Furnished with Emotion

Interior designer Rose Tarlow says buying 'what you love' fills a home with personality

Focus On Design

January 06, 2002|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

Instinct drew Rose Tarlow to the finest European antiques, establishing her as a formidable dealer when she was just in her 20s. But it was her ability to ferret out master antiquarians abroad that gave her tools and credentials as an interior designer. Then she took it a step further, launching her own line of fine reproductions of the antiques she loved.

"I live inside my head," Tarlow says. What she means is that she sees only elements that engage her, imprinting them in her mind and calling them back later as she needs them.

It could well be anything with age -- buildings, furniture, objects -- that moves her. Or it could be something from nature, as simple as the color of the sea or the hue of an autumn leaf.

As author of The Private House (Clarkson Potter, $40), she describes intimate relationships with homes she's loved, and shares trade secrets as a bonus. She passes along one conviction that has been a driving catalyst: "Buy what you love, what you're passionate about. Then find a place for it."

"It's an emotional approach to design," Tarlow admits. "Every piece of furniture has to have a particular personality. Furniture should have character. A chair has a human quality to it. There's something about it that's very animated. It brings life into a space."

Most designers don't rhapsodize about the anthropomorphic nature of furnishings, but then Tarlow is different. She has no design heroes. As for her own creativity, she considers it easy to think of new designs. But she doesn't subscribe to a signature style.

Her motto is this: "You do not have to be different -- just excellent."

The antiques business she began in Los Angeles in 1976 led to the manufacture of fine reproductions sold through her Melrose House showroom, created in 1981. Ten years later, she launched her own line of handcrafted furniture, the Melrose House Collection (www.rosetarlow. com), now available to the trade in 13 showrooms nationwide. Styles run the gamut from Regency to chinoiserie (18th-century European design with Chinese motifs) in a range of exquisite finishes.

Besides the 400 or so pieces in production at any given time, Tarlow designs fabrics, wall coverings and leather. She has prototypes for dinnerware, a possible carpet line and plans to branch into other areas of home design.

"Rose Tarlow can't be categorized," says Mitchell Owens, interior design director for Elle Decor. "She operates on a personal plane. She's not interested in pleasing anyone else.

"There's a quirkiness to her style," he says. "The pieces she designs fit in so many different styles, from California country to French formal to contemporary. She manages to find the most unusual pieces to reproduce, ones you don't know a period had. Yet they seem incredibly modern."

Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, puts it this way: "I do not know how to explain Rose's rooms, except to say they are right. They balance sensual pleasures with geometric rigor, and every one of them is simultaneously a lesson in design and a lesson in living."

Goldberger says that Tarlow is a true connoisseur who approaches furnishings the way an architect does building, balancing proportion, texture, space and color. "In the end, it's about knowing," he says.

What Tarlow knows is largely influenced by particular experiences in her life, perhaps beginning with boarding school on the East Coast. Beds were made with crisp white cotton sheets. Students were responsible for waxing furniture to a satiny finish. Rewards were as simple as choosing the colors of pansies in a flower arrangement.

Her family's home near the Atlantic Ocean was another pivotal point. "It was the foundation of my world," she says. She carried memories of the white house, with its red tile roof and wide luxurious porches, "like a child's soft blanket" into her adult life.

"My biggest mentors have been houses," she says. "There was something about [the family home] that was so nurturing. I never forgot it."

Not surprisingly, when she built her own villa in Bel Air, Calif., she created much of its charm by using elements that had past lives. She appreciates that aspect of antiques and without fail incorporates them in her interiors, whether as building materials or furnishings.

Six ancient oak beams set the tone in her living room, which also has a pair of antique French doors and a stone mantel. The beams once graced an 11th-century church in England. The sofa is from the 17th century, upholstered in its original velvet. A chaise is from the same era.

Tarlow enjoys transforming boxes into personality-filled interiors with pieces that are unique or have age. For clients in Australia, she paneled a dining room in bamboo and hung a stunning antique screen as art.

Her newest canvas will be a house she bought in Provence, which she says needs lots of work. Currently single, Tarlow has two grown sons who live in different states. One, a photographer, is in New York, the other in Hawaii.

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