Designing from nature helped her make it to the top

The walls in Cindi Mufson's life are covered with no diplomas -- only prize-winning ideas. In a profession dominated by men and a veritable alphabet soup of accreditations, the Miami designer has risen to first rank as a self-taught decorator, fabric and wallpaper designer, and innovator of modular furniture, while not so incidentally mothering three children.

It all began a dozen years ago when Miss Mufson, like countless other young women every year, threw herself into decorating her first apartment. The difference was that she not only won the usual polite murmurs from friends but a commission from a dentist to decorate his office. She was almost too afraid to accept.

But the job went well and led to other jobs. Florida developers engaged her to decorate more than a hundred model rooms. Some were pictured in national magazines, and her work for private clients quickly expanded. The education of Cindi Mufson was on. She learned from each experience. She turned to her books for answers she couldn't figure out for herself. She absorbed know-how from the craftsmen for whom she worked. She developed, more and more, her own sense of taste.

One day about six years ago she was searching through the fabric and wallcovering racks at the Kirk-Brummel showroom in Miami. She announced to the president, Richard Kirkham, that she didn't want the usual florals, plaids, and checks and could find nothing that she really would like to use in her work. She said she wanted a design from nature that was free and flowing and quite different from anything she had seen in the market. Mr. Kirkham told her that if she could draw what she had in mind, he felt sure his firm could make it.

"What he didn't know was that I had been drawing since I was three, and that I could put down on paper what I saw and felt," Cindi recalls. She headed for the beach, for fields, for woods and began to explore the inner spaces of nature with a new eye and a new purpose. She cut open rocks, studied coral, caught the grain of wood and te texture of sand, and then produced organic graphics for a collection of fabric and wallpaper designs appropriately titled "Second Nature." They reflected nature's variety, and the patterns seemed controlled but fresh in their linear approach. One of them earned Miss Mufson a "best product designer" designation in the 1975 Resources Council design comptition.

Her drawing of green grass, made in her own back yard, became a Martex sheet that turned up on the cover of House & Garden magazine and was included in a Neiman-Marcus catalog. Her next collection of nature observations was produced by David & Dash Inc. of New York as a group titled "A Walk in the Wildwoods." Her latest group, called "Seascapes," will be introduced in New York by Reed Wallcoverings in October. These designs involved her in four years of scuba diving and underwater research to attain the forms she has reproduced.

After a decade of dealing with contemporary Florida architecture and its glass walls, and coping with the special demands of New York urban living in her three different rooms for the Celanese exhibition house in Manhattan, she felt ready to accept Robert H. Wexler's offer to become the first woman to design a group of upholstered pieces for his company, Selig Manufacturing Company of Leominster, Mass. That group, called "Off the Wall," which came out last year, consists of seven basic pieces that can be combined in an infinite number of configurations. These basic modulars include pie-shaped ottomans and coffee tables, consoles, and cushy armless and corner seating units that can be placed side by side, back to back, or in banquette style. All the pieces are banded in warm brass, and they enable buyers to get a new angle on the boxlike proportions of most rooms.

"I call the configurations one can get with these modulars 'visual architecture,' and they grew out of practical necessity," explains the designer. That "necessity" involves providing cozy seating with tables on which to put things, and the ability to float furniture in the middle of a room, or fill up corners, as the need determines. Mr. Wexler refers to Cindi Mufson's approach as "non-standard." He has found she isn't so much interested in designing one more pretty sofa as in helping people solve their seating and room-arrangement problems in new and different ways.

Right now, Miss Mufson is trying to meet deadlines on the renovation of two $ 50 million high-rise apartment buildings in Miami that are being converted to condomiums. It is a complex assignment, but she refers it back to the instinct which she feels has guided her this far in her education -- a sense for what will make women, men, and children at ease and happy in their homes.

Home, for Miss Mufson, her husband, Stephen Kapelow, a builder, and her son and two daughters, consists of three town houses, joined to make a single dwelling. She uses one of the segments as her design studio and master bedroom, so that all the paraphernalia of her work is kept separate from the rest of the house.

As for designing for her own children, she says, "I remember exactly what it felt like to be three. A lot of me is still a child." She designed a side-by-side bunk bed for three-year-old Ali's room with a tiny cubbyhole that provides a private hideway. "Children love these little secret places where they can crawl in and tuck themselves out of sight for a little play or a little sleep." the same bunk bed has a slide-out tray table to which Ali can draw up her chair for coloring, drawing, and looking at her books.

"I have involved each of my children in the decoration of their own rooms," explains Cindi. "They help choose their own fabrics and their own colors and furniture, which is fine since children have a wonderful fresh way of seeing things." She helps each one with initial room arrangement and then lets them determine later changes and what is hung as art or decoration.

In deference to her youngsters, she has put an easy-to-clean tile floor in the dining room, and a vinylized cloth on the table they use for lunches and snacks. Because she feels it is important for children to be able to wake up and look out on something natural and green and beautiful, she has given them bedrooms with a striking view of the world around them. And, in one way or another, this is what she has tried to do for all her customers.

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