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An interview with designer and tastemaker Charlotte Moss

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In March, Charlotte Moss wrote a book to answer the single most popular question posed to interior designers: Where do you begin?

The book, “Charlotte Moss Decorates” (Rizzoli, $50), traces her approach through 11 distinctive rooms by way of collage. Moss lays out her inspirations — including photographs, post cards and magazine clippings — and closes each chapter with a list of whimsical suggestions under the theme, “Why Not?”

“Why not use velvet lamp shades?” she asks. “Why not use a rattan hamper as a cocktail table?”

For Moss, who last year was named one of Elle Decor’s A-List designers and a top 20 design icon by Traditional Home magazine, this is an enduring philosophy. A native of Richmond, she moved to New York at 27 to work on Wall Street. Despite her professional success, Moss got antsy. She left finance after eight years, wrote a business plan for her own design firm and sketched what a storefront would look like. Susan and Michael Bloomberg were among her first clients.

Now 60, she has twice owned and closed Manhattan design boutiques, written seven books about interior design and many articles about haute living, including for the Wall Street Journal magazine. Her interiors balance romance with traditional Southern style, incorporating earth tones and all things paisley with an Upper East Side glamour.

Moss spoke to us by phone from New York about her new book. Here are edited excerpts.

How do you define American style?

Comfortable. Versatile. Flexible. Thoughtful. The way a good jacket should be. American style is fashion for the sake of comfort, and applying it to furniture is my way of bringing it forward.

Where do people go wrong in decorating?

This can be summed up in two words: bad lampshades. Don’t build this big house, do all this decorating, write all these checks and then put a bad lampshade on a beautiful nightstand. It’s like building a mansion on a million-dollar piece of property and then having a naked yard with one crappy tree! People get exhausted toward the end and say, “Oh, use what we have; make it work.” Accessories cannot be the stepchild of decorating.

How is “Decorates” different from your other books?

This book is about the beginning of the design process. When designers are given a show house, they are on equal ground with the average consumer. They are standing in a room with four white walls, asking all the same questions: Where do I begin? What is my story? What do I want to accomplish? You’ve got to start somewhere. This book is my show house, and it’s about where I start.

What chain stores are speaking to you at the moment?

Restoration Hardware. I love the large scale, the rustic finishes, the California-casual feel. It can be mixed with anything. They’ve taken classical shapes and dressed them down in a comfortable way without too much razzmatazz. I just ordered some zinc pedestals for my garden.

What do you read for inspiration?

I read all of the shelter magazines and blogs, especially the Style Saloniste, All the Best and An Aesthete’s Lament. You’ve got to be connected to the world and stay current, especially in this business. And with things like the iPad, my new best friend, what’s the excuse not to be? There’s no such thing as lost time anymore.

You describe yourself as a hunter and collector. What is in your collection?

I have a collection of bronze perfume burners that I love — they’re so romantic. And books, always books. I’ve got three libraries and my greatest fantasy is to be locked inside with just my dogs and enough food and wine to keep me alive.

What do you tell clients who are unsure of what they want?

Silly as it might sound, I tell them to make collages. As you pull clippings, you hone your tastes. You learn to edit. And then, when you’re forced to take the images you’ve collected and commit them to one page, you find you’re pretty picky about what you glue down! You analyze those clippings so much that by the time you’re done, they really speak to you. That is what decorating is. So, if I as a designer can interpret someone’s taste with a single sheet of paper, God bless America.

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