A Stylish Prince Awaits The Return of Chintz

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

The splashy invitation to "An Evening with Mario Buatta" in Georgetown last month gathered a crowd of several hundred locals who still have a place in their heart -- or their living room -- for the floral fabric known as chintz.

Buatta, nicknamed the "Prince of Chintz" more than two decades ago, has had his own New York decorating firm for 45 years. At 72, he has won every major design award and makes virtually every list of top designers. His lavish yet cozy rooms, resplendent in cabbage rose print slipcovers, swagged curtains and dog paintings evoke an Americanized view of English country style.

In between chairing antique shows, combing London flea markets, meeting with clients and schmoozing magazine editors, Buatta likes to pack up his rattling carousel of slides (PowerPoint is so 21st century) and go talk to people.

Even modernists can appreciate his longevity and his rock star client list. He has lacquered walls in peach and lavender at a Manhattan triplex for Mariah Carey and accessorized and mixed patterns for Barbara Walters, Billy Joel and Malcolm Forbes. During the 1980s heyday of tasseled pillows and blue-and-white porcelains, Buatta fringed his way up Park Avenue and landed the plum job of refurbishing Blair House, the president's official guesthouse. He split the 112 rooms with fellow designer Mark Hampton, and the two have left a floral legacy that lives on 20 years later.

As minimalism and modernism have invaded America's homes and shops, Buatta has continued doing his traditional thing. He is currently decorating a penthouse with 23-foot ceilings across from Carnegie Hall in New York, an estate in Charleston, S.C., and a house in Birmingham, Ala. "I get a lot of business in the South," he says. "It's still the hotbed of traditional decorating."

Buatta, whose father was a society band leader, grew up in a modern home on New York's Staten Island without a lot of clutter. "But my aunt had summer chintz and winter chintz," Buatta says. Never one to hold back opinions, he says he once told his mother, "This living room is more like a dead room."

He studied at Parsons School of Design and Cooper Union. In 1961, he saw Nancy Lancaster's famous egg yolk yellow London drawing room and was smitten.

He does business the old-fashioned way. No employees. No Web site. "That's too commercial. We are too exclusive," he quips, checking his daily schedule on a crumpled, scribble-filled page ripped from a yellow pad.

We had a cup of Earl Grey tea with Buatta in the austere lobby of the Madison Hotel, just before his lecture. The event, held at St. John's Episcopal Church, was sponsored by Doyle New York to benefit the Georgetown House Tour. "Well, there certainly is no chintz here," Buatta says, settling into a hard-edged chair. He's gotten used to it.

Does traditional decorating appeal to people under 35?

Young people don't like antiques, and they don't want their grandmother's furniture. They tear the history out of houses, and they want white, white, white.

What's your advice to people decorating their first apartments?

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