Proportion, simplicity, suitability.
Apply these common-sense guidelines to interior decorating, says designer Nina Campbell, and even the dumbest housing-tract room can bloom.
Granted, designing for housing tracts is not quite Campbell's cup of tea. She's more accustomed to putting a Regency flourish on a stately home, such as one owned by rocker/client Rod Stewart, or the exclusively intimate Hotel de Vigny in Paris, or a country estate fit for royalty. Make that royalty with a capital H.R.H., as in Andrew and Fergie, the Duke and Duchess of York.
The rowdy royals in their happier days hired London-based Campbell to decorate Sunninghill Park, their estate near Windsor. Campbell is still working for Andrew after Fergie moved into a cottage nearby. (Campbell discreetly declines to engage in royal gossip and says only that the couple are delightful to work with, know what they want and have been badly maligned by the British press, thank you.)
Campbell, who has been described as "an upscale Laura Ashley," visited San Juan Capistrano recently as a guest lecturer at the Decorative Arts and Crafts Center in San Juan Capistrano. The sold-out presentation was based on the book she co-authored, "Elsie de Wolfe: A Decorative Life," published last year by Panache Press. To understand Campbell's design sensibilities, you have to know something about De Wolfe, considered the mother of interior design and from whom Campbell takes much of her inspiration.
De Wolfe, who was born in New York in the late 1800s and who flourished during the Jazz Age, is credited with making chintz chic and elevating \o7 trompe l'oeil \f7 from odd to awesome. She used leopard prints in upholstery and rugs, gave fine French furniture star status, made black and white rooms the height of fashion and loved to use Chinese-red lacquered furniture.
Many contemporary designers, whether they know it or not, often use distilled versions of her creations. (Campbell thinks it's somewhat amusing that among the styles developed by De Wolfe, an American, is one often referred to as the English country house look.)
De Wolfe was also an arbiter of style whose design for living included friendships with Noel Coward and Cole Porter--both immortalized her in their lyrics. She stood by Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales during the scandal of his abdication, gave an unknown Cecil Beaton a place to first show his photographs in New York and held exotic parties at her villa in Versailles that were attended by the glitterati of Europe.
During World War II, when the Germans invaded France, she escaped to Beverly Hills, where her visual flair and love of entertaining were a natural fit with the Hollywood crowd.
Above all, in terms of interior design, she always thought big and was never afraid to experiment. Which brings us back to Campbell, who at first sight seems an unlikely person to have become an expert on the extroverted Elsie.
On this particular morning, Campbell is dressed conservatively in a dark-blue pleated skirt and robin's egg blue tunic topped by a double-strand pearl choker. Her brown hair is cut short, simple and brushed casually back from her face. But as she starts to talk about design principles and how they can be applied to even the most routine Orange County tract home, she appears to share a few things with De Wolfe.
The royal and the rich may be different from you and me, but we all seek a similar goal in our homes, which is comfort, Campbell says. In decorating your home, don't think you have to buy new furniture or even hire an interior decorator to make it look just so.
"Remember, it's your home, not the decorator's home," she says. If you have a piece of furniture you like, then by all means use it, but don't be hidebound by habit. Try to envision furniture with a fresh eye, in a new location or with a new coat of paint.
"So much of my work has been moving things from one room to another. I'm a great recycler."
A powerful antidote to a dumb, dull or stiff looking room is to add lots of books and magazines--in bookcases or piled on coffee tables, she says. They add warmth and, like bunches of flowers, give a room personality and a lived-in look. So what if you're not a great reader? Even Harold Robbins will do, she says with a slight wink.
Campbell also advocates ditching the froufrou.
"Simple is better. If you have an architectural desert, better to keep it simple without futzing it up."
She cites a house in Laguna Beach pointed out to her that morning. In its not-too-distant past, the one-story bungalow was a dump. But the new owner had painted it all white, put green awnings on the outside and planted matching green chairs in front. The technique was simple but the effect an eye-popper.
If you have a room devoid of personality, give it character with paint. She suggests this method: Add a chair railing to the middle of the wall, then paint with a darker color above and a lighter color below for what she says will be a jewel-like effect.
When considering fabric, curtain or wallpaper prints, pay attention to scale.
"Keep your nerve. Mix big and small, but not mediocre," she says. If you go middle of the road--little tiny roses paired with middle-size roses, for instance--things can get a bit precious. Instead, look for a pattern that uses big cabbage roses on top of a thin stripe in complementary colors--a look De Wolfe favored.
That big approach also applies to fabric swatches; take home huge hunks so you can get a real feel for the colors, she says.
Finally, look for inspiration everywhere, which is what Campbell does. She describes how she'll see a certain color or flower pattern in an antique china teacup and will use that in a fabric she is designing.
And in a nod to De Wolfe, she says: "Most rooms can do with a little splash of red."