Luzanne Otte is back today with a fascinating recap of Mario Buatta and the English House Style in America, a panel discussion hosted by Sotheby’s in anticipation for the auction of his estate. The two-day event, dubbed “Buattacon” was a record success drawing Buatta fans from across the globe, and it is causing a resurgence in traditional, whimsical, English Country Style even with the younger generations. The Sotheby’s panel discussion featured Michael Diaz-Griffith (moderator), Charlotte Moss, Jane Churchill, and Emily Evans Eerdmans who discussed Buatta and English country house style. Welcome, Luzanne!
Panel Discussion: Mario Buatta and the English Country House Style in America
Sotheby’s New York
January 16, 2020
A recap by Luzanne Otte
When Andrea initially requested I report on the Sotheby’s panel discussion, “Mario Buatta and the English Country House Style in America,” on January 16th, I did not commit. As the guest of Patricia Altschul, we would spend the day at a preview for the Mario Buatta: Prince of Interiors exhibition, and I would defer to whatever her scheduling preferences. Even if Patricia decided to attend, what sort of insight could a freshly minted student of interior design take away from a dialogue between design doyennes Jane Churchill (Lady Charles Spencer-Churchill), Emily Evans-Eerdmans, and Charlotte Moss, moderated by Michael Diaz-Griffith? Surely such an esteemed consortium should be covered by a representative from the world of haute décor, not an intellectually curious academic.
As happens on extraordinarily rare occasion, I was dead wrong. At some point in the process of researching for articles, Marvelous Mario and Patricia Altschul Shares the Best Advice She Got from Mario Buatta, unbeknownst to me, I became a quasi-expert on the prince behind the chintz. This expertise is a logical consequence of poring over Buatta’s monograph, and wading through the sea of ink spilled about his projects throughout an over 50 year career. Each Buatta detail that piques my interest in the media is subsequently elaborated on by our mutual friends, all of whom seem to possess endless repositories of anecdotes. Taken together, it paints a portrait of Buatta being the consummate professional with an incomparable work ethic, who had neither the time nor the inclination to know ennui in any form. A waggish sprite who delighted in assuming the roles of eccentric/iconoclast/misanthrope to humor an audience, most especially the friends to whom he was devoted.
While reading an article in anticipation of the then-forthcoming auction, a writer mistakenly listed that Buatta worked for Dorothy Draper and other writers would later appropriate the same mistake. “Mario worked for Elisabeth Draper, not Dorothy! Try fact checking, alleged journalist!” Exclaiming this with righteous indignation from my table for one at the local bodega drew concern, least of all from me. But the unexpectedly impassioned response exhibited familiarity with the subject sufficient to assuage my initial misgivings about reporting on the panel. Furthermore, it revealed a personal interest in contributing to the comprehensive record of Buatta’s legacy with accuracy. To that end, I have drawn upon my tenure as a professional student/notetaker to document the conversation for posterity.
At the time of this writing, Sotheby’s had not published a transcript or recording of the panel. Please keep me in the dark, should it do so subsequent to this post. It took a lifetime to transcribe an hour of shorthand into consumable writing. The following transcript has been edited for readability and contains highlights of the panelist’s personal inflections on Buatta’s unique contributions to English country house style in America.
Moderator, Michael Diaz-Griffith (MDG), welcomes the trio of panelists in much more flowery language than my barebones iteration: Jane Churchill (JC) is a renowned decorator, great niece of Nancy Lancaster, and one of the few human Buatta granted access to his inner sanctum. Emily Evans-Eerdmans (EEE) is a design historian and the coauthor of Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration. Charlotte Moss (CM) is a designer, lifestyle expert, and prolific author. The non-italicized text interspersed throughout is by yours truly, and the italicized portions are excerpts from the panel.
MDG: Cast us back to the early sixties when a boy from Staten Island – who was never ashamed of admitting that – first went to England and saw his first country house.
EEE: Can we go back to the fifties?
MDG: Of course. What I’d eventually love to get to is the point when John Fowler took Mario under his wing and when Mario met Nancy Lancaster. Give us that setting.
Eerdmans, as Buatta’s de facto biographer, lays the foundation of his professional life by detailing a sporadic education and formative influences. The adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” as applied to me, requires the interpolation of “ten” before the “thousand.” Since brevity is not my gift and we’re dealing with objective facts at this point, let’s allow the following illustration to set the stage and save ourselves some time. (Note to self: MDG is the 100th person at Sotheby’s who praised Mario for not being ashamed of his hometown. I find this to be a very peculiar observation, but I shall suppress musings and focus)
While working at B. Altman and Co., Buatta connected with Albert Hadley who suggested he enroll in Parsons School of Design European summer session with Stanley Barrows. Professor Barrows was an expert on the history of interior decoration and design, specializing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In order to raise the tuition to attend, Buatta took on a second job with Rose Cumming on Saturdays and saved money for the next two years. In 1961, Buatta boarded the Liberté for the first of many transatlantic voyages and tours of English country homes.
Upon returning from the summer program, Buatta worked for Elisabeth Draper and then Keith Irvine. He continued a self-directed education by consuming innumerable shelter magazines and books. Among the most metamorphic of which was The House & Garden Book of Interiors, UK edition. Not only did it introduce him to the world of John Fowler, but also to Nancy Lancaster’s iconic butter yellow room on Brook Street. Buatta would later recall not being particularly impressed with the staid interiors of the English country homes he toured during the Parsons program. The form of the English country home style in this tome was a revelation. Whatever Buatta paid for that book, I think we can all agree it was money well spent.
The untimely death of a lesser known mentor, George Schreyer, allowed Buatta to open his own firm in 1963. A chance meeting with John Fowler the next year not only changed Buatta’s professional trajectory but design history. It’s against this backdrop that Eerdmans takes us back to London 1964.
EEE: Mario had seen the yellow room in these pages, arrives to Colefax & Fowler on Brook Street when a man comes walking toward him wearing the same pocket square [with blue and white etching] he’d just bought. Of course, it was John Fowler who said, “Dear boy, let me take you in.”…People don’t always realize what a friendship they had. Mario spent ten Christmases at the Hunting Lodge. There’s beautiful correspondence. Ever since then he bought heavily from Colefax & Fowler. It really informed his taste in the early sixties. We’ll talk about this more but the English country house look went bonkers in America in the eighties with Brideshead Revisited and the Royal wedding. But he was doing it, sort of in renegade, in 1964.
MDG to EEE: You’ve read that correspondence between Mario and Fowler. Which is incredible because you have this unusually supportive mentor and unusually responsive acolyte.
EEE: Many of you knew Mr. Hadley of Parish-Hadley who was an incredible mentor to the young designers who came through his firm. If there was an article published in Architectural Digest, he would ask them to credit the designers. Mario would never have done that. He was not a mentor in that way. It’s interesting that he did receive his mentorship with John Fowler who would send him molding profiles to help him pick out molding for his apartment, send him books on architecture. John Fowler had this garden room that he built which burnt down in a fire. It had all of his family letters and photographs. Mario was one of a few friends – he must’ve been 30 – giving him money to rebuild it. To know about that generosity – in some of the letters, John Fowler says I’m going to rebuild it and have a summer school program for would-be decorators and give you a scholarship. It was very sweet to read what an affinity and affection they had for each other.
Focusing on color, comfort, and the eclecticism of the 17th and 18th century, English country house style sought to recreate an illusory image of the past. Lancaster was driven by reactionary nostalgia for that which, arguably, never existed in English country homes. The pleasing decay of English country homes was beau ideal.
MDG to JC: Digging into that context, can you tell us more about the world of Colefax & Fowler, of which your aunt was a proprietor of during this period? More broadly, where she had taken the English country house style in England in that 1950s-1960s moment because that’s what Mario was soaking up. It wasn’t just a natural thing, it was a developed in England.
JC: When [Nancy Lancaster] arrived in England having married Ronnie Tree, they bought Ditchley. It was the most beautiful house. Stately homes have wonderful complexions but people didn’t spend money on the comfort side of it. So Aunt Nancy blows into town and turned Ditchley into something amazing. Winston Churchill used to stay there during the War. Apparently, Checkers was where bombs went overhead, but I’m quite sure it’s because I know they had bicycles in the mattresses. They’re the most uncomfortable things, the government never spends any money. No really, he was sensible enough to know she’d have delicious food and went there a lot. She then bought into Colefax & Fowler. Her marriage obviously ended with Ronnie Tree and she bought Haseley…The room in London which was behind Colefax and famously called the, “Buttah yellah room” because of her American accent…or Virginian accent. She’d kill me if I said American. When I married my husband, Charles Churchill, my grandmother said, “How could you marry a Yankee?” They were Virginian through and through.
JC: Anyway, she turned Haseley into something amazing and worked in her garden until she was well into her 90s. But the room behind Colefax was really extraordinary. I can remember so well going there as a child – the mirrors here in the sale – you walked in upstairs and the mirrors were above the bookcases. I remember as a child thinking, “What an odd place to put mirrors.” She did things that normal people didn’t do. It’s the most iconic room that’s famous everywhere…Aunt Nancy always said that she was better at choosing houses than husbands. She was extremely entertaining. Very funny. She had enormous energy just like all my Langhorne women relations have. She was just extraordinary. She had that sort of captivating thing rather like Mario, when he was talking you had to listen. Very self-deprecating rather like Mario, too.
MDG to CM: The undecorated look Mario often talked about aiming for. There’s this idea in 20th century decoration, at least among the folks that we like, that interiors should be chic, easy, and livable even if they’re filled with treasures like Old Masters. That undecorated look is an essential component of the English country house style, but also resonates far beyond any particular style. It encompasses a mood for decorating, a mood for living, and it’s a mood you often capture in your work. How is that look transmitted from Nancy Lancaster to Mario and into our ethos in America?
CM: …what really struck me about shopping in the UK was that you could walk into any shop – Colefax, George Spencer, Jane Churchill – and they were so embracing. Walk in and commission someone to decorate your house, a room, some curtains, or just buy some stuff. We didn’t really have that model in the US. That and having Mario come in at an early stage was very validating. Of course, I followed him because I was the only banker on a roadshow reading Architectural Digest or House Beautiful when everyone else was reading instutitional investor or taking a nap. I knew who he was and when I opened, he was one of the first people to come in the door because of something he saw in the New York Times. He was that loyalist forever. We adore him – that’s why we’re all here. But that undecorated look, I think that was Nancy. That Virginia, sort of kick off your riding boots, it doesn’t matter what room they’re in, they’re just where they land.
JC: –and she had dogs everywhere. Dogs were key but they did pee on the carpet. That’s very English.
CM: Beyond the wee wee, there were a lot of other things that were components of the English decorating look. The undecorated look for Mario, as the champion of that look – no one did it better than Mario. Because he knew how to make a room really look really evolved. As if someone just left a room or you were expecting them to just walk in. Everything had that welcoming sort of feeling like those English shops did for me. While he wasn’t a mentor in the direct sense, but he certainly was a mentor in the indirect sense. And, of course, when he came into the shop, he was very direct.
The panelists agree that Buatta responded best to individuals who set boundaries, lest he steamroll over them. Beneath the strong personality of an acknowledged master was a loyal side, as evidenced by him attending openings and supporting events.
CM to MDG: I don’t think I answered your question about the undecorated look. Mario was not a very self-conscious person in a lot of ways. His decorating was not very self-conscious. It doesn’t look overwrought, overconstructed. It was welcoming. I think that whole undecorated look, Labrador retrievers on the sofa was part of his wrap but it was intended to not be so self-conscious.
MDG: It created an atmosphere of ease and comfort, which many of his clients spoke to over the years and remained loyal to him for it. His style was suffused with English Country, yet an undeniably American translation of this look. Could you tell us about the specific components that he translated so well?
EEE: Mario never would have said he was an original. It wasn’t about being a conceptual innovator. Translating what Lancaster and Fowler were doing in England for an American audience in an American light. For example, pearl white and oyster gray look muddy and dull in a NYC apartment. Of all of Mario’s many geniuses, color is foremost. Professor Barrows instructed him to look at Impressionist paintings and nature for colors. Mario’s rooms are apricot, pistachio, watermelon, fresh and optimistic hues as opposed to the more patinaed English palette.
JC: You can get away with brighter colors here, too. [English] light is very gray.
EEE: I’d also say we have lower ceilings than you do.
JC: That depends on where you are.
EEE: Very true. Those post-war monstrosities!
Buatta’s innate sense of scale and proportion, coupled by an eye for detail, could accomplish the effect of a stately, Palladian palace in a post-war apartment with 8-foot ceilings. In other news, Churchill and Eerdmans are the Lucy and Ethel of our generation. We don’t deserve them.
EEE to JC: As the half English presence on the panel, what do you think was Mario’s contribution?
JC: He was the master of the hang. It’s not an easy thing to do, as I think most of you will agree. He had the most fantastic eye for scale, like Aunt Nancy, which is where so many people go wrong. He never bought things that were too small or ditsy or pathetic or whatever. Everything was the right size.
CM: He knew when to quit.
JC: That’s what’s clever.
CM: I know for some people who aren’t of the maximalist school will not believe that, but Mario absolutely knew when to quit.
MDG: I’d like to discuss how Mario encouraged clients to bring family heirlooms down from the attic to use in the schemes he was working on for them. There’s a certain kind of decorator, let’s call them a designer, in our current climate who goes in and deletes everything from a scheme and imposes their vision —
JC: –it’s lack of knowledge, I think.
CM: I don’t want to be going down that slippery slope!
MDG: We won’t go too far with that. Mario had this respect for the past but also for peoples’ lives and what they loved, then incorporated it into his schemes. What’s the importance of that practice as designers?
CM: It’s a part of life. You have what you have. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, you’ve got to tell someone. Where it gets really torturous is when someone wants you to decorate around something that you know needs to go. You know they’ll come to you later saying they should’ve listened to you to begin with. You may not use as much, you may not use it all, but it’s theirs. I think you need that character infused into the new stuff.
JC: Heirlooms make a space homier. It’s more personal. Otherwise, a room looks like it’s staged for a sale.
EEE: How Mario would describe Nancy’s interiors; it would be as “a scrapbook of his life.” He’d describe his own interiors as a scrapbook of his life. When you go down on the 4th floor [auction exhibit], you’re looking at his life in material culture. Three clients come to mind here. For example, Patricia Altschul had this lovely house on Centre Island, then moved to Charleston and he reused so much stuff. I was so struck by another client, Hilary Ross, whose home at the River House which was his last project ever. Mario was being wheeled into surgery while talking to the architect and making decisions. He loved it. Working on that project gave him such energy and zest to keep going. In Hilary’s previous apartment, the buyer bought everything. Mario was furious when he found out he had to start from scratch in the new apartment. Even though buying everything new would make him so much more money, but that’s not what it was about to him.
MDG: Do you think he liked having a starting point?
EEE: I’d love to hear what the practitioners think, but I’d imagine it’s nice to have something to work up against.
CM: It solves a lot of mystery of having to answer those questions. John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster had that great line about understanding the minutiae of someone’s life. Asking them highly personal questions before you embarked on the decorating journey. If you didn’t ask those questions, you’re not going to find out what they’re about. If you have a starting point, it’s great because you have a starting point that gives you a focus and answers to those questions. But I want to say one thing about starting with stuff. When you start with good stuff like Pat did and putting in another place, it’s a whole different story. Sometimes stuff is, well —
EEE to JC: What was Nancy’s process for furnishing houses?
JC: Well, I suppose she must’ve bought a lot at the beginning, then it moved to the different houses. Of course, they were buying stock from Colefax as well. I think she just bought it over the years, and she had such an amazing eye. There may have been some at Ditchley that’s how it happened. I don’t think there was much at Ditchley except for the William Kenneth furniture.
EEE: Going through all the old articles, Mario would always say a room has to grow like a garden and you should always be adding to it. Keith Irvine with whom he enjoyed a wonderfully b*tchy relationship said, “That’s nonsense. Any good designer can get it together and make it happen. Mario’s just lazy and doesn’t want to finish on time.” There’s something about giving that space to the client to add their own layer and to react to what you’ve provided.
The panelists cheerfully observe a decline in the minimalist, grisaille aesthetic and express pleasant surprise at the generational shift under way. For post-auction coverage on this transitional period in design and the Grandmillennial’s rise, be sure to read Mario Buatta Shatters Estimates for Chintz. Spoiler alert: the New York Times article features an interview with a leading activist for the movement, the Glam Pad!
MDG: I find it rather moving that the sale offers an opportunity to view Mario’s collection at a glance. Everything was distributed between houses and storage units, so the personal nature of seeing everything in one place comes to the fore here.
JC: When looking at the catalogues, everything that you see here is just that much nicer than anything else. That’s what I find very interesting. I hadn’t taken it all on board until I saw it all in the catalogue and here. We’ve seen it all before, but it makes the ones that he bought look that much better.
MDG: There’s something a little bit quirky about each piece. That was his eye –
CM: –that was Colefax. To the last day of Brook Street, there was always something unique about the items in that store. There was something about the scale, the painting. Any little idiosyncratic thing that could be bestowed upon a piece of furniture, Colefax seemed to have a nose for such things. Whether it came from Mario or Mario got it from them, he cultivated that eye. The most important thing? He stuck to his guns. He knew what he loved. He created that look and made no apologies. It’s who he was.
JC: If you bought just one thing from the sale, it’d raise the tempo of a room.
MDG: Or two.
JC: Hands off the [Nancy Lancaster] mirrors.
MDG: Now that we’re talking about the sale, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. I’d love to hear your highlights.
EEE: Mario promised he was going to give me his red double dome bookcase and that didn’t happen! To him, the most important item in the collection was his bed. It belonged to McMillen client, Gregory Smith and before that, Walter Chrysler. Reputedly to Prince Albert before that at the Brighton Pavilion. That’s not going to work at my Brooklyn Heights apartment…I would love that drawing Konstantin Kakanias did of him in the bed for the New York Times. If you’ve read the catalogue – and I know you’ve read every word! – Konstantin talks about Kerry Donovan sending him to Mario’s apartment and he actually allowed him in the bedroom. To see him depicted in his favorite spot in the world would mean a lot to me. That would be my number one choice, but I’m not allowed to bid.
CM: We have to pick our number one choice?
MDG: Or something that caught your eye when you were downstairs.
CM: I was comparing notes with Alex Papachristidis and my catalogues are just ridiculously dogeared. My Christmas present from my husband is to shop the sale. There’s just too much. All that Davenport Pearlware is just delicious. It’s calling me. I’m sorry, I just can’t…and I don’t want any competition.
MDG: Fend them off! I think one of the special things about the sale is that anyone who grew up admiring Mario Buatta’s interiors can claim a little piece of his legacy. Own something that the master spirit selected himself and those who knew him can do the same.
CM: But first you have to love it.
MDG: Oh yeah, but I think there’s a lot to love down there. Also, there are those lots from Nancy.
JC: Well, I love those mirrors because they remind me of my childhood. But there’s also some very pretty China that has sort of fretwork around it, if anybody’s feeling generous.
EEE: This isn’t the thrust of the panel topic but we haven’t spoken about Mario’s idolization of Sister Parish. There are almost as many lots belonging to Sister Parish and clients like Betsy Whitney, Jane Engelhardt, Brooke Astor, as there are of Nancy Lancaster and Colefax & Fowler. When you go downstairs, be sure to seek out the oval medallion Axminster rug from Sister’s New York City apartment. It was the last lot in her sale at Sotheby’s. Mario bid up to $100,000 – I’m not sure if that includes Buyer’s Premium or not – but someone was bidding against him on the phone. When writers ask Mario if he’s happy, he replied, “No! Sister didn’t want me to have it. She was on the phone bidding against me.” It’s one of the things he paid the most for, but never opened it up. Yet the rug stayed rolled up in his living room for 35 years. Sotheby’s took it because it’s part of Mario’s story and has to be in the sale, but we had no idea what kind of condition it’d be in. The rug comes to Sotheby’s, we open it up, and it’s glorious, so be sure to see it as it’s really a highlight.
The panel concludes with a series of questions from Buatta enthusiasts and answers from fatigued panelists. As with everything Sotheby’s undertakes to perform, it was informative and well-done.
Thank you to the inimitable, Patricia Altschul, for affording me the complete Sotheby’s New York auction experience; gratitude to Emily Selter of Sotheby’s for enduring a litany of requests; congratulations to Emily Evans Eerdmans and Dennis Harrington on an auction that surpassed all expectations; tip of the hat to WRJ Designs, Haleh Atabeigi, and everyone who honored Buatta in contributing to the finest auction display in recent memory; thank you to readers who have made it this far. Your kind words and encouraging nature make writing for the Glam Pad a delight. As always, thank you to Andrea for lending her esteemed platform for my musings.