Fluffy or Fido: perfect accessories

Decorator says pets lend color, texture and movement to rooms and furniture

April 21, 2002|By Claire Whitcomb | By Claire Whitcomb,Universal Press Syndicate

Picture the classic white-on-white room. Then imagine it with a spotted Dalmatian. Bingo: You've gone from serene to graphic without buying a single pillow or changing even one vase or slipcover.

Decorating with pets -- choosing a white bichon because it is the perfect way to set off black Biedermeier furniture -- is a subject you'll never study in interior design school. But Julia Szabo, an animal lover and frequent contributor to magazines such as House Beautiful, offers a master class in her information-packed book, Animal House Style (Bullfinch Press, $35).

Pets, Szabo writes, "lend color, texture and movement to a room. A chair without a cat on it is simply not as elegant as a chair with a cat on it -- even if the chair in question was designed by Le Corbusier." As for claws, hair and "accidents," Szabo believes that with a little decorating forethought, chic pets and chic interiors go hand in paw. After all, she shares a stylish, smallish New York apartment with four large dogs and a gaggle of cats, many of them acquired through her animal rescue work.

Szabo has earned her pet-decorating stripes. She knows from experience that area rugs are "sliding surfboards for pets," so she keeps her floors bare. She's aware that large dogs leave a permanent dent in feather sofa cushions, so now she is a fan of resilient fiberfill.

A scrupulous researcher and intense networker -- the homes of New York's decorating and fashion cognoscenti fill the pages of Animal House Style -- Szabo ticks off pet decorating facts with aplomb.

On the subject of floors, she reports that tile and concrete, which both stay cool in summer, are favored by dogs. Linoleum is fine but it must be properly laid or the cracks will quickly fill with dirt. Sisal, she says, is suitable for most cats, but it "doesn't stand up well to dogs, creating a lot of litter and catching the hairs of long-haired breeds." Instead, Szabo advises easy-to-vacuum sea grass.

Traditional wall-to-wall carpet can be a problem since pet spills permeate the padding as well as the carpet. Szabo reports that Pet-Agree, a polyethylene film, can be laminated directly to the underside of nylon carpets. Wool rugs can be treated with Fiber-Seal, a tactic taken by writer Barbara Bradford Taylor, so that spills "bead up for easy blotting." As for fabrics, Szabo's research reveals that wool is easily snagged by claws. Chintz doesn't weather repeated dry-cleaning, but velvet is surprisingly cat-resistant.

"Their claws glide across it too easily," Szabo writes, adding, "they prefer more of a challenge."

For an all-purpose solution, she likes white denim slipcovers, the choice of Eleanor Mondale, daughter of the former vice president. Mondale has two sets, one to wash (with hot water and bleach), the other to wear.

The fabric Szabo outright adores is Ultrasuede. A washable, synthetic microfiber, Ultrasuede is virtually impermeable to pet hairs, making it a snap to vacuum. Szabo uses it to curtain windows and cover her 1950s Heywood-Wakefield sofa and chair. The color? Pit-bull beige, a choice that proves how closely she adheres to pet decorating's first principle: Match your shedder.

But all the decorating advice in the world would come to naught if it were not for the invention of Helmac Products Corp.'s Evercare Pet Hair Pic-Up, which Szabo describes as "a roll of sticky tape with a handle that enables pet lovers to remove evidence of shedding."

With that and natural lavender oil, an air-freshener and disinfectant that she sprinkles on dog beds, floors, baseboards and wood furniture between weekly cleanings, her animal house is up to snuff -- and up to sniffs.

Decorating with Garfield

Here are some tips for pet-proofing your decor:

* To keep table lamps safe from large tail waggers, find a side table that has a tall reading lamp attached.

* Look for woods in lighter finishes. Mahogany and ebony show scratches more easily.

* To stop pets from digging up household plants, hide the soil beneath pinecones, shells or rocks.

* For a good-looking scratch post, wrap part of the banister with untreated sisal from the hardware store.

* Black yoga meditation cushions make chic dog beds. Other favorites are low beanbag chairs from EazyBean and denim dog beds from L.L. Bean.

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