I think we here at the HOUSE column probably need a good talking to by one of the high priests of minimalism, someone like John Pawson perhaps, because in this interview we find ourselves yet again proclaiming the delights of color, textiles, antiques and ornament. “Ornament!” It was a cri de coeur from fabric designer and decorative paint finish expert, Tania Vartan. She also has a fabulous voice, rich and actressy, in an old-fashioned way with hints of her Kentucky childhood lifting a word or two. She spent many years living in Europe, Florence in particular, where she rented rooms in a Renaissance palazzo on the river and set up a painting school. If that doesn’t sound romantic to you, then we have, alas, nothing in common.
So I am very interested in this very ‘decorated’ look – if you pick up a shelter magazine now, there are plain surfaces everywhere …
Ghastly! Ghastly! Obviously it’s never been my thing. I want to paint on every surface and cover it with ornament. Ornament!
Why have we abandoned ornament, do you think?
Oh it’s just a phase.
A watercolor of Conrad Black's dining room in Palm Beach, painted at The American Academy in Rome, hangs in the downstairs hallway.
Looking up towards the staircase leading to Tania's bedroom. A self-portrait of Tania is a version of a painting done for Alain Ducasse.
Tania's oil paintings fill the painted cloud-covered walls of her downstairs hall.
Watercolors from Tania's travels fill a wall near her studio space.
We always think that textiles are more beloved by Europeans than Americans—do you agree?
Well Americans are in love with what the Europeans are in love with. I hate to sound snobbish, but I think it’s a lack of education.
It takes daring to jumble a whole load of fabrics together and make it look good.
You find plenty of people in Europe who don’t do that—it’s only the people who own those things or are in the industry that do it, antiquaires and collectors.
I’m just remembering going into London homes and finding lots of textiles and color—it’s probably changed now.
London is special. London has always been in the forefront of decoration per se. They adore chintz and fabrics. And it sifts right down through all levels, all classes.
Light pours into Tania's painting studio.
Sample wallpaper patterns hang on the far wall of the studio.
A portfolio of Tania's works stands in front of a tri-fold Gothic style screen.
The back of a Tania's tri-fold Gothic style screen is painted in gold leaf.
A reverse glass painting of roosters leans against a studio wall.
Oil paintings and a promotion for Tania's book signing stand atop the studio window sill.
I think the Victorians really loved ornament.
Yes! It’s that Arts and Crafts movement … and they had a strong reaction against the Industrial Revolution.
My husband is Norwegian and every now and then I look at property there – all the apartments in Olso look like the inside of an iceberg … very severe.
That’s because [those Scandinavian countries] never had the economy that Russia had or the great empires had. I mean the Gustavian style was just something they eked out when they had a monarch who wanted to copy the great empires, but it was all faux because they couldn’t afford it.
It’s quite strange now that Scandinavia is now the place where the design gurus are, Danish furniture and so on.
Yes, in the fifties the Danish modern look supplanted everything else.
More views of Tania's studio.
Reverse glass paintings in progress.
A rolling storage unit holds art supplies. Nearby, stacked under a trestle table, are samples for Tania's fabric line at John Rosselli.
Oil paintings done in the south of France hang on the studio walls.
Printed fabrics and a pillow cover fill a work table.
And so I wonder what you think when you open a magazine and see all these white spaces …
Oh I despair, of course I despair. I’m just waiting impatiently for the pendulum to swing.
Perhaps it already is. Color is coming back, although I’m not sure I can see curtains ever coming back, at least not the heavy curtains.
Well, I just launched a collection of fabric for John Rosselli, which worries me—but then so many people have launched their own curtain fabric? Why?
More painting supplies fill an industrial shelving unit. To the right is a watercolor of Arnold Scaasi's Palm Beach drawing room.
Tania's father William Cutchins, a Kentucky businessman, discovered and provided backing for the then young amateur boxer Cassius Clay. This is a photo of Cutchins signing Clay's first boxing contract.
An oil of a model Tania thought 'looked like a redneck'.
Oil paintings done in Italy.
An early portrait of Tania was painted by Bill Graff.
So I know you lecture on the history of mural painting—what kinds of things are interesting about the history of mural painting? I know trompe l’oeil is your specialization.
Oh, well I think it reflects the history of the western world and that’s what fascinating to me. Everyone was illiterate until the what, the fifteenth century? They told a story.
How did you get into the trompe l’oeil business?
I was in the fashion business and designing fabric at the same time for my clothes. It went under because my backer pulled out. I had to find something fast to make a living. I happened to live on Park Avenue across the street from Mark Hampton and I had painted my own apartment from top to bottom and he saw it. He said [puts on a deeper ‘Mark Hampton’ voice] “Gosh, will you do this for me?” And I never looked back.
In the master bedroom, Tania originally designed the 'Kyoto Iris' patterned bed linens for her apparel line some thirty years ago. The fabric is now part of her line at John Rosselli.
Tania painted both the Lyre headboard and the églomisé bedside table.
Tania's designs of stylized birds transform her pillow cases and sheets.
Old English prints of parrots hang next to a French dresser painted by Tania.
A close-up view of Tania's églomisé bedside table.
A copy of a Corot landscape painting leans atop the bedroom radiator.
In a corner of the master bedroom capo di monte porcelain lamps stand atop a silver-and-pink painted dressing table. The pictures hanging above are scale drawings for murals.
Do you have any trompe l’oeil projects now? Or decorative paint finishes?
Trompe l’oeil—no. But there’s still lots of wall glazing going on.
Isn’t that physically demanding to do it yourself. Do you do it all yourself?
Ohh! I do! I do—it’s like a ballet dancer. I’ll do it until I just break every bone. I love hanging from scaffolds! [laughs]
I read that you once spent time on a houseboat in California and you made costumes for rock groups—tells us about your houseboat. Are they damp?
Oh, how did you know that? Oh it was divine! Are they damp? Well, no they have heat. It was in San Francisco, so it was damp but I had an enormous gas stove—it was so dangerous! But I was so heedless and young—I’d just throw a match in there and it would go “Boom!” [laughs] and it would just dry everything out.
A side view of Tania's dressing table.
Tania inherited the silver brush and mirror set from her mother.
The grape-patterned fabric covering a French side chair is part of Tania's line at John Rosselli.
Did you live alone? Did you paint the houseboat?
Yes, I lived alone—in Sausalito—and of course, I painted it. The rock groups were just local groups, no on famous but I remember I bought my sewing machine from Rudi Gernreich [inventor of the monokini]. I only parted with it this year. It was a monster and it never failed me.
How did your murals of Teddy Roosevelt’s children end up in The Smithsonian?
Oh. That was a great thing. I was in the habit of sending out my brochures and someone just passed it along to somebody in the government. Nancy Reagan at the time wanted to give George Bush Sr. a coming-in gift, so she put an announcement out that she wanted murals. They came up with the idea of Teddy Roosevelt’s children. They weren’t installed in the White House—they were just sort of hanging around and then they were installed in The Smithsonian. They’re still there.
Do you still live part of the year in Florence?
No, I’ve just left. When the crash came in 2008, I didn’t want to get trapped in Europe. I had an art school there for trompe l’oeil painting and I knew it was going to fail if I stayed. I had moved there permanently.
Looking across the sitting room. Tania repainted the Italian dining chairs. The custom wrought iron dining table is from the south of France.
A wall of the dining area is covered with Tania's églomisé paintings.
Atop the dining table, friend Edwina Sandys's recent book is stacked near art catalogs, magazines and The New York Times Art section.
A close up of Tania's repainted Italian dining chairs.
Tania's 'fantasy family crest' hangs on a wall surrounded by her églomisé paintings.
A sitting room couch covered in Tania's fabric is topped by one of her many hand-painted silk pillows. To the left is a side chair covered in fabric by designer Alidad from Pierre Frey.
A Vallauris pottery lamp stands atop a wrought iron pedestal in a corner of the sitting room.
A hall bookcase is filled with more art books and Tania's favorite English novels.
And you learned Italian?
Of course! Certo!
Do you miss it?
I miss living in Europe. It’s just a totally different lifestyle. It has charm and New York doesn’t. New York is charmless, quite frankly. But it’s my home. Even when I was living in Europe, I thought of New York as my home.
I see lots of fiction on your bookshelves—we rarely see that—everyone seems to love biographies.
I love fiction. But I like fiction by dead English novelists. Right now I’m going through all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Do you like Elizabeth Taylor? You’re English so you would know her. She wrote in the 1930s and 1940s. Novels for me are like looking at beautiful fabrics. It’s an escape … you go to wonderful countries and country houses. I don’t like books about poor people! I couldn’t care less … I’d never read “The Grapes of Wrath!” I want to read about gorgeous things, not dysfunctional families who wear flip-flops!
• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge • Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch