in his late 70s, says by phone. "I thought a book was a kiss of death, but [publisher] Rizzoli hounded me for five years, so I said 'OK, I'll do it for my 50th year.'" And so, last fall, half a century after his first day in business ("I still feel 27") Buatta rolled out his 432-page compendium, a seven-pound tome like a "Venetian scrapbook," stippled with five decades of decorator showhouses and chunks of 98-room California chateaus.
Having spent his childhood inside a modern Art Deco home in 1930s and '40s Staten Island, where antiques were deemed "second-hand," the ultimate adolescent rebellion ("the battle," Buatta dubs it) was collecting old furniture, which he started doing when he was 11. His decorating aspirations first came from visits to his aunt's house, where chintz was changed out season to season and every room cycled through trends from the pages of House and Garden and House Beautiful. "I wanted to be an architect, I thought. Turns out I was more interested in the inside of a house; I didn't care where the pipes went."
As the decades passed and Buatta's complex interiors poured from the pages of shelter magazines, well-heeled folks from Southampton to Palm Beach (including Barbara Walters, Malcolm Forbes, and Mariah Carey) sought him out, lovestruck by the richness of pattern and color of the rooms he created. Still, he insists even an aesthetic as recognizable and amply wrought as his own depends on understanding what sort of space a client "would look best against," he says. "You wouldn't put Blanch Dubois in a Grace Kelly Setting."
Buatta also has much to say about "what's going on today" in the realm he once reigned, concerns exemplified by, of all things, decorating books. "These vanity books—30 to 40 to 50 a year—they're all from young designers who've been around three, maybe four, years," he says. "They're looking for jobs. I'm not looking for jobs."
In many ways, the "Buattapedia," actually called Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration, is a direct response to those monographs. "Waiting until now with the book was very smart. I go out on the road and see people, middle-aged women who have been fans for years. When you see what's going on today in decorating, where everything comes from Crate and Barrel and Restoration Hardware, it's nice to meet people that still have the wherewithal to live with beautiful things."
His next book? "It'll be The Devil Hates Chintz," he says, ever the scamp. "I've been to the devil five times. He's sent me above the grass five times and said 'You get back above the grass and take down that chintz!'" Yeah, Buatta's not going anywhere. And thank goodness for that.
Tidbits from the anthology, below:
↑ In the Hamptons, Buatta brought a pang of "Regency whimsy." In the guest bedroom, a bone four-poster gets a striped pennant valence (with wood tassels!) and zebra dressings. "It was done to look like the inside of a gazebo, with the bamboo wallpaper that looks like it's a cage," Buatta says by phone.
↑ Smitten by the work Buatta did for the previous owners of this neoclassical 1930s house designed by John Staub, the new owners called upon the designer to revamp the space according to their desires. The walls were "glazed in daffodil yellow," while yellow plaid curtains cloak the windows. "The result is a room that glows day and night." Of course, there's plenty of floral as well, including roundels on the Aubusson-style carpet and chintz throughout. Also in the space: "a Chinese papered screen [that] masks a doorway and grounds the room's frothy palette with its deep patination."
↑ Buatta again turns to a four-poster bed for this 1976 showhouse, using it as a means to mix print and pattern. On the walls, blue denim got a "criscross-glaze" treatment, while, for the bed, Buatta brought in zigzag toile de Nantes and a lining of canary yellow silk. The floors were hand-painted to resemble an American quilt. Despite publishers telling him bedrooms "don't sell decorating books" Buatta insisted again and again that this be the cover image for his encyclopedia.
"It's blue and white and yellow, my favorite colors," Buatta says by phone. "I grew up in a house that was all rusty colors; rust and chartreuse, typical of the ['40s and '50s] period. I remember we went to go visit my mother's brother and the kitchen had blue and white tiles. I asked my mother why we didn't have something like that and she, being very Italian, said 'it's too Irish.' I love it, though."
↑ Here's what Buatta pulled together for a 30th-floor Fifth Avenue penthouse: beaded-glass pagoda wall sconces, a mirrored wall, silk taffeta florals, and a "japanned Queen Anne bureau bookcase" to "bring the eye up and emphasize the vertical," he writes. It's all anchored by walls in a shiny eggplant. "It's one of my favorite colors," he writes. "It's what I used in my first apartment."
↑ In 1970, when this apartment, Buatta's first NYC digs, got published, "many acclaimed the rooms for their highly personal and slightly rebellious retrograde, layered styling," it says in the book. In the red bedroom, a Regency four-postertakes up most of the visual space, with a white-and-cherry quilt for "humble elegance."
↑ For a San Francisco showhouse, Buatta commissioned four giant panels, painted to be a life-size, two-dimensional rendering of his design. "I just couldn't figure out how to physically get all the furniture in the truck in two weeks," he says over the phone. This shot, taken in 1973, was Buatta's debut in Architectural Digest.
· All On the Books posts [Curbed National]
· All Mario Buatta coverage [Curbed National]