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In Defense of Decorators

Confession: I am not an interior decorator nor have I ever played one on TV (THAT was Bette Davis, and if you’ve never seen the pilot for “The Decorator,” run don’t walk to YouTube and watch it, if not for Davis’s voracious scenery chomping performance, then for Mary Wicke’s brilliant comic timing.) But I do know a lot of interior decorators and designers from my tenure as president of Scalamandre, the grand American textiles house. Some are wonderful friends, others simply tolerate me, and I them. But over the years, I have developed a respect and admiration for this profession, one that seems to be grappling with the constant threat of extinction.

Bette Davis as "The Decorator"

Here’s the thing: HGTV, the internet and certain products of the shelter press (translation: decorating magazines) have lately been hell bent on eliminating, or at least minimizing the role of the experienced interior designer. Many of these outlets encourage us to do it ourselves, with their help, of course. That help does not come for free. It requires subscriptions and markups to stay alive, and, ironically, a constant flow of professional designer endorsements, collaborations and references to remain authentic. A magazine or website telling you to consider a leopard silk velvet pillow for your living room sofa isn’t nearly as compelling as a validation of its eternal chic through showcasing the work of the late décor icon, Elsie de Wolfe. Chocolate brown walls and sisal rugs will forever be credited to Albert Hadley or Billy Baldwin, as floral chintz will forever be associated with yesteryear’s Nancy Lancaster and today’s Mario Buatta. Would shiny black doors with white trim and big gold pulls even exist without Dorothy Draper?

Why, then, are so many of these online and print media folks trying to undercut the interior designer? From personal disasters, I can attest that choosing the right chocolate brown wall color requires skill, as there is a fine line between dramatic, dark chic and poop. Exquisite floral chintz can be lovely, a bad one can look, well, chintzy. And even with the help of exact specifications and a tape measure, how the hell would you ever know that the only way to get that pretty sofa into your apartment would be to knock down a wall, or move to a different apartment?

Professional designers would know this because it’s their thing. They labor over furniture plans and schemes to avoid costly missteps. They know their paint finishes and mill work profiles and their cushion fills, and think about things that mere mortals would never bother with, but can make or break a room, like door heights. They understand that a little trim can make the difference between a chair looking like it was bought off the floor of any old furniture store versus one that comes off as carefully selected just for you and, more importantly, the room. It’s an absolute truth that in decorating, the devil is in the details, not in the number of Instagram followers and likes, unless one lives their life virtually and never has anyone over.

Albert Hadley and Sister Parish

Today’s rapidly expanding digital world certainly has its value. It opens windows and minds to concepts and possibilities. It inspires and exposes with breakneck speed and unfathomable scope. But nothing virtual could or should ever replace the actual, the tactile and the emotional; the comfort of a properly scaled chair or the way the spirit can soar upon entering a stunning space. This is the magic made by the Decorators, and long may they thrive.

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