The Domino Effect - Richmond Magazine's R Home

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Richmonder Sara Ruffin Costello’s easygoing aesthetic is leading a charge through the land of home décor.

BY CARRIE NIEMAN CULPEPPER

Issue: 

R Home Sept/Oct 2008

A quiet revolution is changing the world of design. First came Target and Design Within Reach. What was once available only “to the trade” is now, increasingly, open to you and me. Exclusivity is going out the window, as top designers like Charlotte Moss are opening the doors of shops, and fabric houses are making themselves accessible. Also at the forefront was Domino magazine, demystifying interior design and showing you how it’s done well. By professionals and people with style. Who knew you could be chic, comfortable, witty (and even a little traditional), all in the same room? You can be you. And the magazine showed us how others did it. With abandon. And that you don’t necessarily need to have buckets of money to do it (although it helps).

And what a surprise to discover that one of the captains of Domino’s populist mission was a Richmond girl herself, reared on the English-antique-loving streets of the West End (and at Evelynton, her family’s plantation). A steady diet of Duncan Phyfe, Queen Anne and “big, old serious dining-room tables” proved good training for this soldier of the revolution.

It should be no surprise then, that Sara Ruffin Costello’s Greenwich Village town house isn’t perfect. It’s not House Beautiful custom-fabric traditionalism, nor is it Elle Décor haughty worldliness, and it’s certainly not steely, Architectural Digest preciseness. It’s a worn couch, a crystal chandelier and Costello in her bare feet. Rotating on kitchen stools and leaning on a double-thick marble-slab kitchen island, we talk design trends, entertaining, eco-chicness and River City. Costello is frank, funny and full of insight. Her California-bred husband, a photographer with whom she often works, has rubbed off an easygoing air, a what-the-heck, put-the-kids’-art-on-the-fridge feeling onto her, or perhaps she always had it. 

But where did it all begin? Actually, on Martha Stewart’s kitchen floor, if you must know. Mop in hand, Costello scrubbed her way to a job at Martha Stewart Living when it was just hatching. But even earlier, Costello was inspired by design doyennes in Richmond, women with panache, the mothers of friends who had homes that broke free from the dark-wood mold around them. There was Kit Pannill’s Lucite coffee table, Jacobean dining-room table and modern art that signaled freedom. “I realized it doesn’t have to be Queen Anne all the time,” says Costello. “That was when I first noticed the pleasure of mixing periods.”

But Costello’s revolution is built on more than just design, per se. It’s about living. Next came Mary Ballou Ballentine, a hostess extraordinaire whose house was filled with dogs and people, yet it always smelled great, looked better (beneath piles of mail) and — here’s the important part — put guests at ease. “For her what came first were people and making sure everybody had a drink and making sure everybody knew where to go and everybody felt comfortable in her house. … It’s the personal combined with the beautiful,” Costello says. “There’s nothing worse than walking into a really cold, perfect house. That scares me.”

As Domino’s creative director, Costello has infused this gracious mantra throughout the pages of the magazine and in a new book, to be released on Oct. 14. Domino: The Book of Decorating is a bible for the converted and the bewildered. It breaks down the creative process of many of its contributors, dissects great rooms and even gives nuts-and-bolts advice on things like sink types and how to order “to the trade” goods without going through a designer (a key tenet of the revolution). Accessibility, rooms with personality, and chic-but-laid-back entertaining — not bad marching orders; we asked Sara to elaborate.

What was it like working for Martha? I’ll bet you have stories.

My sister hooked me up with Martha Stewart, that was my first job, with Martha, washing her dishes, going to the grocery store in Westport. I quickly put in a call to the magazine. I was like [mimics whispering into a phone], “Hello, I would really like to work at the magazine, not at her house in Westport.” So then I worked at Martha for three years, and that was incredible training. Incredible. What a groundswell over that magazine when it first came out. I mean housekeeping, wow! Beautiful crafts. Nobody had ever done that before. So that is what got me so excited about the actual making of a new magazine. Creating something from scratch. I mean what’s more exciting than that? 

Do you see a connection between your personal style and your home décor?

I think if you can figure out what your style is in fashion, you can definitely figure out your home style. It’s easy to read the clues, read the tea leaves. A lot of people can’t because they don’t have their fashion style down. …

I always think of it like a pyramid, too. So at the foundation of that for me is sort of a classic thing, a Southern thing, a bit proper. In all my clothes, there is that. Then the next level I think there’s a bit of a trend going on. Then at the very tippy top, the tiniest bit of me has this craving for exotica and global, whether it’s Moroccan or Indian, my wanderlust. And it’s totally in my closet, I see it. There’s a lot of black and beige and then there’s this pattern-color-craziness at the top, just a little bit. And I think in my decorating it’s exactly the same. It’s classic, it’s traditional, it’s simple, it’s clean. It’s modern, a little bit. And then there’s a little bit of trend and there’s a little bit of [points to kitchen curtains] batik-y, Indian feeling. You can definitely relate the two; you have to think about it. You have to read the clues. 

How has your décor changed over the years?

I’ve definitely gone from flash to humble. I don’t want everything so contrast-y and shiny. A little more earthy, with a bit of glamour. My favorite thing is that Hinson grass-cloth wallpaper [in the living room] with a crystal chandelier and silver frames. [The room] is neutral, but it’s got a little [pizazz] … the light of the crystal is super pretty, for me. So I like that formal-casual, making a formal room usable. 

What are some home-décor don’ts?

I feel strongly that there aren’t really any don’ts. There are certainly things that look better than others, but I don’t want to bring down the hatchet on somebody who has a doll collection or a thousand tropical birds in their front yard because I love to look at things like that. Without them, I do feel, the world would be a sadder place. 

Who are your favorite fashion designers?

I love Marni because I think she does for clothing what we try to do for decorating at Domino: She makes clothes for how we live today. For me, as a woman with children, on the go, working. She makes easy clothes that work, that are comfortable and sophisticated that I can get through a meeting in, go out to dinner and not feel like some scary presidential candidate. They are sexy but sophisticated. 

I can’t get enough of Marc Jacobs’ little sundresses. They’re so sweet and cute, and I love the femininity of them with a little bit of pattern. At this point I steer clear of anything too label-y. You know, of the moment. I am really fiercely opposed to that. The biggest thing you can do is figure out what your style is and be confident in it, rather than letting commerce and advertising dictate what you should be doing. 

How do you avoid getting caught up with consumerism, especially working at a magazine?

I sort of abhor excessiveness, especially working at Domino; we see so much stuff, so many beautiful things. I think it’s really important to use what you have. Add to what you have in a smart way. Recycle whatever you can. There’s a lot of consumption.

If Domino is for the way we live today, what do you think that is?

We’re all having friends over and have to cook at the same time. I think everybody’s getting much more casual. There’s this real friction of civilized and casual that’s going on in design today. We long for old-fashioned elegance and civilized and silver and pretty glasses, and all that kind of stuff, but at the same time we want to hang out and be casual and sit around in the living room. … I think if you can marry those two things, it’s such a beautiful balance.

What’s something that you love in your house?

The things that I love are the things that have sentimental value. … I love walking past my mother’s portrait every day. That means the world to me. 

How do you suggest dealing with inherited furniture?

You don’t want to sell everything, but there’s no need to re-create your mother or your grandmother’s house. … Keep the special things. Have the confidence to lose what you don’t want.

Your family recently sold Evelynton Plantation. What was that like?

Been in the family since 1840, hardest decision we all ever made. But as Walt Disney said, “Keep moving forward.” That house, as much as we loved it, and it meant so much to us, and it had been in the family forever, and all the things in it, it didn’t fit any of our lifestyles. … I think you make sacrifices to keep those kinds of houses in your family. … And I’d rather focus on my family here, my present history rather than my past. 

Is there anything from Evelynton that has influenced you?

Definitely. Duncan Lee was the architect. It was built in the ’30s in the Depression by my grandmother. It’s a Georgian house. It’s completely symmetrical and in proportion with beautiful old Virginia brick. You know all those things have come with me and carried through. When we gutted this house, it was all I could think about. …  This was so influenced by Virginia and my history there. So I think I got it out of me, and I’ll be ready to go a little more futuristic on the next one.

Sara’s Favorite NYC Shops 

Uptown

• Amy Perlin Antiques: “Always amazing.”

• Louis Bofferding: “You might not be able to afford anything but you’ve gotta go look.”

• Along Lexington between 60th and 70th:“where Mecox Gardens and Lexington Gardens and all these great uptown stores are.”

• Treillage Ltd. [Interior designer Bunny Williams’ shop]: “She’s a Virginia gal, from Charlottesville.”

• Charlotte Moss Townhouse: “She’s from Richmond. … If you can’t hire Charlotte Moss, you can buy something that she endorses or designed.”

Downtown

• Global Table: “A great china emporium, high to low.”

• Aero: “Thomas O’Brien’s store, amazing trays, and he’s got amazing glasses.”

• Lars Bolander: “Might be my most favorite store in the world, most beautiful mix of casual-elegant.”

• Antony Todd: “Really expensive, but you go for the ideas.”

• Ochre: “They’re an export from London; she does the most exquisite deep sofas and hand-wrought items.”

• Steven Sclaroff: “[He’s a decorator] with a really great sense of humor.”

Sara Costello