Have you ever visited a friend’s home and felt embraced by the spirit of the house? Designer Chris Madden explains how to create this important and often elusive design element in her latest book, the first to document her own homes.
AM: You’ve done something quite magical with your book. Not only have you illuminated how you bring forth the soul of a house, your book itself resonates with those ephemeral feelings of home. It truly is a warm and intimate journey through your New York and Vermont homes. Why did you want to write The Soul of a House?
CM: After having written 16 books on other people’s living rooms, bedrooms, personal spaces, I had been asked to share my own! I also wanted to show that designing a home is less about money and more about memories, passions and your treasures — whatever they may be.
AM: It’s not unusual that a room in your house might include pieces designed by you, alongside a “curbside discovery” like the dressing table in your bedroom. What does this say about you as a designer?
CM: That designing, I believe, is about layering. It’s organic, not a stage set. I love combining a fabulous antique next to a curbside treasure. They remind me of when I found that piece. It’s not about money, but a personal style.
AM: You say in The Soul of a House that you love faux wallpaper. When did you first fall in love with it? And what is essential to making it work, like the log wallpaper does in the Telluride Room?
CM: As a teenager, my mother and I wallpapered my bedroom and what a difference it made. Also, as a spokesperson for the Wallpaper Council for many years, I was exposed to a multitude of designs and patterns. To make it work, think of the mood you want to create and look at many samples of wallpaper. That will help you decide how to achieve that sensibility or look.
AM: Your master bedroom includes a breakfast nook. When people learn that you have this wonderful appointment in your bedroom what are their reactions?
CM: Most people are, at first, surprised that I would put a fridge, microwave, tea set, etc. in an armoire; then they all say they want to replicate it in their own home for mornings and even midnight snacks!
AM: What was the inspiration for include tips in The Soul of a House? It was neat to discover than even Ms. Madden clips pics of flower arrangements from shelter magazines. And your room binders are something to aspire to.
CM: I’ve always loved tips and good decorating ideas — and sharing them — so my book was the perfect venue. And my binders, well, after my friends get over their amusement, a few of them have been known to start their own. And they do come in handy when something breaks.
AM: You and Kevin have been married for multiple decades. Is a personal space for men and women one of those secrets to a happy marriage?
CM: Well, after three decades together, we still love being with each other. But sometimes I need my own space for yoga, painting and meditation — and he needs a hangout for sports, which is not my cup of tea. So I do believe a personal space, however great or small, is a plus.
AM: Any other design-related secrets to a happy marriage?
CM: If possible, separate the areas of your closet so that they are clearly delineated for both of you. Ditto for the bathroom areas. And, if budget allows, separate sinks. An organized place for his favorite music and movie DVDs is also a good tip. We are always surrounded by family photos. Kevin especially enjoys when we have early black and whites of his sports days from high school and college. They too can create an ambiance of soul and comfort.
AM: You quote Katharine Hepburn and Diana Vreeland in The Soul of a House, both style icons and strong women. Who are some of the other female trailblazers who have influenced you or that you admire?
CM: Too many to name! Here are a few: Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Toni Morrison, Coco Chanel, Nina Campbell, Nancy Lancaster, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo, Sister Parish, My Parisian-dwelling sister, Jeanne Dupont and my late mother, Ann Casson.
AM: Do you consider yourself a feminist? It’s been a relatively short time in history that women have been key players in the professions of interior design and architecture.
CM: I’ve always been a feminist, especially in my early days in the photography department at Sports Illustrated magazine. And I’ve always encouraged women — young and old — to pursue their passions and dreams regardless of the obstacles that are sometimes placed before them. In fact, my special for HGTV, A Room of Her Own based on my book of the same title, showcased women who have carved paths for others to follow.
AM: These days, TV designers seem to be everywhere. You were one of the first designers doing their work on television. Looking back on those early days on HGTV, do you see yourself as a trailblazer?
CM: I didn’t realize I was a pioneer in decorating shows on TV. In fact, it’s quite ironic since I had to beg some of my well-known designer friends to be on my show in the mid-’90s! But when I look back on my first HGTV shows, I’m very proud of them and what my wonderful production team pulled off. It was a class act and really shared with our viewers the principles of good design.
AM: Do you have an HGTV guilty pleasure?
CM: Since I love to travel, House Hunters is a nice guilty pleasure that brings the world to our living room!