By Lacelliese King
As of January of last year, I must confess that I was not intimately familiar with Mario Buatta’s work, much less aware of the magnitude of the Prince of Chintz’s royal following. Nor did I have any inkling that what was soon to become one of the most fêted design events of the decade would also essentially be a last hurrah for 2020—and beyond. It was only when I learned that a friend and interior designer who I greatly admire, Rush Jenkins, had been tapped to design the exhibition that would provide the mise en scène for the forthcoming Sotheby’s auction of Mario’s estate that I knew that I simply had to see it in person.
A year and a pandemic later, I am still astounded by the experience. I was certainly late to the party when it comes to Mario, but after being surrounded by his friends (and of course, his many, many things) the opening evening of the exhibition, and seeing a panoply of celebration for a man who it seems it was so natural to know and love, I count the event among some of my most formative and treasured memories. (I recapped my experience in a piece for PaperCity that I wrote afterwards during a blissful weeklong stint in New York that, happily for me, was made even longer by a blizzard.)
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the auction, which came on the eve of an era during which our homes have become the center of our worlds. Comfort, chintz, and a chic collected-ness, which were hallmarks of Mario’s designs, have become cachet. And if I was able to feel so much fondness for Mario, his sense of humor, and his style in such a short amount of time, it is hardly surprising that his legacy, influence, and following have grown to an iconic scale, largely embraced by the Grandmillennial movement. After a lifetime of design influence as documented by Emily Eeerdmans in Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Decoration, is it possible that Mario’s impact on the design world has only just begun? Or are we just on the verge of comprehending it?
What better occasion, I thought, to honor the Prince of Chintz than by picking up the phone to catch up on the last year (a daily habit of Mario’s, Christopher Spitzmiller tells me, that Mario rarely missed) with a few of Mario’s friends and talent behind the auction. I am delighted to share portions of these conversations and reflections on the year since the Buatta auction — as told to me below.
Rush Jenkins, Exhibit Designer, WRJ Design
Recap for us briefly the process of designing the exhibition. What did the response to the exhibit and auction mean for the larger interior design community?
Mario Buatta was known for the collection he amassed during his lifetime, and the first step of designing the exhibition was to wrap my head around the scale of it all. Then I focused on how to display it all in a way that would reflect Mario’s own layered style, while also allowing the objects space to breathe and really shine. My main focus was how to appropriately spotlight the most important pieces, and also add an element of drama and surprise to compel viewers through the exhibit.
The auction itself was so fun to watch with almost every piece going for far more than the estimate. So many design legends came to the exhibit and participated in the auction: Bunny Williams, Charlotte Moss, Alex Papachristidis, Jane Churchill and Kathryn Ireland to name a few. These people are tastemakers in our industry and they set the trends. It was a great testament to see such well-respected individuals as well as younger people in their 20s and 30s buying things.
Over the past year, how has the exhibit and auction influenced interior design and how do you think it has impacted the future of design and where/how money is being spent?
We are seeing such a big trend among Grandmillenials buying just the kinds of things that Mario Buatta loved. The popularity of mid-century modern that has been so prevalent for the past decade seems to be shifting back toward a maximalist, English Country style. The Buatta sale was the perfect tie-in to this trend of people wanting things that have a history and uniqueness. We’ve also seen so much popularity among period dramas like The Crown and Bridgerton and those intricate, detailed interiors are definitely coming back.
Since the pandemic hit, people are also spending more money on their homes than ever. Instead of asking us for inexpensive items that they can get quickly, our clients want quality, durability and distinction. This goes hand-in-hand with Mario Buatta’s style and sensibilities. He collected what he loved and surrounded himself what things that made him happy, and now everyone is following suit.
What effects have you seen in your own work? And what are you working on that we can look forward to next?
We have always felt it important to incorporate antiques into our work, but we are finding more and more that clients are specifically asking for that. It has become very common for our clients to ask us to curate their collections and figure out the best way to display it. My intent is to always feature their collections thoughtfully and prominently within the home. I’ve curated more than 60 exhibits throughout my career and that has really honed my understanding of how to give certain objects the right ambience through lighting and placement.
We are currently working on a great range of fun projects: a penthouse in NYC, a ranch in Colorado, and multiple homes in the Yellowstone Club, Deer Valley, Aspen and of course Jackson Hole! We love working with clients and projects that give us the opportunity to do diverse work all over the country.
Briefly remind us of your relationship with Mario and your role in planning the auction.
Mario and I met over a decade ago during the course of me writing his book: Mario Buatta, Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration. Through that we became very close friends — he was like family. When he was really sick, I was one of the few people regularly with him at the hospital and when he died. Upon his passing, his estate hired me to oversee the sale of the collection. I had seen his apartment before, but it was only after his death that I truly discovered the scale of his collection: a houseful in Connecticut, multiple surprise storage units, etc.
I am so grateful that I got to be the person who went through his things as we decided what to keep for the auction, because I understood his legacy — and the legacy he wanted — well. Thinking about that played a role in considering every. single. object. for the auction catalogue. Mario always knew what he wanted and would keep after it until he got it the way he wanted, so I was determined to do the same, which even led to adjusting those iconic blue bows as midnight approached the night before the exhibit opened! I had interviewed the auction houses and decided on Sotheby’s and chose my former Sotheby’s graduate school classmate, Rush Jenkins, to design the exhibition. I had seen what Rush had done for the auction of Bunny Mellon’s estate, and so I knew what he could do for Mario’s.
As far as achieving the impact and success of the sale, it was exactly what Mario would have wanted for himself. He truly embraced — loved, in fact — seeing his name in print. It was validation to him of what he had accomplished, and he saved every news clipping or mention of his name in a couple of big scrapbooks.
Reflecting on the year past, what has changed, if anything, and did the auction set the course for a major design movement?
I knew that the auction would be huge, but I certainly did not expect it to take on a life of its own as it has since! I think that there are a few factors that contributed to the sale’s success and the subsequent interest that continues growing.
First, there was already a pendulum shift taking place in the design world that moved us back toward buying items like antiques and needlepoint. It is even permeating fashion: it’s in the air and it’s fun. It’s not necessarily like your grandmother’s style — it’s more lighthearted. I think overall we are definitely having a maximalist moment.
Second, the Mario sale just would not have been as big without social media. It reached younger people through Instagram, who became interested in buying. It was also Sotheby’s first-ever sale using the online bidding platform, which encouraged more new bidders than ever to participate. So the simultaneous maximalist moment was given even more energy by the auction.
Post-auction, of course, came the pandemic (and the sale could never have been what it was if timing had been different). Since then, we have all been at home, thinking about our homes. People care about what is surrounding them more than ever. This ties in with Mario’s message of beauty and joy and being surrounded by things that you love. Going back to Instagram, people are sharing more than ever, and they are seeing their homes as part of their image. Their surroundings are part of a tableau that says something about their taste and style. And because of this, people don’t want it to all look the same.
How are you carrying Mario’s legacy at Eerdmans New York? What are you doing that is similar to the way Mario did things, and how are you innovating on the foundation he created?
Since the auction, I had a lot of time to think during the pandemic. As people moved out of New York, the apartment that is connected to the Eerdmans New York gallery came open — and suddenly my husband and I found ourselves moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan! We opened the connecting door and fully decorated it all in Mario colors. Haleh Atabeigi did a mural on our staircase—which is not necessarily exactly what Mario would have done, but that’s where I have taken his inspiration and made it my own. I also hired a painter Mario regularly employed to paint a room in a deep aubergine hue, so it has been fun working with the same people with whom he enjoyed working.
And I am doing decorating consultations! I have my own spin on things but it comes from commonality with Mario. (One of the main reasons I originally agreed to write his book is that we shared a love of Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler.)
In the mean time, we have collaborated with Moda Operandi to offer additional pieces from Mario’s collection which are available now, and at Eerdmans, we launched Buatta Boutique, which is full of items directly from the estate. Some of the furniture has been restored and freshly upholstered with fabric that is also from Mario’s estate.
This summer, Eerdmans will host a show featuring the work of George Oaks and Lucinda Oaks, which will include Mario pieces, and watercolor paintings by the artists. And stay tuned… I am working on another book about Mario which will include images and materials not published before. *TGP Note to readers: mark your calendars for next spring!
I feel like Mario is still whispering to me… he has had such an influence on me and I’m not the same person that I was before this story began. You know… now even the sight of a dead cockroach can make me smile!
Haleh Atabeigi, artist and Mario’s muralist
Tell us about some of your observations and reflections over the year since you painted your final mural “for Mario” in situ at Sotheby’s for the exhibition. From an artist’s perspective, how do you think the exhibit has changed us?
The hugely successful sale of Mario’s collection at Sotheby’s, began the past year with a nudge towards the desire for comfortable and colorful living spaces. We had no idea how poignant that was about to become. A year after, I feel that the Prince was definitively proven right about our deep and inherent need for color and texture in our homes. We are now at a point where we can ponder what to do with our collective new-found appreciation for our home environment. Color seems to be on the minds a lot these days. The joy of layers of different values and hues, finding a palette that makes us happy.
I’ve heard too often being said: “I don’t have the courage to use the colors that Mario Buatta used.” Color produces the courage, not the other way around. Color-courage is a leap of faith, once you stand in a room you just painted a “courageous” color, you suddenly feel brave, and confident. Just choose carefully, and if you hit a road block, call me for a consult or a custom mix.
This has been a unique enough year in so many ways, that it has caused real change in all of us. When it comes to our homes, this past year has made us all more honest about our needs. It’s time to confess those needs to ourselves, and allow for some fluctuations in our decorating identity.
What have you been working on and what can we look forward to next?
As for reflecting on my own days in the last year, I spend a lot of time in my studio painting, as opposed to my usual work-life of constantly traveling to paint.
Last year this time I had just finished painting the mural at Sotheby’s, this year: I just finished painting a mural for Emily Eerdmans. Mario bookended 2020 for me, I came full circle back to him by working with Emily. I’m grateful to her for asking me to paint in her new beautiful shop. Emily had a great idea for us to work with as inspiration, and a starting point. I re-designed this idea to fit the space with important input from her, and made a color composition that produced the feel she wanted. We were both very pleased with the result.
My current painting in the studio is on a wooden window valance. I had it made, very easy carpentry job, and I’m in the process of painting detailed chinoiserie scenes. I’m having a lot of fun inventing the scenery, getting ideas from various places. I had assumed I would age it so it looks antique. Then I decided not to, it’s so pretty shiny and new. All the antiques we see now, used to be new one day. I’m attracted to the idea of “New Antiques.” It is so hopeful to see the Grandmillenial movement taking off. Why not aspire to become the grandma/grandpa that brought home a beautifully hand painted custom made object in 2021? Let’s continue in the tradition of Mario Buatta, and use color and beauty to give us courage for life.
Tell us about how you knew Mario and how you’re channeling his memory.
Mario was a good friend and a jokester. He called me every day of the week – I like to say that sometimes gave me the weekend off… but often he did not. He really provided what is a good lesson in friendship: to have a friend, you need to check in and pick up the phone and call, especially in this day and age and what we’re going through now. A phone call conveys things that texts and writings just don’t. Call your friends.
Looking back a year after the auction, do you think his style has changed the way we are decorating?
Well, Mario had sooo much stuff – I had urged him for years to have a sale. But he did not want to let things go, and was especially defeated by the thought that it might sell for less than he paid. He was a collector to the point that it was pathological! Ha! He couldn’t have just one of something, like the dog paintings!
I do think that Mario endeared people to the idea of having older, eccentric things. He believed that a room was an evolving thing over time that could just get better with age. But no, I don’t think that too much has changed as a result of the auction, because we were already seeing some of his style well underway. Kevin Perry, for example, had a booth at last year’s Nashville Antiques show that was very influenced by Mario’s design. Chintz was already coming back in. And I was not at all surprised to see auction items fetch the prices that they achieved. But as a result of the auction, it was nice to see people get to have a true piece of Mario to bring into their homes!
*TGP note to readers: stay tuned for the release of Christopher’s new book, A Year At Clove Brook Farm, available to pre-order now.
We chatted at the opening about our shared affection for the many dog paintings amongst all of Mario’s other stuff! May we see a picture of your acquisition in its new home?
Andrea, Editor-In-Chief, The Glam Pad
From your editorial position, how do you think this “Mario movement” has aligned with his design philosophy? Was Mario not only the Prince of Chintz of his time, but perhaps ahead of his time?
I like to imagine that Mario is looking down from heaven with a big smile on his face as the Millennial generation embraces his legacy. In an interview I conducted with him in 2017, he was dismayed by the state of the decorating world. “Young people today have no reference,” he said. “They don’t want Grandma’s furniture, they don’t want anything brown, they don’t want anything old. It’s weird, it’s very weird. I think it will come back, although not as big as it was like in the ’80s when everything was chintz, chintz, and more chintz.”
He hit the nail on the head. As Emily said, Mario loved publicity, and the buzz surrounding the Sotheby’s auction could not have been greater if he had orchestrated it himself. According to House & Garden, after attending the spectacular Sotheby’s auction of Andy Warhol’s estate in the 80s, Buatta confided to a friend “I want an auction like this.” And that is precisely what he got. Just as the 1988 auction catapulted Warhol mania to new heights, the Buatta auction ushered in a pendulum shift in interior design. Even in death, Mario continues to be a trailblazer.
Thank you to our friends for their wonderful insights into Mario’s legacy!
To read more about the magnificent life and designs of Mario Buatta, please enjoy the following articles from The Glam Pad… We also highly recommend Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration (aka the “Buattapedia”) written by Emily Eerdmans.
- “BUATTACON” – MARIO’S FINAL FAREWELL
- THE MAGIC OF MARIO: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF MARIO BUATTA
- MARIO BUATTA AND THE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE STYLE IN AMERICA
- MARIO BUATTA’S TIMELESS ALLURE: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE PRINCE OF CHINTZ
- MARIO BUATTA’S EXCLUSIVE DECORATIVE PAINTER, HALEH ATABEIGI
- SOTHEBY’S ANNOUNCES MARIO BUATTA SALE
- MARIO BUATTA’S MANHATTAN APARTMENT IS FOR SALE
- MARIO BUATTA’S FINAL PROJECT
- MARIO BUATTA ANTIQUES FOR MODA DOMUS
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S HOME IN CHARLESTON HOME + DESIGN
- MARIO BUATTA AND PATRICIA ALTSCHUL EXUDE SOUTHERN CHARM IN CHARLESTON
- A FRESH LOOK INSIDE PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S CHARLESTON HOME
- PATRICIA ALTSCHUL’S MANHATTAN MAISONETTE: DESIGNED BY MARIO BUATTA
- AN ELEGANT MARIO BUATTA–DESIGNED HOME IN MANILA
- FAREWELL MARIO BUATTA, THE BELOVED PRINCE OF CHINTZ
- MARIO BUATTA DESIGNS A 1930S JOHN STAUB HOUSE IN HOUSTON
- A COUNTRY ESCAPE BY MARIO BUATTA
- A PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED MARIO BUATTA APARTMENT!
- MARIO BUATTA DECORATES A GLAMOROUS MANHATTAN HIGH-RISE
- PALM BEACH ENTERTAINING, MARIO BUATTA, AND A PAGODA POOL HOUSE