“Do you know what one woman said to me at my book party? She said, ‘It’s a good thing you’re doing this while you’re still alive.’” The interior designer, Mario Buatta’s expression is one of pained amazement. “Can you believe she actually said that?” He has arrived for lunch with Sian and me at Swifty’s. Beautifully dressed in a heather-colored tweed jacket, soft pink shirt and a green-and-purple tie, a copy of his new and only book is tucked under one arm. It’s a fabulous, 7-pound, 400-plus-page tome entitled Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Decoration published by Rizzoli.
Tactless-women-at-book-parties notwithstanding, to have this compendium of all the fine rooms Mr. Buatta, now 77, has decorated over his lifetime is a design event. Filled with sumptuous pictures of rooms that are as richly colored and exuberant as a Matisse or a Vuillard painting, it is easy to see why Paige Rense, former editor of Architectural Digest, says in her foreword: “It seems impossible to imagine being depressed in a Mario Buatta interior.”
But right now he’s grumbling. “It makes my neck hurt,” he says as we try and find space for the book on the table. “I’m taking it everywhere I go. My heart has been going bzzz, bzzz, bzzz for the last ten days.” Then, he glances at the pale apricot walls of the rear dining room and says with deadly accuracy. “This color should be two shades darker.”
He doesn’t like the lack of tablecloths either — and again he’s right. The copper tabletop seems cold and inelegant. He does settle though, propping his cane topped with a one-eyed silver dog and wrapping his scarf cummerbund-style around his waist. He wants to continue on the subject of other ailments. Known for pranks, puns and being the Prince of Chintz, he’s also, famously and endearingly, a hypochondriac.
“I was sick yesterday; I was really sick.” We are to hear more, quite a lot more, about various bouts of illness, but in between, we do talk about design today. In his view, it’s no longer decorating but styling. “They’re shoppers — they just shop for you and then put up a mirror and three objects on a mantel. It’s like doing a window and that’s not decorating.” He berates the trend for white rooms full of nothing. “They’re afraid of their own taste. They’re afraid of their imagination!”
His own approach has always been painterly. “I attack a room the way a painter attacks a canvas. I think about colors and composition.” In addition to the 19th century painters who inspire him, he says that when he was a child, he used to watch cartoons for the colors and the detailing. “Decorating isn’t fashion. It’s something you live with for a long time. You’re setting the stage for people to act out their lives.”
But this is serious talk for him and he seems to tire of it. He begins to rummage in his pockets, producing thick wads of receipts which he claims are taxi receipts “for the taxman.” He’s looking for Harold the (plastic) Cockroach, which, when eventually found is placed under a napkin for the horrified waiter from Belarusse to discover.
Later he briefly picks his nose with a fake claw-like finger, which is then pocketed amongst the wads of taxi receipts. Actually it is those receipts that are more interesting. For all the instinctive creativity, practical jokes and the hoarding chaos in which he claims to live, he is shrewd about value and money. He’s the one who points out the overpriced $14 dessert on the lunchtime menu and, when we broach the subject of chintz, talks knowledgeably about the prices of fabrics, which is worth the money and which isn’t. He’s a smart, experienced and observant businessman. He also freely admits that he is a difficult boss and probably works best alone, which he mostly does.
In a wonderful personal introductory essay in the book, he writes of the influence of his beloved and glamorous Aunt Mary upon his early interest in beautiful things and his childhood growing up on Staten Island in an Italian family.
His father was a violinist who played with Rudy Vallee and later opened a store selling musical instruments but despite the affection with which he writes of his family and suburban life, there emerges a shadow portrait of a sensitive, artistic young man not at all sure where his place would be, and you sense that it’s entirely possible he’s still not quite sure.
But we’ve had our meal now — he ate a hamburger and didn’t care for it much — it’s time again for a final round of teasing. A greasy hairpiece, sort of a cross between a wig and a mustache is produced. In either configuration, and he manages both, he looks like a tastefully-dressed Groucho Marx. “Groucho? No I’m not.” The hairpiece is skillfully conjured away. “I’m Happy Marx.”
With the career achievements of a lifetime now bound between hard covers and forty more book parties across the country to attend, perhaps he is.