Decorating & Design

October 3, 2011

Interview: Charlotte Moss

Charlotte Moss may be a society decorator, but Manhattan’s doyenne of design knows money can’t buy taste. Moss can just as easily quote Givenchy — “Elegance is a bar of soap,” she says, exulting the importance of good housekeeping — as she can wax poetic on the grass roots of style: “It’s about knowing who you are and having the confidence to express yourself.”

The southern belle turned New York tastemaker heads up a 12-person design firm with a posh Upper East side address. She’s been honing her style in interior design for 20-plus years: a brilliant mishmash of high and low, with chintz on top of chenille on top of chinoiserie, mixed with canopies and candelabras. While some may call it over-the-top, she’s developed quite a following, and is often in the media to talk about design. Moss was a guest on House & Home TV a few years ago. “Charlotte’s work is classic but never boring,” says host Lynda Reeves. “Her rooms are cheerful and high-spirited. She’s one of my favourites.”

Moss’ rooms appear lived in, loved in and fought in. It’s a look that pays homage to the old-fashioned art of homemaking, where a life well lived is at the heart of every design. Yet despite her clients’ pedigree, she spills the secrets of a well-executed layout with conspiratorial camaraderie: “I can tell when people have good sex from looking at their bedroom,” says Moss. “For good sex, there needs to be some thoughtfulness — it’s the well-made bed, the flowers or the book that says someone is lingering here.”

An active philanthropist and the author of six design books, including her most recent, A Flair For Living (2008 Assouline), Moss is a master of the multi-task. She has created her own fabrics, wallpapers, rugs, china and even two fragrances, Virginia and Left Bank. She has run two retail stores including the wildly acclaimed Charlotte Moss Townhouse (which closed in 2008) and along the way, learned a lesson or two.

House & Home: What’s the first room you should decorate in your house?

Charlotte Moss: Always start with the private rooms — this way you’ll learn to decorate for how you live, rather than how you’d like others to see you. Home is where the family is. Forget about the formal living and dining rooms and see how you live in the kitchen, in the family room — this will help you understand who you are and what your style is. Then, let that style inform how you decorate public rooms.

H&H: Is there a secret to layering?

CM: Let’s say you’re doing a room and there’s a certain colour range you want to be in — the mauve-blue family, for example. You have to pull together all the fabric and paint swatches that appeal to you and lay them out, and then start to eliminate. It’s the eliminating that’s difficult; there’s an indefinable line between calmly layered and confused.

H&H: What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when putting the finishing touches on a room?

CM: A lot of people start to accessorize a room after the big stuff is done. This is a mistake — it makes the finishing touches look like afterthoughts, not meaningful, wise and thoughtful purchases. It’s details like the collection of leather-bound books by a client’s favourite author in the library that make the space sing.

H&H: Is there a formula for creating your signature mix of elements?

CM: No. Great style comes from having the confidence to mix unexpected elements and that confidence comes from practice. Look at the cover of my book A Flair for Living; I’m wearing a Ralph Rucci couture evening skirt and one of my husband’s Charvet dress shirts. Mixing elements is about knowing who you are and having the confidence to pull it off.

H&H: What’s your take on modernism?

CM: I love it. What I don’t like are all the clichés. I don’t like cheap copies and I don’t like it forced. I think a lot of modern rooms are just one beat.

H&H: What’s your secret for creating drama in a room?

CM: Every once in a while, you need to take a plunge. You just need to decide where to take it, and if money’s an issue, don’t take an expensive plunge. For example, covering your walls with fabric may be a costly mistake, but a dramatic paint colour won’t be as regrettable. Little strokes fell great oaks.

H&H: What books are you reading now?

CM: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Life on the Golden Horn by Mary Wortley Montagu and Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration by James A. Abbott and Elaine M. Rice. I’m usually reading something for work, a biography, and something just for me.

H&H: Where do you find inspiration?

CM: Everywhere! I travel a lot, but travel can be anywhere — it can be a different neighbourhood, a walk down to SoHo to be inspired by a building.

H&H: How do you stay balanced?

CM: It doesn’t always happen. Having a retail store and then closing it after one and a half years made me realize I couldn’t do it all. I didn’t like what it extracted from my life in terms of my work, my family and my ability to take pleasure in those things.

H&H: What is your definition of beauty?

CM: Inner strength, kindness and generosity. It’s not physical. Someone who’s kind and generous and self-aware. They’re attributes we aspire to.

H&H: What are your rituals at home?

CM: Puttering. I like to have a chunk of time to really connect to my house — reorganizing a drawer, flower arranging, that sort of thing.

H&H: What’s one thing about you that would surprise us?

CM: I’m an avid scrapbooker. It’s my therapy. I’m always recording my trips, and I record my garden every year, from the beginning of the blooming season right through to the end.

H&H: What gets you out of bed?

CM: Knowing that I can. Anticipation. We live in such mapped-out worlds. It’s the unexpected, the fork in the road, knowing that something could happen at any time — sometimes it’s an interruption, and sometimes it’s a great opportunity.