Mario Buatta: Prince of Chintz

Interview

Friday, November 08, 2013

Interior designer Mario Buatta is sometimes called “The Prince of Chintz.” And he loves it. In the 1970s and 80s, he made a name for himself creating opulent, English country style interiors for the rich and famous. He’s designed for Jackie Onassis, Barbara Walters, and Henry Kissinger — he also created rooms in Blair House, the White House’s guest residence. The new book Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration showcases some of his greatest hits, including a 98-room castle in California.

But for all the pomp of his interiors, Buatta himself is all fun, a notorious prankster who carries a mechanical cockroach and a stringy toupee in his pockets. That’s one way to deal with a fussy client. “This isn’t brain surgery,” he tells Kurt Andersen. “It’s decorating.”

Buatta’s own apartment (which you can see in the slideshow below) is chockablock with blue and white porcelain, floral upholstery, and 19th century portraits of dogs. He’s a self-diagnosed hoarder: “I hate dusting. I think of dust as protective coating to fine furniture.” So he met Kurt at a restaurant, one of his favorites — a bistro called Swifty’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where many of his wealthy clients live. (Buatta designed the interiors 14 years ago.)

Buatta describes creating an interior like dressing a set for a movie: “You wouldn’t put Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire in a Noël Coward setting [ala] Design for Living.” But dealing with the people who will live in that space requires an additional set of skills. “You have to be an actor. You have to make believe you like them, you like their husband, you like their furniture, you like their bratty children,” Buatta says. “You have to be a psychiatrist to find out what they like and what they don’t like. And then you have to be a lawyer to collect your money.”

Although his interiors suggest old money and lots of it, Buatta says it’s possible to achieve aspects of his designs on the cheap, thanks to copies by Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. “You don’t need to have a fortune to have taste.”

 

Slideshow: Mario Buatta’s Interiors

Kurt Andersen (left) and interior designer Mario Buatta (right) at Swifty’s, a New York restaurant decorated by Buatta.
Felicity Sheehy
Kurt Andersen (left) and interior designer Mario Buatta (right) at Swifty’s, a New York restaurant decorated by Buatta.
A portrait of the namesake of Swifty’s restaurant.
Felicity Sheehy
A portrait of Swifty himself.
The entrance hall and dining room of Buatta’s apartment.
(c) Scott Frances courtesy of Rizzoli New York
The entrance hall and dining room of Buatta’s apartment.
Buatta’s living room features a collection of dog paintings, blue and white porcelain, and, of course, chintz.
(c) Scott Frances courtesy of Rizzoli New York
Buatta’s living room features a collection of dog paintings, blue and white porcelain, and, of course, chintz.
The entrance hall of Blair House, the White House’s guest residence. Buatta covered the walls in a 19th century French tobacco-ground Mauny paper.
Nichols / Architectural Digest; © Condé Nast
The entrance hall of Blair House, the White House’s guest residence. Buatta covered the walls in a 19th century French tobacco-ground Mauny paper.
The main sitting room of Blair House. Margaret Thatcher was the first head-of-state to stay in its quarters.
Nichols / Architectural Digest; © Condé Nast
The main sitting room of Blair House. Margaret Thatcher was the first head-of-state to stay in its quarters.

    Music Playlist
  1. Rose Room
    Artist: Benny Goodman Sextet
    Album: Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music
    Label: Columbia/Legacy
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Flowers On The Wall
    Artist: Nancy Sinatra
    Album: Boots
    Label: Boots Enterprises, Inc.
    Purchase: Amazon

Guests:

Mario Buatta

Produced by:

John DeLore and Jenny Lawton

Comments [1]

Ken from cleveland, ohio

Many years ago I rescued a bronze[y-looking] floor lamp from the clutches of the next morning's garbage truck. Today I see that same lamp featured in work by Mario Buatta. (See in the lower-left of the photo above, just behind the creme armchair.) Mine's noticeably dustier though.

I feel quite proud now... like I took in a hobo who later became an Elvis impersonator.

Nov. 11 2013 04:44 PM

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.