Mario Buatta probably needs no introduction to readers of this column but this extraordinarily talented, droll decorator has been giving us the slip for years. We finally pinned him down in the Manhattan apartment of one of his clients, a week before a reception at the Union Club, where the New York School of Interior Design was to be honoring him by naming their new materials library “The Mario Buatta Atelier”. Christopher Cypher, President of the NYSID rightly says, “Mario is iconic and we are proud to claim him as our own.”
So Mario, we’ve been trying to get you for years—why have you been acting so hard to get?
Because my apartment isn’t suitable for these photographs.
Because I live in it! You wouldn’t like it. I have a leak on the ceiling in my bedroom and I freeze every night.
Is it true that you have no assistants at all?
I don’t anymore, no. I do everything myself. I also cut my business in half recently because I was sick, again … I had E-coli eleven years ago and after that I let everybody go … I thought, I can’t work this hard anymore … I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even kiss anybody and I get sick.
Not many designers manage without assistants.
You know by the time you tell an assistant to do this or that, you could do it yourself. And then half the time they’re on the phone gagging with somebody … it’s a waste.
Well give me some of the names of the people who have worked for you.
Oh, Thomas O’Brien, Todd Romano, Scott Salvator … I was tough [to work for]
Why are you tough?
Because I’m a perfectionist. And I like to get things done. I hate mistakes. They drive me crazy.
Do you get angry? Do you shout?
Do I get angry? I probably yell … I don’t know. How else can you be a boss? But I mean they got a good training.
How do you cope with criticism then?
I hit people with my walking stick.
You’re a jokester, Mario.
I am a jokester, always have been. My father was too. He was not only a jokester, but he was also a philosopher. Every morning he would get up, have his coffee and read the paper. He would read the obits and I would say, “Anybody die today that you knew?” and he would say, “No, but a lot of people who never died before just did.”
Do you still carry the [plastic] cockroach in your pocket?
I still have my water bug, Harold. I don’t have him with me today. [These clients] love Harold because when I did their last apartment, I put Harold in their freezer and when they opened up the freezer to get some ice, there was Harold.
So your father was a bandleader—are you musical?
I play a hot Victrola.
I liked something you said to your parents about how you preferred the ‘WASPY’ living rooms that were full of plants and books and dust.
Who said that?
Oh … they liked Deco. Everything was brand new. My parents didn’t like anything old—they considered it secondhand.
What did your parents think of your line of work? Did your father live to see your success?
He did … he didn’t understand it too much. I wanted to go to school for decorating but he wouldn’t let me. So I went to school for architecture. I didn’t care about where the pipes went, I cared where the pillows went.
Which part of the job do you like best?
I know you don’t like surprises but are you sometimes surprised by the unplanned elements that emerge as you put a room together?
I like to decorate, or think I do, the way an artist paints a canvas—you do a little bit at a time, which can drive a client crazy. I’ve driven a few people to the Payne Whitney clinic … but a lot of decorators do a plan and say, “This is what your room is going to look like.” Well, God forbid. It looks great in the picture but then you see it in person, and this thing is too small and this thing is too big. You have to play with it. A house comes together over a lifetime.
So what do you think of the look where everything is white, there are no bookshelves, very few personal possessions around and so on?
I hate it. People don’t want to look as if they live in their own houses. If you look at some of the magazines and catalogs today, it’s just styling, it’s not decorating.
What would you say is the distinction between styling and decorating?
[Styling means] they just put something down for the camera.
I have a decorator question I’ve been dying to ask and I’m glad I’ve got you to ask. I am mourning the [forthcoming] loss of incandescent light bulbs … how are decorators going to get around that?
Oh God! We’ve got to stock up on them. I think it’s a horrible thing. I hate those [eco] bulbs! They’re like blue! Very cold. And they’re hideous! And they’re dangerous. They say gases come out of them. Somebody’s making a fortune on that—that’s what this is all about. I like soft lights … I like pink.
I’m expecting a decorators’ protest march, like the people of Egypt…
I’m not going to be around that much longer so I’m not going to worry about it … but I’m going to go and get some.
You’ve been around a long time…
Well, that’s what this interview is really about—you’re being honored by the New York School of Interior Design. They’re naming the library after you.
They’re going to call it ‘The Mario Buatta Atelier’. I said they should call it The Mario Buatta ‘Italier’.
So I kept reading about your ‘title’, ‘The Prince of Chintz’ and then suddenly there was an article that called you ‘The King of Chintz” – how do you feel about succeeding to the throne?
I’m too young to be king. I’ll have to learn to stutter if I want to be king.
When you’re not working are you a reader?
Oh, yeah, I read … I like to read the covers of book jackets of books and then put them on a shelf and say, “I’ve got that book.” I don’t have much time to read. I never watch television. I only watch The Golden Girls, every night before I go to bed because the news is depressing.