Mixing the old with the new is John Saladino's signature


March 10, 1991|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

The hallmarks of the style of John Saladino are his impeccable taste and the timelessness of the interiors and furnishings he designs, characterized by classical roots such as Greek or Roman columns, architectural fragments, wall moldings and what he calls "metamorphic" color.

"I don't like explicit color," says Mr. Saladino. "I like color that changes according to the seasons, light and the time of day."

A preference for shades of amethyst, gracefully skirted chairs, mismatched chairs, diaphanous fabric veiling windows, texture contrasts, corroded surfaces, opulently scaled accessories, a mix of antiques with contemporary furniture of human scale and, above all, elegance, suggest the Saladino signature.

Done well, one of his rooms might bear a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But he says that good design and style don't have to cost a fortune.

A meticulous design practitioner, Mr. Saladino has been known to match a client's skin with the paint shade that will grace her walls. He admits he indulges in a little fantasy. "Most interior designers and architects are dealing in reality," he has said. "I am not. I'm interested in mood and theater. Houses should cater to our emotional needs. If you walk into a room and it doesn't move you, then it's a failure."

A pre-eminent presence in the creme de la creme of design publications, Mr. Saladino has a well-documented credo. He has always been a proponent of simple silhouettes and has paid scrupulous attention to detail and craftsmanship. He considers himself conservative, although his furniture has always been tagged "modernistic." In fact, he once described a furniture collection that he created as having "one foot in the ancient world and the other in the 21st century."

Some classical designs, he insists, can't be improved. So why try? He is, above all, respectful of the past and more than a little "proper." "My furniture is meant to appeal to ladies and gentlemen," he said of a 60-piece line that he recently designed for Jack Lenor Larsen.

Mr. Saladino's international clientele includes the rich and the celebrated. He is most excited about a Harvard project, awaiting funding, which will take him to Florence to restore the villa of the late art historian Bernard Berenson.

Mr. Saladino's point of view is highly respected, and he is the frequent recipient of design honors. He takes design seriously, both as historian and critic, often uttering pithy, caustic and always entertaining put-downs of what he regards as design atrocities.

For example, he told a writer for Mirabella magazine that he parted ways with a client because she insisted that a huge crystal be imposed on his design. "She came around with this meteor," he said. "It was the size of three basketballs, like a giant hideous cantaloupe that had been broken open and filled with glass stalactites. She wanted to put that in the entrance hall and she wanted it underlit."

Such candor, he admits, intimi dates prospective clients, whom he assures, "I don't bite the first two or three times."

The trend-savvy Metropolitan Home has cited Mr. Saladino as one of "100 people, objects and ideas that have shaped our lives and have transformed our world at the beginning of the 21st century."

"I've always said, I'm a romantic by birth, a classicist by choice and an intellectual by default," he says.

Mr. Saladino achieved recognition early in his career. In the late '60s, within a year of starting his own design practice, he was discovered by House & Garden (now called HG.) His own bachelor pad caught their eye. "I did the entire apartment on the diagonal," he said. "That doesn't mean a lot to people today, but nothing was done that way in 1969. A lot of architects responded to it. And that's when I initiated the idea that the interior is a walking still life."

A native of Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Saladino grew up and went to prep school there. He got his bachelor of fine arts degree from Notre Dame and, years later, a master's from the Yale school of art and architecture.

A chance meeting at his brother's college at the University of Virginia profoundly affected the course of Mr. Saladino's career. There he met an architect from Rome, who invited him to spend a year in his office there. "My yearlong experience in the Eternal City changed two things about me forever: my sense of scale and my respect for the past, specifically, my love of corrosion."

The agelessness that distinguishes Mr. Saladino's work is to him the definition of a design classic. "Classical means non-trendy and ultimately as neutral as possible. It doesn't impose on people. They impose on it. I like furniture connected to history," he has said. "So much furniture today is trendy, very thin and shallow. It comes and goes."

This philosophy inspired his furniture design of "very simple silhouettes out of geometric forms -- a rectangle, a square, a drum and a triangle, the basis of classicism."

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