Paula Caravelli

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Interior designer Paula Caravelli, of Paula & Martha Design, is a master juggler. She works full time, plays piano, dances, paints, entertains and with her husband James, has raised four sons on the Upper East Side.

Her meticulous apartment is also a balancing act. Its disparate and unexpected elements somehow all come together in a surprising and harmonious way. She dislikes trends and seeks to fill her apartment with what she loves, including many items from her childhood mentor, artist and advertising creative director, her Uncle Augustus Mino.

I read that you really don’t follow trends but I think it must be hard not to be influenced by trends, especially as a decorator – how do you stick with that stance?

It’s not that I don’t look at trends – but I’m not swayed by them. I’m more influenced by fine art than I am by decorating trends. I actually don’t subscribe to many decorating magazines, but I do subscribe to art magazines because that’s really where it all stems from.

Well this apartment, which is very beautiful, looks very contemporary. I can, to be honest with you, identify a few things in here, which I would say are, not necessarily ‘trendy’, but very up-to-date.

I think you’re right there. It’s possible to be trendy without being fashionable and having something that will date. I will try to take something from a trend and try to make them timeless.

Two photographs by David Armstrong purchased from Matthew Marks gallery hang between the front windows of the living room.
An octagonal-shaped mirror by Gerald Bland hangs behind an Art Deco table purchased at auction. The three-dimensional urn was designed by Martha & Paula.
On the far wall, a painting by Paula’s uncle, Augustus Mino hangs above a classical Italian commode. The vintage vases are thrift store finds.
Art books and bright orchids are arranged atop an Art Deco table in the center of the living room.
A pair of Regency-style spoon chairs flanking a Chinese-style brass coffee table were a Salvation Army find.
L. to r.: A painting by Uncle Mino hangs above a spoon chair found at The Salvation Army.; A view of the living room from the foyer.
The two marble obelisks came from Gerald Bland.
L. to r.: A gilt swag stands as a contrast to a minimalist work on paper by Paula. The 1940s French chair was purchased from Amy Perlin.; Peeking into the living room from the galley kitchen.
Looking across the living room into the dining room.
On the far wall, a painting by Paula’s uncle, Augustus Mino hangs above a classical Italian commode. The vintage vases are thrift store finds.
A group of 12th-century Indian heads once belonged to Paula’s Aunt Mary.
L. to r.: A pair of French marquise chairs flank a Karl Springer 1970s cocktail table.; A collection of horns and teeth mounted on Lucite blocks are arranged atop a circa-1970 table by Karl Springer.
Andy Warhol’s ‘Electric Chair,’ from Pace Prints hangs above the living room piano.
Reflections of the living room from the oversized octagonal mirror.

It also seems hard to personalize a space for a client. I would imagine most of them don’t know how to do that. How do you do that for them?

Oh I think you learn very quickly who they are and what they’re all about … that’s part of the struggle and the challenge.

I was fascinated that you went to Finch College, which was very much a ladies’ college.

That was the perception of Finch because it started out in 1900 as a finishing school but it very quickly changed. When I was there, I was actually the last graduating class and I was in a class with Isabella Rossellini. It was very strong in theater and arts.

Caramel-colored cherrywood cabinets and a mirrored backsplash fill the galley kitchen.

A set of early-19th-century neoclassical chairs surround an aluminum and powder-coated steel dining table designed by Paula.
L. to r.: The glass Swedish carafes are from Evergreen Antiques.; The gilt mirror hanging above the continental style chest was found in an abandoned warehouse.

A family heirloom by an unknown artist hangs in the dining room.
L. to r.: A white Scottie sculpture by Jeff Koons keeps watch over the dining room.; A brass sculpture by Uncle Mino fills the dining room window ledge.

What made you go to a school like that?

Ah well … I think the political times were so racy. That was the time of Kent State [the Kent State massacre] and all the chaos that was going on. I just wanted to be in New York City. I wanted to do art. I didn’t really do much thinking about it at the time. I just wanted to be close to home.

It’s funny because it was a very conservative choice in a very radical time.

It was. I did have a very conservative background and that was part of why I was there … [my parents] took one look at RISD and it was co-ed dorms and everyone was smoking pot and my parents wanted no part of that!

When did you make the decision to go into interior design?

Well, I’d finished at Finch with a degree in fine arts, thinking I wanted to be a painter but something didn’t feel right to me. I’d always had a passion for interior design because my family was involved in that field. My aunt was an interior designer and my uncle was an artist but he also did design work.

Fabric remnants from the Hampton Designer Showhouse is reused as a tented bedroom hall.

A former bedroom for the couples’ two eldest sons has been turned into an office. Mid 19th-century klismos chairs from Evergreen Antiques face a collage by Robert Greene.
L. to r.: A photo of Paula’s youngest son Christian is the work of her eldest son, Evan.; Fresh flowers accompany Albert Hadley’s Drawing and the Design Process.
Paula designed the laminate desk and shelves.

As I was walking over here, I passed by the Corner Bookstore and I noticed they’re having a signing tonight with Adam Lewis who has just written a book about the famous lady decorators. Do you think there still are ‘lady decorators’? I associate Finch and design and think: Ooh, that sounds like a lady decorator!

[Laughs] A lady decorator … what do you mean by a lady decorator?

Well, they’re almost non-existent now but decorating started out as a social part of life, you had women who belonged to the Junior League who took on decorating – it was part of a certain social order.

I don’t see myself as a lady decorator. I don’t think too many people want that nowadays.

L. to r.: A stunning Swedish mirror from Evergreen Antiques hangs in the front entrance hall.; A view into the front entrance hall from the master bedroom. A Swedish chandelier from Evergreen Antiques hangs in front of a painting by Robert Greene.
L. to r.: A photograph: ‘My Son Evan’ hangs above a custom headboard in the master bedroom.; An early painting by Paula hangs behind the flat screen TV. The cabinet is from Design Within Reach.
Reflections of the master bedroom.
Clockwise from above: A work on paper by Leora Armstrong and an English milk-glass lamp stand atop the Lucite bedside table; Fresh flowers add a pop of color to the bedside table; A self-portrait by Paula’s inspiration, Uncle Mino.

Does anybody want totally traditional interiors?

No. I have one client who actually does and I’m pushing her to add a couple of modern pieces but she just loves the antique pieces. It’s very unusual. She’s the only person I’ve ever done work with who only wants antiques.

To me when I walk into a totally modern space, it seems kind of transient.

I agree. If it’s totally modern, there’s always a coldness to it – especially if there isn’t any great art.

In son Christian’s room a ferocious photograph of a toy gorilla is by Christopher Flach.
A red Ikea shelf is transformed into a sculpture.
Whimsical drawings by son Christopher and Paula cover a blackboard wall in Christopher’s bedroom.

I’m addicted to HDTV and somehow it came up that you were named in the HDTV Top Ten. What is that?

Every year HDTV does a Top Ten program where they take the top ten spaces in North America in different categories. So they came to me and asked me if I had anything and I’d just finished this small apartment for this actress, Dorothy Savage, and they said they’d like to do it.

You’ve been able to do something that many, many women want to do, which is have a real career and have a real family.

When I had my third child, I thought I’m not going to be able to continue this but I was in the middle of doing Evelyn and Leonard Lauder’s apartment, and for the sake of continuity, she offered me a limousine back and forth to work and a babysitter at the office—so it was such a great offer and it turned out to be something wonderful for the whole office. When clients came in the staff loved showing off the baby! It was a win-win for everyone!

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