Betty Sherrill: decorating with restraint, quality, good taste

By , Staff Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Betty Sherrill, president of McMillen Inc., one of the country's best-known decorating firms, says she feels like the shoemaker's daughter when it comes to her own home. She claims she is always looking for time to freshen up her own decorating schemes. But the need doesn't show.

What does show is that the designer and her husband, H. V. Sherrill, head of a New York investment concern, come home each night to what many might consider the "ideal" Manhattan apartment. It is in a fine old building with high ceilings and handsome architectural details. Its rooms are on two levels, and many of its windows overlook the East River and frame a picturesque bridge or two.

The yellow living room walls give a perpetually sunny, springtime look. A log burns in the fireplace, and the lamps and lighting produce a special glow.

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Contemporary French paintings combine with period French chairs, European porcelain accessories, and small brass tables. The modern upholstery is comfortably plump, but not too plump. And the living room is spacious enough to hold three sofas, each of which centers a small conversational arrangement.

The deep melon-colored walls in the dining-room-cum-study are upbeat and welcoming. Like some other New Yorkers, the Sherrills decided to use one corner of their library-study for dining, since they rarely entertain more than eight guests. The idea works well for them. Their dining area is now replete with books, art, and artifacts and is used, as well, for writing and reading, televiewing, record listening, and friendly chats.

The home obviously works and pleases. Its decoration appears as a stylish but unforced coming together of possessions in a manner that conveys the couple's tastes and interests.

Is this the well-bred McMillen look that is sought by clients worldwide and that has been expressed in homes, offices, villas, palaces, hotels, yachts, and planes? Mrs. Sherrill demurs modestly and talks about some needed paint jobs. But she admits the thoughtful blend of old and new is quite McMillen. And she agrees that their apartment does represent the "eclectic mold" that she thinks is so distinctive to American interior design, and that has been distilled to its essence by McMillen decorators.

"We in the United States," she says, "have the great advantage of being able to draw from all cultures, including French, English, Italian, Chinese, Japanese , and Greek. The eclectic look we have refined here combines both modern and traditional furnishings. On a personal level, it is often the culmination of all our experiences and travels. Since it represents so much -- family, friends , memories, and treasured objects of many kinds -- it can be a great joy all of our lives."

McMillen Inc. was founded in 1924 by Eleanor McMillen Brown, who is still an active chairman of the board. Mrs. Sherrill joined McMillen Inc. in 1951 and became president in 1975.

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.

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.

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