The Importance of Mentors in Design
Find your own mentors—the ones who appeal to you, even if they don't know you.
When I was a young decorator—thirty-five and, believe me! naive and unsophisticated, I read everything I could get on decorating. My very favorite magazine, at the time, was Architectural Digest which had articles on every kind of house imaginable. I was doing rooms back then very much like those in my mother's and grandmother's houses (I still often do this—very Sister Parrish, lots of chintz and American rustic antiques) in a town, Palm Beach, that had been hit by a wave of pink and green paint and fabric and white rattan. Everybody was trying to "downsize" and leave the big Mediterranean mansions and get dear little bungalows and furnish them in "new" prints in crazy colors. The companies that made these prints were "Woodson" and "Tillet" and "Vice Versa". It was all a lot of fun, but sometimes, I felt a bit like a fish out of water.
Then, one day in the late-ish seventies, I came across a room by a company in London called Colefax and Fowler. Now today, Colefax and Fowler is a household name, but, take my word for it, in 1978 in Palm Beach, people might have known about Sybil Colefax and John Fowler, but they did not know who Stanley Falconer or Imogen Taylor were. But I was completely blown away by this room—it was a beautiful smallish room, totally hung in brown and white ticking (which was probably under 75 cents a yard then) and then trimmed out with a fabulous black trim used as a ribbon all around the room—under the cornice rail, above the baseboards, around the doors, on the edges of the curtains. The bed hangings were in the ticking and much of the upholstery—that which wasn't done up in the ticking --was in red—was it linen? Velvet? I have scoured the Internet looking for that picture to no avail. I can only tell you that it was life changing for me—it was everything I loved in a room—beautiful antiques and a real sense of luxury even though the basic fabric was the most utilitarian.
You can see that the idea did not die at Colefax either when you read the book, Colefax and Fowler, Interior Inspirations. Roger Banks-Pye used the basic idea in a room for Valentino in his London townhouse—the simple checked fabric used on the walls, the curtains, the basic upholstery (although do look and see that he has embellished the bottom of the sofa with embroidery and the skirt of the chair with an amazing double trim or fringe hanging from under a woven trellis.). So that shows that Stanley Falconer becomes a mentor to Roger Banks-Pye. And John Fowler would have been a mentor to Stanley Falconer.
And that is what mentoring is all about—showing and teaching and inspiring. Stanley Falconer did not know that he became my mentor. He didn't even know I was alive. But become my mentor he did, and from then on, I devoured everything about Colefax and Fowler that I could. I looked for their work in magazines—still at that time not common in American ones. I read books—at first the amazingly informative English Decoration in the 18th Century by John Fowler and John Cornforth, the bible, as it turns out and then the follow up volume by John Cornforth, The Quest for Comfort. I went to the fabric showrooms such as Clarence House and Rose Cummings and Margaret Owens and search the selvages of the materials. It is on the selvage that a fabric producer is often identified, and by searching, searching, searching and then buying the samples, I built up quite my own little library of Colefax and Fowler fabrics and wallpapers. They did not then have their own collection in the United States. (A sad aside is that when you are just starting out, your ability to check out fabrics from showrooms is extremely limited; once you have made your name, they practically throw the samples at you. Ah, well.)
I finally got a client who loved Colefax and Fowler as much as I did and who let me do a lovely drawing room with dragged salmon-y peach walls, and silk curtains of the same color, and the prettiest of painted white chairs and big deep sofas and chairs all covered in chintz. Imogen Taylor happened to be in Palm Beach on an assignment, and she was taken to see the room by a friend of the client, and she asked to meet me, and the rest is history, as they say. So that was a lot of luck.
But I don't think it would have mattered if she and I had never met. She and all the decorators at Colefax became my mentors just by their going to work each day, dreaming up beautiful plans based on the original ideas of John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster (who I found out from my mother was a distant cousin through her Virginia family). Something within those beautiful schemes touched something within me—I mean, how could I not respond to something as simple (and simply wonderful) as Berkeley Sprig, a scrap which John Fowler found and turned into not only a wallpaper but also the logo for the company or something as grand (wonderfully grand) as the famous Yellow Room at the Brook Street studio of the firm?
These ideas and so many, many more, infiltrated, I hope sub-consciously, my own work. It would have been impossible for them not to do so. I was infected by the lushness of quintuple-lined curtains and flowered chintz walls lined with books.
The above picture is a project I did with paneled walls painted and pointed, rustic porcelain fruits and leaves.
Although they never knew how important they were to me, all of them were my mentors. In the hopes of being the same help to others, I include a not-to-be-missed bibliography:
- English Decoration in the 18th Century by John Fowler and John Cornforth
- The Quest for Comfort by John Cornforth
- John Fowler, Prince of Decorators by Martin Wood
- Colefax and Fowler, Interior Inspirations by Roger Banks-Pye
- Nancy Lancaster, English Country House Style by Martin Wood
- Colefax and Fowler, the Best in English Interior Decoration by Chester Jones
You can buy any of these quite reasonably on Amazon.com. Don’t worry if they are banged up—they'll be more banged up when you finish reading and re-reading and paper-clipping pages and underlining important ideas. And make sure that you get the original collection of chintz from Cowtan and Tout, as Colefax and Fowler is now called worldwide. If you want to see the original thing—go to London and go to their wonderful store at 39 Brook Street, right near Grosvenor Square and the American Embassy. Remember, read, read, read and look, look, look.
You will find your own mentors—the ones who appeal to you, even if they don’t know you. I was lucky; I had lots of people help me in my close to 40 years of decoration. These were not the only mentors—more of them later. They were all giants in their fields.
Leta Austin Foster runs the award-winning design firm Leta Austin Foster & Associates and divides her time between Manhattan and Palm Beach. She is also author of the popular design blog Decorating with Sheets.