Interior designer shares tricks for achieving a timeless look

Noel Jeffrey creates settings that adapt easily to the whims of their residents

May 19, 2002|By Claire Whitcomb

Most decorating books allow just a guilty peek at other people's homes. But Design Diary: Innovative Interiors (Rizzoli, $50) tells all.

Written by decorator Noel Jeffrey, it tours just five homes. You see foyers, kitchens, master baths -- everything but the garage -- and thus have a rare chance to analyze how colors flow from room to room, how window treatments are varied, and where the owners watch TV and read the newspaper.

But best of all, your tour guide is one of New York's great decorators, a master of the timeless look who shares tricks of the trade at every turn.

Consider the subject of coffee tables. In Jeffrey's hands, coffee tables range from the nearly invisible (glass edged in wrought iron) to the plush (a tufted pumpkin-colored ottoman). If he uses the expected rectangle, the legs are a surprise -- curvaceous X's, elaborately turned wooden spirals, exaggerated scrolls.

Not one to plunk a sofa in front of the fireplace and pair it with a matching love seat, Jeffrey crafts loose, innovative seating clusters. He might set a sofa opposite the windows and surround it with antique and upholstered chairs. Then across the room, he'll position another sofa, its back to the view, and surround it with an additional trio of mismatched chairs. Jeffrey creates flexible rooms that work for company -- and for everyday companionship.

The ace up his sleeve is the ottoman. There's hardly a Noel Jeffrey living room without at least one or two. Sometimes the ottomans are as small as stools, other times put-your-feet-up companions to arm chairs. Either way, they are a clever way of enclosing a seating circle without resorting to high-backed, traffic-blocking chairs.

Jeffrey specializes in places to perch -- both for people and drinks. His rooms are sprinkled with tables. Usually a tea table anchors the secondary seating area; demi-lune (half-moon-shaped) tables flank fireplaces, and always there's one or two small pedestal tables somewhere in the center of a room.

Though he is not afraid of color or pattern, Jeffrey's designs have a quality of restraint. If there's busy acanthus-leaf wallpaper in an attic bedroom, the antique French mahogany bed will have plain white linens.

A classicist whose work appears regularly in House Beautiful and Architectural Digest, Jeffrey has dabbled in modernism (his career was launched with a sleek bedroom at New York's prestigious Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club Decorator Showhouse in 1976). He's acquainted with froufrou, and in 1988, the height of the English country obsession, he swathed a four-poster bed with billowing ball gown curtains.

But at every fashion twist and turn, at every new craze for ficus trees or topiaries, he's managed a timeless look. In fact, his rooms are often so understated that it's easy to ignore the skill that goes into them.

Noel Jeffrey is a pro. Even if your taste doesn't match his, there's much to be learned from paying close attention to his expertly crafted rooms.

A master's touch

* If you want a formal dining room, add a table for two by the windows so you'll have an intimate place to sit with coffee and the newspaper.

* In bedrooms, mount swing-arm lamps on the wall to help keep bedside tables free of clutter.

* Top an antique chest with marble for a practical dining room sideboard.

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