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Betty Sherrill: decorating with restraint, quality, good taste

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Betty Sherrill was born in New Orleans and educated at Sophie Newcombe College and Parsons School of Design in New York. The deep South still lingers in her voice. She was a young wife and mother when she first knocked on the door of the tidy brownstone that then housed McMillen Inc. and announced that she wanted to add a decorating job to her homemaking responsibilities. To her own surprise she was hired. She contends that interior design still is one of the best career choices for a woman.

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For 30 years, she says, Eleanor Brown has been her teacher, mentor, and friend. "I'd still rather have lunch with her than with anyone else I know because I always learn something new."

She says it was Mrs. Brown, as well as her architect father and grandfather, who taught her how to look and how to see. They showed her how to be aware of various textures and changing vistas, and how to notice the interplay of patterns and colors, lights and shadows.

"People miss a lot that goes on in their surroundings because they don't take the time to really see, and to savor what their eyes take in," she says. She thinks one of the important functions of an interior designer is to help others see more clearly, too.

The McMillen look, more than anything, says Betty Sherrill, is one of quality , restraint, and quiet good taste. It is never trendy, though it does translate in subtle ways what is both current and fashionable. The firm's basic philosophy maintains that lasting beauty is accomplished by creating designs that endure, that are individualized, pleasing, and private.

No matter how much or how little money people might have, Mrs. Sherrill says her advice is the same: "Put your decorating investment where it counts, into backgrounds and into at least a few good pieces of furniture. If there is a bad architectural detail, try to get rid of it quickly so that you have a calm background with which to begin.

"Invest in a really good paint job on the walls and woodwork. Insist on comfortable, well-made upholstery, even though it is apt to be expensive. And if you don't have much money, remember that even one fine antique or one good painting can bring a tone of quality to a whole room."

She tells newlyweds that the most important thing they can have is a good floor plan and a well-thought-out buying schedule. When funds are limited, she advises them to go without curtains and draperies (using a good- looking blind instead), and to postpone buying carpets for a while. She reminds them that an empty look is better than a cluttered look any day, and that good design doesn't have to carry a high price tag. Import stores like New York's Azuma, she points out, sell little bowls for $2 that are lovely in line, shape, and color.

She tells them that if they can't afford paneled walls, dark green paint or cork-textured wallpaper can effect rich backgrounds at a fraction of the cost. And she shows them how she herself has recycled old chests and small tables by covering them with vinyl wallpaper, and how she has given old Victorian wicker furniture new life by glossing it with black enamel.

Finally, Betty Sherrill says, people decorating their homes today want their interiors, even the most luxurious ones, to be functional, flexible, and easy to keep.