Designer Alexandra Stoddard promotes personal taste and low-budget decorating

June 13, 1993|By Clare Collins | Clare Collins,New York Times News Service

STONINGTON, Conn. -- It sounds so simple: "Creating a Beautiful Home."

But the subject and title of the most recent book by the interior designer and writer Alexandra Stoddard can be more than a little intimidating to those who think they lack the flair -- or the funds -- for home decorating.

That need not be the case, insists Ms. Stoddard, arguing that the tools of interior design are at everyone's fingertips.

A sort of self-help home-decorating guide, her latest book (published by William Morrow last year) chronicles the renovation of Ms. Stoddard's own 18th-century cottage here.

A monthly columnist for McCall's magazine and the author of 10 books with generally sweeping titles (among them "Living Beautifully Together" and "Daring to Be Yourself"), Ms. Stoddard lectures throughout the nation on interior design. During a recent interview in the newly decorated home she shares with her husband, Peter Magargee Brown, Ms. Stoddard provided a few practical tips.

Q: Is it necessary to retain a designer?

A: No. In fact, due to the recession I have begun working on a day-fee basis to help people put their dreams together. You really can do it in a day. People really don't need me as much as they think they do.

This recession has helped force us [interior designers] to become teachers, lecturers and writers. In the magazine column I write, for instance, I tell people where to get that chair, or exactly what number and brand of paint to use.

Q: Without a lot of money for redecorating, where does one start?

A: First of all, go the bookstore and buy a paperback book on Zen, to learn to live with empty space. I like people to really get a feel for the house before they do anything to it. Peter and I didn't do a thing to this house for one year, except to bathe it in white paint. The more you hang out in and appreciate your house, the better you'll know what to do with it.

The next thing I would do is to lose my intimidation about furniture stores. You can use them like museums, to learn. You can go there and not buy anything.

Q: What are some of the most common questions clients ask?

A: "Where do I start" is one of the leading ones. "Where do I put the TV? How much will it cost?" I always tell them not to be entirely practical. Don't feel you have to buy something to sit in or at. Buy something you are emotionally attached to and build your design around that. One Matisse cutout poster could provide you with your whole color scheme!

Q: What if one makes the wrong choice? It can be an expensive mistake, can't it?

A: You can sometimes avoid costly mistakes. Paint a corner of the room a certain color, to see how the light affects it. Or buy just one yard of an expensive fabric, to see how you like it in your room. You can always use the material to make napkins and place mats, or as a tablecloth. You still like the fabric, even if it's not right for covering two sofas.

You can't grow unless you make mistakes. The biggest mistake is not to try something out because you'll never get to feel the real joy and passion in decorating -- or in life. Of course, unlike a blouse, you can't just stick a sofa in the closet if it's the wrong color, and I do understand the real fear of making decorating mistakes because they can be so very costly.

Q: How can one inject character into a home that seems to lack it entirely?

A: Pay attention to details. That's the new direction in home furnishings. Consider having beautiful brass hardware, which is affordable for everyone. I would accent a pretty door, paint it a bright color so it's not all bland, to provide something to feast your eyes on. You could do it both on the inside and on the outside.

If you have very, very ordinary dull wooden floors, you might want to paint them. They have wonderful color wood stains now. Color can give a feeling of richness. For instance, painting inexpensive wood or fake paneling a beautiful bottle green would give tremendous character to a small study. I would definitely think of putting cornice moldings in or stenciling around the wall near the ceiling. That's inexpensive.

Also, fabrics can add warmth and softness and luxury to windows. Not all windows are pretty. The most important thing to think about is that a window is your main connection with nature. You don't want to close it up entirely. I often recommend simple window treatments with an attention to detail, such as hanging curtains from a wooden pole with wooden rings, for instance.

Just across the board, I would say character is subtle, the undergirding of a home. You want to make sure nothing screams out at you. Generally speaking, the wallpaper that's try

ing to be a scenic design of some Roman ruins just doesn't work for our life style today. They're imitations and they're inappropriate.

Q: How much can you tell about people from their home?

A: A home should be an intimate autobiography of the things that you like. One of the things I'm so keen on expressing is that, if you don't do it for yourself, if you're always seeking affirmation from outside, you'll never have a home. It'll just be a house. I mention in my book that you're in your house 96 percent of the time, with your family, not with guests.

My biggest mission is to have the daffodils on the kitchen table for yourself, not just for visitors.

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