Just because she caters to clients in high places with bank accounts to match doesn't mean you can't pick up a few down-to-earth decorating tips from Los Angeles tastemaker Rose Tarlow.
Tarlow preaches a gospel of simplicity and comfort. The irony is that, though famously expensive, her rooms still look surprisingly unpretentious. Last week, she visited the Washington Design Center to sign copies of her recent book, "The Private House" (Clarkson Potter, 272 pp., $37.50). Chatting with fans in the Holly Hunt showroom, which carries her line of fabrics, wallpapers and furniture, she stayed consistently on message: "Don't overdo."
Tarlow has been described as a tastemaker, a style-setter and a design-world cult figure credited with anticipating by decades today's major trends: simplicity, overscaled furniture and off-white, monochromatic rooms. The Toronto Star has called her rooms "the thinking man's eye candy."
Even when she's decorating for such money-is-no-object clients as celebrity interviewer Barbara Walters and entertainment mogul David Geffen (Geffen's $48 million-dollar home is among the projects showcased, though not identified, in her book), Tarlow has little tolerance for glitz.
In her first home in L.A, she recalls giving the hand-painted wallpaper a light rubbing with steel wool to drab down its colors. She recommends adding a cup of garden dirt before troweling on plaster, to make walls look convincingly vintage. Even with the fabrics she designs, new velvets look worn and her chintzes tea-dipped.
Lately, the house she designed in the exclusive hills of Bel Air above Los Angeles has been her favorite canvas. She describes it as "simple and French." There are many pictures of it in the book, including the living room with its two rare, 17th-century Knole sofas -- original upholstery faded to no color; dark overhead beams from an 11th-century English church; and ivy and wisteria vines that have crept in from outdoors. Some have attached themselves to the 18-foot ceiling. "In spring," she says, "they droop so low they become a curtain to be gently held aside when passing from one part of the room to another."
Note her choice of the word "curtain." Tarlow's not big on industry-speak; she never mentions "window treatments." And when she does use curtains, she prefers plain to fancy. In the sleeping loft above her home studio, light streaming through curtains made from antique linen sheets casts an amber glow. They are, of course, hem-stitched.
Tarlow trained at the Parsons School of Design and New York School of Interior Design before opening the L.A. antiques shop that made her famous, Rose Tarlow-Melrose House, in 1976. Eventually she added fabric, wallpapers and hand-crafted furniture -- her own designs as well as adaptations of antiques.
The furniture, like Tarlow herself, tends to show up in high-profile settings. Her dining-room chairs have been noticed at the Bush ranch in Crawford. A regular in society pages as well as those of House Beautiful and Architectural Digest, she divides her time between homes in California, London and Provence. Recently, 600 celebrities showed up at New York's Four Seasons to toast her book. The hosts included close friends Walters, fashion designer Bill Blass and Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his wife. (Did we mention that Martha Stewart and her TV camera crew visited Tarlow's shop last weekend for an upcoming program?)
Tarlow says her real satisfaction comes from scouting "eccentric, distressed items" and "pairing important pieces with the simple, primitive" and unexpected. She spots black and white cows grazing in the soft green of an Irish meadow and conjures a room's color scheme. She uses dented copper pots and cracked creamware and serves guests Won Ton soup in precious Sung dynasty bowls.
The book is part reverie, part party primer and part decorating how-to. But at the Design Center, Tarlow stressed that the tips she offers "are really my own, personal views." A sampling:
-- Dress windows simply. To create an illusion of height, skip the tie-backs and "let the curtains hang straight and naturally." Overly elaborate draperies on "any long expanse of windows" she says, risk making the room look like a movie theater.
-- When using patterned fabric, the more the merrier. "It makes a space cozy and intimate." She also likes overscaled furniture in small rooms. In her London flat, her bedroom is only eight feet wide and seven feet high, yet it holds a queen-size bed and an overstuffed chair.
-- In general, Tarlow says, rugs with an all-over pattern are easier to work with than those with a large central medallion, which can dominate a room and complicate furniture arrangements. No matter how beautiful a carpet, consider it background, not the focal point. She also likes bare floors and flat-weave rugs.
-- If you collect antiques or furnishings from one period, don't put them all in one room. "Too many self-important pieces can keep a room from looking young and fresh" so spread them around.
-- Balance large pieces of furniture. If there's a piano at one end of the room, putting a sofa at the other will keep the arrangement from looking top-heavy.
-- Vary wood finishes in the same space for contrast as well as visual interest.
-- On chandeliers with no shades, avoid using clear, flame-tipped light bulbs; they cast unattractive shadows on walls and ceilings. For a warm glow, choose instead "tiny, round or bullet-shaped frosted bulbs."
-- Forget conventional coffee tables because most are too low. "Coffee tables should at least as high as the sofa seat -- tall enough so you don't have to bend down to retrieve your wineglass or coffee cup." Most coffee tables are just 14 inches high. Tarlow thinks 19 to 28 inches is better. Side tables should be tall too, rising above the arm of the chair or sofa.
"It's easier to reach up than down," says Tarlow.
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