Arguably the most iconic house in Charleston belongs to Patricia Altschul. The imposing mansion and its formal gardens are hidden behind stone walls and perfectly manicured hedges, but its magnificent interiors are broadcast around the country every week to viewers of Southern Charm, the Bravo reality show in which Altschul stars as the resident grand dame.
Her home’s sumptuous living room, stately dining room, and imposing staircase have set the stage for many cocktail parties and fancy dinners, and while the cast’s behavior is never perfect, the house always looks immaculate.
Altschul purchased the 19th century mansion in 2008 and it was decorated by Mario Buatta, one of the most renowned American interior designers. His whimsical and colorful style made him a favorite among socialites, celebrities, and everyone in between, and he designed four houses for Altschul over the past few decades, culminating with her Charleston residence.
Along the way he and Altschul became fast friends and traveled the world together, visiting Buckingham Palace, Paris, and in Altschul's words, "The entire Eastern Seaboard."
Buatta passed away in 2018 but his legacy lives on through his inventive interiors, and his estate is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s later this month. Altschul spoke with us ahead of the highly anticipated sale and shared her favorite memories of Buatta, along with some unseen photos from her archive.
When did you first meet Mario? Were you familiar with his work before you met him?
I began following Mario’s work after I first saw it published in interior design magazines. When I married Arthur Altschul and moved to New York, I just called up Mario on the phone and he answered. We lived a few blocks away from each other so he said he would walk over to my apartment, and we hit it off immediately. I hauled out my file of all of the clippings of his work that I had collected, and he was amazed because he said it was more complete than the file he had on himself. He even borrowed quite a few clippings to copy—I told him he couldn’t have them, but I lent them to him. We became fast friends after we met and I enjoyed his wacky sense of humor.
Do you have a favorite memory of Mario?
After Arthur died, I traveled a lot with Mario. We went to London and Paris many times to shop and go to auctions, and we would go antiquing around the country.
Mario always carried his rubber cockroach Harold with him, and he brought him to an event at Buckingham Palace. Mario placed Harold on this magnificent piece of furniture and all of a sudden Camilla started walking over to us, accompanied by Prince Charles. I didn’t know this beforehand, but Camilla actually knew Mario because she had been the receptionist at Colefax & Fowler. Camilla saw Harold and said to Mario, “That is so boring, can’t you get another party trick?”
I saw the evolution of Harold from a plain rubber cockroach to a more realistic motorized cockroach, and Mario even had a cockroach on a string that he could pull around. The battery-operated one was his favorite. One night while we were eating dinner at the bar at a Mexican restaurant and he pulled out Harold and turned him on. Harold ran the entire length of the bar and everyone was screaming.
Mario would often give lectures, and frequently he would stand at a lectern with pages and pages of notes taped together. He had so many that they would fall all the way over the other side of the lectern. One time at a fancy seated luncheon he gave a lecture on "Bringing the Outside In," and while he was speaking he dumped out an entire box of leaves. Of course I was sitting right underneath him. I really miss him.
What aspects of Mario’s style did you most connect with?
I most connected with Mario's use of color, but I really felt a kinship with all of his work. I connected with his use of antiques and exotic objects, and I also happened to collect many of the same things he collected, like Delft and Chelsea porcelain and dog paintings. He never had a dog, but he loved dogs. In fact he named Lily, my last pug, and he would always give me little pug objects—much of my pug collection was given to me by Mario. We just meshed.
What was the first project you worked on with Mario? How many houses has he designed for you since?
The first project I worked on with Mario was my apartment with Arthur. While Mario was working on our apartment, Arthur and I also bought Southerly, our estate on Long Island. Mario was more excited about Southerly—Arthur had so many paintings in the apartment in New York that I think Mario felt he had to decorate around the paintings. Southerly, in comparison, was virgin territory. It was a great big Greek Revival house that was formerly owned by the sister of the Shah of Iran and it was on ten acres of land.
Sobriquet: Prince of Chintz
Date of Birth:
October 19, 1935
Livingston Heights in Staten Island, New York
Known For: Bringing English country house style to America.
Self-taught. One summer program at Parsons School of Design in Europe led by Stanley Barrows.
Maternal Aunt Mary, Billy Baldwin, Stanley Barrows, Rose Cumming, Elisabeth C. Draper, Albert Hadley, Keith Irvine, Sister Parish, George Schreyer, George Stacey.
John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster of Colefax and Fowler.
Fireside comfort, exuberant color, chintz, Regency furniture, glazed walls, impeccable and overstuffed upholstery, confectionary curtains, dazzling passementerie, decorative painting.
Mariah Carey, Malcolm Forbes, Henry Ford II, Barbara Walters, Patricia Altschul
It was on the water in Oyster Bay and it had formal gardens and a beautiful allée of trees. I worked on the gardens with the landscape designer Madison Cox—Mario actually introduced me to Madison. Southerly was a very big project and it was a lot of fun. We filled the house with furniture from my family and from Arthur’s former country house that had been in storage, and Mario had free rein over this enormous house. He loved coming to Southerly and he would come all the time for parties and he would join us there for the holidays.
After Arthur died and I was living at Southerly, Mario also found my apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue. It was formerly Sister Parish’s apartment and I wasn’t really even looking for an apartment in Manhattan, but Mario thought I should have it as a pied-à-terre. Mario also found Michael for me. After a few years of living at Southerly I decided to sell it and get a place down South, because while Southerly was beautiful during the summer, it was freezing cold and blustery in the winter and no one wanted to come visit.
Mario and I traveled up and down the entire Eastern seaboard together to find the right house. We went to Virginia, Maryland, and Savannah, and we came to Charleston three different times. Each time we would come to Charleston we would pass this house and it wasn’t on the market but I kept saying, “That’s the kind of house I want.” Mario loved the look of it and as soon as it came onto the market we came down here to see it. Mario said I had to buy it.
What lessons did you learn from Mario?
I learned the importance of scale. He was a master at placing furniture exactly where it should be, and it would always be the right size and it would fit perfectly. I never really thought about scale before Mario. Even though I had worked with a decorator when I was living in Washington D.C. I used to buy things and bring them home and they would never look quite right, but I would never know why. Now I know the reason is because they were never the right scale. It is difficult to get scale right.
What are your top tips for someone who wants to emulate Mario’s style?
When you buy a new home, you must take care of the architectural needs first. Mario would examine each room to ensure they were architecturally correct. He would determine if cornices or baseboards were needed, or if anagylptas were needed on the ceiling or if there were bad ones that would need to be removed. Then he would think about the color of the room and whether it should be wallpapered or painted.
It was a slow process, and he didn’t do it all at once. He would try out different things to see if he liked them. He would have painters cover the walls with great big swatches of paint- he would paint half of a wall, not just a little square- and he would look at the swatches in morning light, in evening light, and in artificial light before deciding on the right color.
Mario liked to have floors painted with designs (like in my entry hall), and he liked to carpet stairs. Sometimes he liked throw rugs but I never had much wall-to-wall carpeting- except for my library, which is carpeted in an ocelot print. Mario had a unique talent for doing things that other decorators would never think of. He covered the ceiling of my library in gold Japanese tea paper, which gives it a soft golden glow, and he usually painted the ceilings of each room a different color.
My bedroom is all blue and white, but the ceiling is painted in the faintest shade of lavender. He also loved pale blue ceilings. He always included little touches that you would have to look very closely to notice, like he would put trim around the baseboards and around the doors and the ceiling. If you look at pictures of my bedroom, you can see how he did it.
Did you ever visit Mario’s house? We heard he never let anyone visit, but from the pictures it looks like it was beautiful!
He told me that he staged his apartment before those photos were taken, and that the last time his apartment ever looked good was when those pictures were taken! He let me peek into his office once. I remember I once arrived at his apartment with my driver to take him to the hospital when he was incredibly ill. His biggest worry was not letting me look inside his apartment, but he had no choice but to open the door for me. He grabbed his keys and slammed the door so quickly that he forgot to take his wallet with him, so he had to call up his business manager when we got the hospital to get all of his insurance and credit card information. Very few people ever saw the inside of his apartment, and as close as I was with him, he never wanted to let me inside.
Is there anything in the sale that you are going to bid on?
Seeing the sale is bittersweet. I think I am going to bid and I have a few lots in mind, but Mario and I actually had a lot of the same things and I don’t know if I need any more cabbages or dog paintings! There are a few small dog paintings in the sale that I might bid on, but I will have to see.
I was actually with him when he bought many of the lots in the sale. I was with him when he purchased the carved wooden palm fronds at Christie’s for almost four times the current estimate, and I also have a pair of the black and white rabbits that I purchased from the auction of Mrs. Whitney’s estate years ago. I paid something like $8,000 for my pair, and his are estimated to sell for around $1,000. But whether those prices stay that way or not are another story!
A Few of Mario’s Favorite Things:
Favorite Cuisine: Italian
Favorite Chintz: Floral Bouquet by Lee Jofa
Favorite Color: Blue
Favorite Color Combination: Yellow, blue, and white
Favorite Color Inspirations: Bonnard, Matisse, Vuillard
Favorite Flower: Grape hyacinth
Favorite Era: Regency
Favorite Room: Nancy Lancaster’s butter yellow drawing room in London’s Avery Row
Favorite Project: Blair House, The President’s Guest House
Favorite Singer: Peggy Lee
Favorite Comedians: Milton Berle, Dame Edna, Joan Rivers
The Mario Buatta: Prince of Interiors auction will take place at Sotheby's New York on January 23rd and 24th. The exhibition will be open to the public from January 16th to January 22nd.
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