Funeral services for interior designer Mario Buatta will be held Saturday, which would have been his 83rd birthday, at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church on Staten Island.
Friends are also planning a more glamorous memorial next month for Buatta, who died Monday at the age of 82. A New York City-made man, Buatta studied at Curtis High School, Wagner College and Manhattan’s Cooper Union. Design reportedly became more of a focus at Pratt, Columbia University and sojourns at Parsons School of Design in Europe before landing a job with Elisabeth C. Draper. Before he found his calling in English country decor and opened his own company, he had a stint working for Keith Irvine.
Once an established designer catering to well-heeled urbanites, his well-appointed rooms were featured on the pages of Architectural Digest, Town & Country and other leading publications. His numerous clients included Barbara Walters, Billy Joel, Mariah Carey and Gloria Schiff. Buatta never played favorites, though, according to design historian Emily Eerdmans, who coauthored the Rizzoli-published “Mario Buatta: 50 Years of American Interior Decoration.”
Having known Buatta all her life, Cornelia Guest said, “He was just someone who loved what he did, loved people, loved to see people, loved to talk to people and loved to go out. He was just a charming, wonderful man. He was always interested and interested in what you were doing. He was just fun and a brilliant person to talk to.”
She continued, “My friend Todd Romano worked for Mario when he first moved from Texas. We were talking about him yesterday. Todd said Mario was such a great teacher, because he loved what he did. He loved to talk about different fabrics and the intricacies of everything. He loved all the details.”
Known for his “exquisite taste and charm,” Buatta could read people, Guest said. “He was a lovely human being and he had beautiful manners. And I think ladies loved that. He knew how to charm, he knew how to entertain,” she said. “He always threw his arms around you, he had a big smile and he was always happy to see you. He was always in a good mood. He was such a staple in New York — and always having fun and making people laugh.”
“He was a very loyal person. That speaks to the New York that he came of age in business-wise, where you’re loyal to people like Paige Rense [ex-editor] at Architectural Digest,” she said.
His clients, in turn, exercised a similar loyalty, with many turning to Buatta again and again for decades. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and his wife Hilary Geary Ross fit the bill. Years before they wed in 2004, Buatta worked with both parties when they were married to different people, Eerdmans said. Despite his ailing health and not having any assistants, Buatta managed to complete his final project — the Ross’ new five–room apartment at the River House.
When he did have assistants, they were kept at a healthy distance. “Part of the reason he was so successful was that he controlled everything. Assistants were only allowed to do so much and they were sort of kept in the background. They usually didn’t last very long to be honest. It wasn’t easy working for him. He was demanding,” Eerdmans said. “But as he used to say, ‘My clients get me when they hire me. It’s not a whole team and you get a senior designer. You get Mario Buatta.”
His crowning moment was when he and decorator Mark Hampton were tapped to work on the interiors for the president’s guesthouse, Blair House, during the Reagan administration. English furnishings from the Heathcote Art Foundation and hand-painted 18th-century Chinese paper from Gracie were among the finishing touches used in the three-year project.
His own digs were in the first floor at 120 East 80th Street, the George and Martha Whitney House, a 15-foot-wide Georgian-style town house. In the Eighties, he bought a main-floor office adjacent to the building’s lobby to run his business. His apartment was adorned with ceramics spanning from the 18th century through the early 20th century, but one investment he never made was in a computer. The living room walls were glazed in three shades of lime green, and the curtain fabric had been used in several of Buatta’s projects, according to an Architectural Digest story. “Chintz is cozy,” he reportedly said. “It tones a room down, takes off the fancy edge.”
Buatta was also partial to phrases like, “Dust was a protective covering,” Eerdmans said. And he once gave a lecture titled, “If You Can’t Hide It, Decorate It.” His preferred e-mail sign-off (tapped out on his cell phone) was intentionally errant — “Marioops,” she said. “He always kept it light. He really had such a fun way about him.”
Indeed, Buatta was somewhat of a practical joker, often keeping a plastic cockroach in his jacket pocket attached to a string. At parties, he loved dropping it on the floor and making the cockroach jump, eliciting the occasional scream from an unsuspecting female guest.
New York City Newscaster Chauncey Howell nicknamed Buatta the “Prince of Chintz,” after touring a 1984 Kips Bay Decorator Show house, and Buatta embraced it, according to Eerdmans. “It just stuck, and he ran with it.”
“Canny” about self-promotion, Buatta took to licensing his name for various home products years before it was considered vogue to do so. In 1976, he was one of nine designers tapped by Geraldine Stutz to design Henri Bendel’s “Five Corners” home shop. His forte in licensing was evident in $1 million in bedsheet sales alone. When diving into the home fragrance market in 1990, he developed 14 options with Aromatique that were sold at Dillard’s.
Buatta’s name first appeared in the pages of WWD in 1969 in relation to a Vassar-supported design house at the Cummings Point Farm, a Stanford White-designed waterfront estate. In the years that followed, it would appear again and again for business and out-on-the-town coverage. Through the years, Buatta kept track of media mentions with the help of Burrelle’s Clipping Service.
A great dresser in his prime, Buatta had a slew of Turnbull & Asser shirts to choose from. Even in the final months of his life, Buatta remained partial to the color blue, sporting a watch with an alligator strap in blue and coiling the other wrist with strands of lapis lazuli beads. “From emergency room to nursing home to intensive care, he had this incredibly chic wrist thing going on,” she said.
Crafting the book that explored his 50-year career was no small feat, especially since the non-computer friendly Buatta required printed drafts to review or copy transmitted via cell phone, that he would read aloud to Eerdmans before suggesting changes. She said, “I realized this is what made him so good. He was meticulous and he cared about every single detail.”
Buatta is survived by his brother Joseph, who lives in the Staten Island house the family grew up in.