One Kings Lane

Tour Sara Ruffin Costello’s Striking and Stylish Home

image

Sara Ruffin Costello—interior designer, sittings editor for Vogue, founding creative director of Domino magazine, contributor to T magazine and Travel + Leisure (among others)—has many admirable qualities and talents. She’s smart, she’s glamorous, she has an incredible eye for fashion and home style. But less apparent on paper, and more so the minute you start talking with her, is that she’s a really good time. Frank, ribald, and loosey-goosey, she has both polish and mischievousness, and that comes through in her home.

Sara’s appetite for fun was never in doubt, but her ability to engage in it got a major boost three years ago when she, her husband, and their three children moved from the relatively cramped confines of a Manhattan apartment to a grand 1868 home in New Orleans’s Garden District. There, in an Italian Gothic house once owned by a railroad tycoon, she finally has the time and space to throw all the parties she wants (a lot) and to design and live in rooms that reflect her chic, playful esprit and love of good lines. “It’s formal, yet informal,” Sara says of the house. “It’s city, yet country. It’s got kind of a formal flow to it with the center hall and voluminous rooms on each side and this grand staircase, but it’s not so formal that you feel like you can’t have a ping-pong table in the dining room.” Which she does.

Sara’s 12-year-old daughter, Carolina, aka Kiki, races down the central hallway atop a sisal rug painted a black-and-cream diamond pattern.

Sara’s 12-year-old daughter, Carolina, aka Kiki, races down the central hallway atop a sisal rug painted a black-and-cream diamond pattern.

A balance of curvy and straight lines and a restrained palette unify a mix of modern pieces, Early American hand-me-downs from Sara’s parents, and two stern wing chairs.

A balance of curvy and straight lines and a restrained palette unify a mix of modern pieces, Early American hand-me-downs from Sara’s parents, and two stern wing chairs.

The sculpture stand holding the bust “was the first thing I bought in my life that cost something. It’s so impractical, and yet it’s been one of the great surprising moments in every room I’ve ever had.”

The sculpture stand holding the bust “was the first thing I bought in my life that cost something. It’s so impractical, and yet it’s been one of the great surprising moments in every room I’ve ever had.”

The Kismet of Finding the Right House

Though Sarah went to college in New Orleans, she hadn’t planned on moving there. But during a visit a few years back, tootling around looking at houses in a car full of friends, the driver, “a real estate agent who is not stupid,” as Sara tells it, “very slyly pulled up to this house and was like, ‘Oh, this one is actually on the market,’ planting the seeds of fantasy. We got on the plane to go back to New York and couldn’t get this place out of our heads. Like relationships, houses that speak to you come so rarely into your life, and when they do, you have to seize the moment.”

The moment was right: Domino had just closed, and Sara was working freelance (husband Paul, a photographer, can work from anywhere). They bought the house. Sara’s initial impulse was to make major structural changes, but architect Michael Carbine intervened. “I thought, ‘Let’s open the kitchen out to the garden and put a big garage door in there,’ and he talked me out of that, which was really wise. He really understands historical details, and that is so very important down here. He said, ‘You have so much modern stuff, just let the house be old,’ so we kept it exactly the same.”

Sara’s Secret for Building Drama, Part I

As Sara is the first to point out, filling an old house with new things is not new, nor is combining traditional and modern pieces. “Everyone does that,” she says. But her house has something extra: a sense of drama, which she accomplishes by deliberately, almost provocatively, pairing high-contrast colors and shapes in every room. “It all boils down to tension, which I find exciting. The theme of light and dark—of old and new and curvy and straight—is established at the front door, and it weaves through the whole house.”

In the living room—dominated by white, black, and wood—a stern brown wooden huntboard that once occupied her parents’ house in Virginia shares space with a contemporary white occasional table; traditional wing chairs sit across from a modern sectional. These contrasting pieces “just seem to be eyeballing each other all day, and that creates a little heat.”

Stacked along the wall behind the couch, books are within reach and make a strong personal statement. “I love when you’re at someone’s house and you wind up poking though their bookshelves and seeing the stuff they’re reading.”

Stacked along the wall behind the couch, books are within reach and make a strong personal statement. “I love when you’re at someone’s house and you wind up poking though their bookshelves and seeing the stuff they’re reading.”

Sara tried numerous rugs atop the jute flooring before settling on the pony skins, which offer an interesting shape. The family cat, Sparkly Darkly Doo, sits atop a vintage Robsjohn-Gibbings chair bought “back when you could find these things for a song.”

Sara tried numerous rugs atop the jute flooring before settling on the pony skins, which offer an interesting shape. The family cat, Sparkly Darkly Doo, sits atop a vintage Robsjohn-Gibbings chair bought “back when you could find these things for a song.”

An Early American huntboard offers a simple handsomeness plus storage space for cards and poker chips. A traditionalist might have filled the space beneath it with an urn; Sara chose books.

An Early American huntboard offers a simple handsomeness plus storage space for cards and poker chips. A traditionalist might have filled the space beneath it with an urn; Sara chose books.

Sara kept the massive ornate mirror that came with the house and hung artwork—including spin art by designer Miles Redd and an old family portrait—floor to ceiling to help fill the incredibly high walls.

Sara kept the massive ornate mirror that came with the house and hung artwork—including spin art by designer Miles Redd and an old family portrait—floor to ceiling to help fill the incredibly high walls.

It’s about geometry — how the curve of one piece will interact with the line of another. I mostly prefer straight edges to curvy ones, and that goes for any style and any century. But I have a touch of the French littered about just to keep it soft.
— Sara Ruffin Costello
The original dining room is now “ping-pong central” unless it’s party time, when the table gets rolled away to make room for dancing or rented tables for sit-down dinners.

The original dining room is now “ping-pong central” unless it’s party time, when the table gets rolled away to make room for dancing or rented tables for sit-down dinners.

Illustrating her casual way with traditional pieces, Sara stores the ping-pong paddles in an ice bucket alongside an antique silver candlestick.

Illustrating her casual way with traditional pieces, Sara stores the ping-pong paddles in an ice bucket alongside an antique silver candlestick.

For the dining room Sara “gave a nod to New Orleans” with a pair of weathered antique French chairs, which she purposely did not reupholster. The curtain fabric is from Oscar de la Renta.

For the dining room Sara “gave a nod to New Orleans” with a pair of weathered antique French chairs, which she purposely did not reupholster. The curtain fabric is from Oscar de la Renta.

Sara’s Secret for Building Drama, Part II

Pulling Off A Mix Of Old And New Can Be Challenging. The Key, Says Sara, Is To “Build A Bridge To Harmony Through Palette And Form.” In The Living Room, You Can See Both Of These Aspects At Work: The Disparate Pieces Are United By A Limited Palette Of White, Black, And Wood. In Terms Of Form, Sara Plays Close Attention To Line—How A Piece Is Shaped—And How It Will Pair With Its Neighbors. “It’s About Geometry—How The Curve Of One Piece Will Interact With The Line Of Another. I Mostly Prefer Straight Edges To Curvy Ones, And That Goes For Any Style And Any Century. But I Have A Touch Of The French Littered About Just To Keep It Soft.”

A House Built for Family—and Party Guests

Sara’s house not only feels special but also functions well because it was decorated to suit her needs as both a parent and a hostess. “I have kids, and I entertain a bit—those are the two items that inform many of the design solutions around the house. I wanted to blend rather than separate those two ideas.” This means every space in the house works as a hangout spot for the family and for dressed-up guests. “I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone walked into any of the rooms—they all clean up easily, and if something gets a little wear and tear, it winds up expressing a more interesting narrative.”

This flexible attitude makes for more good times for everyone. Instead of being banished to a dank rec room, the in-house wear-and-tear-devils—Harrison, 14; Carolina, 12; and Ruffin, 4—get to listen to records under a Sol LeWitt and sprawl over a white leather sectional in the living room (a surprisingly practical piece that can be Magic Eraser-ed clean in an hour) or play ping-pong in the dining room alongside a chintz settee and antique French side chairs; at party time, the ping-pong table gets rolled away, making room for dancing or rented dinner tables. When Harrison is away at boarding school, his room easily accommodates grown-up overnight guests.

A kitchen island by Bulthaup provides tons of counter space and storage. “I can’t even tell you how miraculous it is.”

A kitchen island by Bulthaup provides tons of counter space and storage. “I can’t even tell you how miraculous it is.”

A neat grid of family photos (still in progress) hangs over the kitchen table, a “vintage ’90s” piece by fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester where the family eats all its meals. The plates are by Mottahedeh.

A neat grid of family photos (still in progress) hangs over the kitchen table, a “vintage ’90s” piece by fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester where the family eats all its meals. The plates are by Mottahedeh.

 
The butler’s pantry houses the liquor, neatly corralled. “I can’t say enough about trays. I want to open a store that sells nothing but trays. Look how much better these bottles look on a tray. If they were just sitting on the counter they would look so awkward.”

The butler’s pantry houses the liquor, neatly corralled. “I can’t say enough about trays. I want to open a store that sells nothing but trays. Look how much better these bottles look on a tray. If they were just sitting on the counter they would look so awkward.”

Using trellises indoors is a Southern tradition. Sara replaced the aging trellis in the house with a new one featuring a Moorish arch inspired by designer Furlow Gatewood and painted it a modern but subdued gray-green.

Using trellises indoors is a Southern tradition. Sara replaced the aging trellis in the house with a new one featuring a Moorish arch inspired by designer Furlow Gatewood and painted it a modern but subdued gray-green.

I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone walked into any of the rooms—they all clean up easily, and if something gets a little wear and tear, it winds up expressing a more interesting narrative.
— SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO
Hand-me-down console tables are topped by more hand-me-downs, accented by bouquets of magnolia branches and Meyer lemons clipped from trees in the backyard.

Hand-me-down console tables are topped by more hand-me-downs, accented by bouquets of magnolia branches and Meyer lemons clipped from trees in the backyard.

 
Maximalist in their sweep (“it’s super Game of Thrones, isn’t it?” says Sara) but minimalist in form (they feature no swags or trims) the beige linen canopy curtains in the master attach to the ceiling. “If everything is low, you feel like you’re lost in space.”

Maximalist in their sweep (“it’s super Game of Thrones, isn’t it?” says Sara) but minimalist in form (they feature no swags or trims) the beige linen canopy curtains in the master attach to the ceiling. “If everything is low, you feel like you’re lost in space.”

Sara converted this former bedroom into a master bath, painted the walls a creamy mascarpone white, and covered the walls with family portraits and art. “Kitchens and bathrooms are great places to display things that are more personal.”

Sara converted this former bedroom into a master bath, painted the walls a creamy mascarpone white, and covered the walls with family portraits and art. “Kitchens and bathrooms are great places to display things that are more personal.”

In a bedroom antechamber, a table by Thomas O’Brien displays a vintage knife holder (now used to store letters) and, adding a little levity, a vintage bust decked out in a hat and pearls. “I just have a thing for busts. When you’re lonely it’s like having some friends in the house.”

In a bedroom antechamber, a table by Thomas O’Brien displays a vintage knife holder (now used to store letters) and, adding a little levity, a vintage bust decked out in a hat and pearls. “I just have a thing for busts. When you’re lonely it’s like having some friends in the house.”

In the bedroom seating area, the gleaming white Eames chair and Noguchi lamp echo the bed’s pale geometry and modern feel. A Fornasetti table adds a bit of color.

In the bedroom seating area, the gleaming white Eames chair and Noguchi lamp echo the bed’s pale geometry and modern feel. A Fornasetti table adds a bit of color.

 

 

 

 

How to Create Rooms with Soul

In addition to writing (American Master, her book on noted designer Jeffrey Bilhuber, was just published by Rizzoli), Sara has recently been busy decorating homes for clients in Los Angeles and New York. Her goal, for both her clients’ homes and her own, is “to build rooms with soul.” Sara acknowledges this is a lofty and somewhat amorphous goal but also really quite simple: A home should have a spirit. “Isn’t it great when you see a room, see how someone lives, what books they read, and you are dying to meet the person who inhabits it?”

On a practical level, this means using pieces that have personal sentimental value or bring their own sense of history to the party. “I love something that looks a little used—nothing too new or shiny, please. I like things that make you want to know their secrets if they could talk. I like it to feel very much today and progressive, but I don’t want it to look like it was installed this morning.” Her house is filled with furnishings handed down from her parents and collected over the years, bit by bit, each piece a reminder of a specific moment (for instance, the hat-wearing bust in the living room was one of the first things she and Paul bought together).

At parties, people invariably end up congregating in the kitchen—and in Sara’s home, the bathroom, where the oversize tub (a fiberglass version with an old-fashioned look) provides plenty of seating.

At parties, people invariably end up congregating in the kitchen—and in Sara’s home, the bathroom, where the oversize tub (a fiberglass version with an old-fashioned look) provides plenty of seating.

 
Isn’t it great when you see a room, see how someone lives, what books they read, and you are dying to meet the person who inhabits it?
— SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO
The color of Kiki’s bedroom was inspired by a visit to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico City. “This much color would have been a major commitment in the rest of the house, but it was a low-level risk to experiment in my daughter’s room. And she approves.”

The color of Kiki’s bedroom was inspired by a visit to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico City. “This much color would have been a major commitment in the rest of the house, but it was a low-level risk to experiment in my daughter’s room. And she approves.”

 
Ruffin’s room is cozy, soothing, and designed to grow with him. “The thing about kids’ rooms, babies’ rooms in particular, is you blink your eye and they’re too old for that stuff. Here, if you take away the teddy bear and the airplanes you’ve got another guest room.”

Ruffin’s room is cozy, soothing, and designed to grow with him. “The thing about kids’ rooms, babies’ rooms in particular, is you blink your eye and they’re too old for that stuff. Here, if you take away the teddy bear and the airplanes you’ve got another guest room.”

Just as the trellis room downstairs is visible from the front door, Kiki’s sewing room, directly above it, is visible from the top of the stairs. “I like to max out these focal-point rooms.” Sara turned this small space into a statement by covering the walls in Muriel Brandolini fabric.

Just as the trellis room downstairs is visible from the front door, Kiki’s sewing room, directly above it, is visible from the top of the stairs. “I like to max out these focal-point rooms.” Sara turned this small space into a statement by covering the walls in Muriel Brandolini fabric.

Sara spray-painted the couch and chairs on the side porch off the kitchen a charcoal gray, a subtle contrast to the floor’s blue-gray. Roll-down bamboo shades are a necessary defense against the intense New Orleans sun.

Sara spray-painted the couch and chairs on the side porch off the kitchen a charcoal gray, a subtle contrast to the floor’s blue-gray. Roll-down bamboo shades are a necessary defense against the intense New Orleans sun.

While eldest son Harrison was off at boarding school, Sara turned his room into a guest room. Roberta Roller Rabbit fabric that had previously served as kitchen curtains in New York now hang from the canopy. The colorful throw was found in a thrift store.

While eldest son Harrison was off at boarding school, Sara turned his room into a guest room. Roberta Roller Rabbit fabric that had previously served as kitchen curtains in New York now hang from the canopy. The colorful throw was found in a thrift store.

 
I love something that looks a little used—nothing too new or shiny, please. I like things that make you want to know their secrets if they could talk.
— SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO

 

 

Keeping the Living Easy 

Living in party central, Sara quickly learned some valuable entertaining strategies. First, to cut down on preparty stress, keep all your party essentials (glasses, platters, votive candles, etc.) in one place. For her, this is the butler’s pantry, which also has room for a bar. Second, forget about flowers. “I’ve decided flowers are just too expensive, so I just cut stuff out of the garden, banana leaves or weeds or otherwise. Literally I have arranged weeds and they looked great.”

Making entertaining painless is essential in New Orleans, where parties abound (Sara hosted five benefits in her first year here) and where enjoying oneself is practically a requirement for residency. Sara is thrilled to be in a place where there’s less rushing around and more time and space for what matters. “I’m happy to have found a house that’s really livable and conducive to having people over, having drop-ins, which was always tough in New York. Here there is enough room so that I can shove the mess out of the way and people can come in and I can give them a drink, we can sit down—there’s a living room. This is kind of the big thing: I can actually live in this house and do the things that I’ve always wanted to do and never had time to do.”

Sara with one of the family’s nine chickens, which lay the eggs the family eats and Carolina delights in selling door-to-door. “Chickens are easy if you have a coop. If you do free-range that’s a whole other story. But these are very easy.”

Sara with one of the family’s nine chickens, which lay the eggs the family eats and Carolina delights in selling door-to-door. “Chickens are easy if you have a coop. If you do free-range that’s a whole other story. But these are very easy.”

 
I’ve decided flowers are just too expensive, so I just cut stuff out of the garden, banana leaves or weeds or otherwise. Literally I have arranged weeds and they looked great.
Young Ruffin prepares for a plunge into the backyard’s saltwater pool. The pool beds and umbrella were custom-made, and the metal chairs are vintage.

Young Ruffin prepares for a plunge into the backyard’s saltwater pool. The pool beds and umbrella were custom-made, and the metal chairs are vintage.

 
Built in 1868, the house had only three owners before Sara and Paul. The original owner liked to climb to the top of the roof and use a periscope to keep track of shipments coming and going on the Mississippi.

Built in 1868, the house had only three owners before Sara and Paul. The original owner liked to climb to the top of the roof and use a periscope to keep track of shipments coming and going on the Mississippi.

Like many houses in the area, Sara’s has multiple porches. As the sun moves and one porch gets hot, the family shifts to the shady one to enjoy lemonade or—depending on the time of day—a chilled glass of white on the swing or the vintage metal chairs.

Like many houses in the area, Sara’s has multiple porches. As the sun moves and one porch gets hot, the family shifts to the shady one to enjoy lemonade or—depending on the time of day—a chilled glass of white on the swing or the vintage metal chairs.

 
This is kind of the big thing: I can actually live in this house and do the things that I’ve always wanted to do and never had time to do.
— SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO
Sara Costelloonekingslane