The Next Good Thing?

As Chris Madden launches a new line of furnishings and a book on style, she can't avoid being compared to Martha Stewart.

May 30, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

On a recent sunny afternoon, Chris Madden frowned at a sisal carpet in her living room where, the day before, a dog had an "accident." Madden, a syndicated columnist to 400 newspapers, host for eight years of HGTV's Interiors by Design, and decorator for such celebrities as Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey has, of course, styled her rambling house in West-chester County, N.Y., to a fare-thee-well. Yet one of her West Highland terriers, Lola or Winnie, was not showing her mistress the respect she deserves.

A more uptight home design guru -- any name come to mind? -- might have allowed this blot on perfection to ruin her day or, at the very least, put a sharp edge on her mood. Madden, however, simply sighed before dissolving into a merry chuckle. She is petite and trim, but has a slightly husky voice and comic demeanor that her friends compare to Diane Keaton's. Thanks partially to artful blond highlights, she appears a good deal younger than her 56 years.

Cool in a lime green pantsuit and white T-shirt, Madden slipped off her shoe and poked hopefully at the carpet stain with her bare toe. "I'll give it another day to dry before I wash it again. I try to make things nice around here, but my dogs do their best to destroy my decorating," she said, rolling her eyes playfully at the injustice of it all. "You see? I'm just like my customers at J.C. Penney. I'm really a very normal person."

Perhaps. Though normal people -- whatever that means -- do not have brilliant blue sprays of fake hydrangea set in all their window boxes, left over from a House Beautiful photo shoot (the magazine's July issue features Madden). While checking e-mails, an average Josephine doesn't explain that she started using a Blackberry at the suggestion of a dear friend, author Toni Morrison. And, above all, not just anyone could, in nine months, mastermind the design of 675 separate items -- including carpets, lamps and furniture -- which together were launched this month as the Chris Madden Home Collection at J.C. Penney's nearly 1,100 stores nationwide.

Given all that she's accomplished in her 20-plus years as an interior design expert, Madden is far from normal, and probably should be even a little intimidating. Those who know her best, however, insist she's anything but.

"Truly great people are always simple. The thing about Chris is that she is so smart, she doesn't have to act smart," said Lynn Von Kersteing, who owns The Ivy Restaurant and Indigo Seas, a home decor shop, in Los Angeles. "She is so full of fun, her wit and grace just shine forth. Unlike many decorators, she gives a true picture of what life can be."

"When we met, I didn't know anything about decorating, but knowing Chris made me learn," said Nancy Palmer, a writer in Washington, D.C. "She has a way of offering advice that isn't threatening or at all scary."

It is Madden's accessibility, in fact, that made her most attractive to J.C. Penney, said Charles Chinni, the company's executive vice president of merchandising. When Penney's decided to associate its $1.4 billion-a-year private label business with a celebrity, Chinni interviewed scores of household names, and was approached by even more.

"What set Chris apart is that she really lives the life she professes; her personality is completely sincere," Chinni said. "As the country gets to know her more, her warmth will come through more. It's there. You can't stop it."

Birth of a decorator

As Madden points out, her background is quite similar to Martha Stewart's -- to whom she is often compared -- in that both came from large families and grew up in the suburbs of New York. Born in Rockville Centre, Long Island, Annchristine Casson was the second oldest of nine children, and the first of four girls. She shortened her name to Chris at age 7. "Just a little bossy," she said, with a chuckle.

Though such a brood was obviously a handful, Ann Marie Casson, her mother, found time to wallpaper, paint, sew clothes for her children, and cut all their hair, in addition to cooking and cleaning. That there wasn't a lot of extra money in the house was, for Madden, a source of creativity. "It forced me to look around and use the gifts I had," she explained. Learning to sew from her mother, she first made simple outfits for her dolls, but by age 11 was able to tailor a fully-lined overcoat.

Her father, Edward Casson, was a salesman for the Mohawk Brush Co., and Madden recalls the pleasure she felt as a child looking at the brushes' satin wood handles, carved into serpentine shapes. She also liked to visit her father's office in Manhattan, where he'd clear a desk, and allow young Chris to pretend she was running the show. Casson was a poet, deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement.

"My dad proved that one could be a businessperson and creative, too. One didn't preclude the other," Madden said. "He also showed me that to change the world, you can't just stand apart and say, 'I hate that. That's not fair.' You have to get inside to effect change."

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