Iconic American interior designer Mario Buatta was obsessed with the layered aristocratic interiors of England. He adored worn leather chairs and antique canopied beds. The beloved decorator passed away in 2018 at the age of 82. And for the first time, the world recently got a chance to see what was inside his Upper East Side apartment and Connecticut country home. Nearly 1,000 items from his personal collection went up for sale at Sotheby’s in New York City earlier this year, a glorious testament to his “more is more” upper crust aesthetic.
Known as the Prince of Chintz, Buatta designed interiors for the likes of Billy Joel, Malcolm Forbes and Barbara Walters. He was famous for glazing walls in sunny yellow or soft peach, infusing his rooms with Georgian and Regency antiques. He loved to hang lavish drapes like ball gowns around beds and in alcoves. All of this was designed to create a lived-in interior that appeared collected over time — sumptuous lairs of comfort and class. “The secret to design is the play of pattern on pattern; the play is everything,” he once said. “Look at nature. Go into Central Park. That’s all it is.”
Just like his designs, Buatta’s personality was full of gusto. He was fond of wearing quirky wigs to parties and faking foreign accents on the phone. He would carry a plastic cockroach named Harold in his pocket when attending soirees, unleashing it on unsuspecting guests. And then there were his domestic charms, which were legendary. He once told The New York Times he preferred to wash his Brooks Brothers shirts in the dishwasher, right along with the dishes. And never mind that thick layer of dust in his apartment; it was merely a “protective coating” for his furniture.
So it was no surprise domestic doyennes like Martha Stewart and longtime client Patricia Altschul (of Southern Charm fame) turned out for the elaborate auction previews: room after room filled with period chairs, lacquered bookcases and cabbage-shaped ceramics. The blockbuster two-day sale pulled in a massive $7.6 million, two and a half times the auction estimate. There were dog paintings galore, what Buatta called his “ancestral portraits.” Chintz chairs were snapped up by online bidders, who numbered in the hundreds. And the designer’s elaborate cape was a star lot.
No doubt Buatta would have been tickled pink at this auction frenzy — dozens of top interior designers vying for his most cherished possessions. Suddenly maximalism seems back on trend, and along with it, a renewed interest in collecting antique art, objects and furniture. “I don’t buy for investment,” he once told his biographer. “To me, an investment is stocks, bonds or real estate. I’d rather look at a pair of candlesticks, a mirror or a painting that gives me pleasure. That’s the return I get. Everything I have may be old, but I love it all. It’s the prose and poetry in my life.”