in memoriam

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Remembering the American master decorator, Mario Buatta, the “Prince of Chintz.”

Mario Buatta, photographed in 2010. Photo: Patrick McMullan via Getty Image
Mario Buatta, photographed in 2010. Photo: Patrick McMullan via Getty Image
Mario Buatta, photographed in 2010. Photo: Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

Mario Buatta was the one who got away — he never let me into his own house, no matter how many times I asked, and because I asked so often he sent me this letter with a cut-up Polaroid of his living room on 80th Street. I was absolutely obsessed with this room from the first time I saw it in Architectural Digest in 1997. Scott Francis photographed his townhouse apartment, and it was everything a cozy, high-style house should be. I just wanted to sit on that plump sofa and experience the room as my own.

Mario’s letter with the cut-up Polaroid of his living room.

His passion and genius for adapting the well-worn comforts of English country-house style were snapped up by clients who included Mariah Carey, Billy Joel, Barbara Walters, and Malcolm Forbes. He never met a chintz fabric — i.e., glazed cotton humming with florals — that he didn’t like. But as fancy and sophisticated as his rooms could be, Mario was a notorious prankster. He would sit at dinner and engage you in conversation all while a giant toy cockroach was approaching your plate. The beast in question was on a string manipulated by the master himself, and this was usually accompanied by a toupee that he would whip out and place on his head and let slip and slide. There were other tricks in his repertoire, but these were his favorite go-tos.

Mario took me out to Staten Island when I was scouting a design issue and we spent the day traversing his childhood haunts in Livingston Heights, where he grew up in an English Tudor-style house. He also took me to see his favorite house on the island, and it became my favorite, too. It was the 1847 Gothic carriage house of photographer Alice Austen, overlooking the water. That day was a gift, as I had the master all to myself while he drove us around the island. He told me stories about his family and what started to shape the man he had become. I wrote the following tribute for the website Designers and Books, published when his book came out in 2013.

Like a garden at its peak, Mario Buatta’s rooms are always in full bloom, bursting with color and life. They are never static or made just to be admired. They are, as he wrote with Emily Evans Eerdmans in his book, Mario Buatta, Fifty Years of Decoration, published by Rizzoli, “living backgrounds, a reflection of where we’ve been and where we are.”

In this 432-page feat, a combined catalogue raisonné and memoir, not only are we privy to Mario’s childhood on Staten Island as we track the seeds of his showmanship first nurtured by his Aunt Mary, but we get a play-by-play behind-the-scenes look at the man who willed himself into the collective consciousness of American design by virtue of his talent and astute understanding that self-branding is key to success.

Loyalty to, and from the design kingmaker over many decades, Paige Rense, along with other top editors helped, but really the book illustrates that his client roster of newsmakers and celebrities including Malcolm Forbes, Barbara Walters, Mariah Carey, and Mitzi Newhouse relished rooms that felt as good as they looked.

Mario Buatta’s Manhattan apartment photographed for Architectural Digest in 1997. The living room is glazed in three shades of lime green and creamy white, with a faux-sisal painted floor. Over the sofa hangs Mario’s collection of dog paintings. Mario often joked, “These paintings are my ancestors. Seriously, I love dogs. I don’t have a dog because I have such a busy schedule, but I love viewing them on the wall.” Photo: Scott Frances for Architectural Digest/Otto Archive

Legendarily dubbed “The Prince of Chintz” by reporter, Chauncey Howell, after viewing his 1984 Kips Bay Show House room, one might be tempted to think they know Buatta’s work. His floral kingdom is full of surprises, as his genius to keep the show from ever getting stale by the many iterations of playing with pattern and color goes much further than you might have thought.

Buatta is as famous for his offbeat sense of humor as he is for his reputation as the foremost interpreter of English Country-House style, as commercialized by John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster, and nothing serves as a better illustration for his passion than the warmth and elegance of the decoration of his own apartment in a 1929 neo-Georgian townhouse. And never let it be said that Mario has ever resisted the charms and all encompassing luxury of a well-appointed canopy bed. That is just one of his myriad gifts that keep his clients coming back for more.

This essay was originally published by Designers and Books in 2013.

Remembering a Master Decorator, the ‘Prince of Chintz’