Attitude is key to home decorating, says this Baltimore designer

Rita St. Clair has headed her own interior design business for 30 years, turned out hundreds of designs for furnishings, homes, hotels, and offices, and lectured and taught at schools and universities. She has also planned the renovation of historic Baltimore City Hall, as well as other Baltimore landmarks. Last year, Mrs. St. Clair was chosen ``Designer of Distinction,'' by the American Society of Interior Designers, a peer award that recognizes both design excellence and range of accomplishments.

Interviewed recently in Baltimore, St. Clair said she thought her ``best interiors were highly decorative - perhaps to the point of being a little theatrical - but always workable and livable.''

Her own spacious co-op apartment is a good example. It has drama and color and exudes style and quality. It is an elegant mixture of new and old, of antiques and art purchased all over the world, of small, personal collections.

When she renovated it, she moved the kichen into one front, sunny corner that has big windows and great views.

``I did that because I love to spend time there and I enjoy its cozy and casual wicker-furnished eating area,'' St. Clair explains. ``When I am here alone, it is such `nooks' as this, and my little TV room/study, that I gravitate to.''

She had a china closet built right off the dining room because she loves to entertain and ``needs many changes of dishes and crystal and wants them handy.'' St. Clair also pointed out her 25-year-old sofa ``which is so basically good that I have had it remade several times and it still carries on,'' as well as the Syrie Maugham leopard-patterned carpet ``which still looks great and is a favorite of mine because it goes with everything.''

Does she consider herself a trendsetter? ``Not really, although I was doing the faux finishes so popular today 10 years ago, and five years ago I beat the trendy crowd by having real granite counter tops put in my kitchen.''

She thinks ``attitude'' is a key word when it comes to decorating. Do you want your home to be precise and perfect and the most important thing in your life? Do you want a home that is fun and flexible and growing and that you can live in comfortably and even mess up? Do you want a glamorous stage set that will impress your friends?

Which attitude is yours? What is your attitude toward quality and value, and the assistance of a professional designer? St. Clair says she helps clients define their attitudes by asking them such questions as: What is your sense of what is important in a home? How are you living today, and how do you want live sometime in the future? Why is it important to you to come to a professional interior designer for help, rather than shopping and decorating on your own? How do you want your home to work for you? How long do you plan to be in this home? Who cooks in your kitchen and how often? Do you want your house to have a touch of fantasy?

When possible, St. Clair advises clients to take time to look at homes of all sorts, as well as museum rooms.

``I urge them [my clients] to buy and study all sorts of magazines and cut out pages and place them in three piles labeled `good,' `horrible,' and `possibilities' (`I like this rug and that lamp but can't stand anything else').'' She then sits down with them to sift through and see what the piles reveal. ``I ask them why the things they have placed in the `good' pile make them feel happy, and why they dislike the things in the `horrible' pile. By deduction, what they like and want finally emerges.''

Once a decorating job is complete, she warns clients never to immobilize or embalm it. ``An interior is not a static thing. It should change as we change, as our lifestyles, tastes, and incomes change. We should never think of a home as being complete in its decoration. It must change.''

She has learned to steer clear, however, of the kinds of change that people don't want and do dislike.

``People can't stand a radical color change, nor a change of exposures that alters the quality of light that they are used to. A couple could easier go from English clutter to minimal modern than change their familiar color palette. Almost 90 out of 100 people love warm beiges and other natural colors, and it would be a terrible mistake to suddenly give them a chic new scheme of cool grays, taupes, and mauves.''

St. Clair has learned to be wary when people tell her they want ``to start fresh and entirely new.'' Not so, she says - they don't really mean it. They are too attached to things that have memories. ``And rightfully so,'' she says, ``those objects are important and I always keep them in the scheme.''

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