“It’s About Living”

Charlotte Moss on her work and Virginia

Charlotte Moss

From the cover of her sixth book, A Flair for Living, released this spring by Assouline, Richmond native Charlotte Moss delivers the cool gaze of a woman supremely comfortable with her rank as one of the country’s most sought-after interior designers. Photographed beneath the soaring ceilings of the sitting room inside her home on New York’s tony Upper East Side, she cocks her hip and leans against a painted terra-cotta bust of Barnave, the anti-royalist lawyer who retrieved Marie-Antoinette on her flight to Varennes. Moss herself evokes a regal portrait: The collar of her starched white blouse is turned up, and she wears a black skirt that drapes to the floor. A pearl cuff adorns each wrist, and her honey-colored coif is arranged in soft waves around her face.

She has designed the homes of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Ambassador to Italy Ronald Spogli and scores of other famous clients she is loath to name. She keeps a schedule thick with speaking engagements, decorator show houses, photo shoots, shopping trips abroad, stints in her homes in East Hampton, N.Y., and Aspen, Colo., and consultations with private clients. And just last year, she opened a five-story boutique in a landmark 1930s townhouse off Fifth Avenue, where shoppers encounter selling floors decorated like rooms in an elegant home and furnished with precious accessories well-known to the well-heeled: bed linens by Valombreuse, porcelain figurines by Nymphenburg, crystal by William Yeoward and flatware by Lapparra, among many others.

One morning this past spring, the air heavy with steamy fragrance, she sat down in the epicenter of her empire, a tiny office on the fourth floor of her store. Though the space was littered with the tools of her trade—stacks of shelter magazines, gilt sconces and framed botanicals under consideration, and an “inspiration board” tattooed with postcards, fabric swatches, silk tassels and hand-written notes—the doyenne of taste was eager to riff on a range of topics beyond design, including her Virginia childhood, her business strategy and her one-woman mission to restore civility to modern living.

What do you remember about growing up in Richmond?

Bumma, my maternal grandmother, had an incredibly warm house on Woodrow Terrace in Lakeside. It had a screened-in front porch, a swept-up lawn on a mound, and a driveway lined by crape myrtle, bearded iris and hydrangea. She would host these big buffets for the entire family on Sundays after church. There would be ham, tomato aspic and potato salad, depending on the season. I remember being able to explore the attic and the closets and play dress-up.

Did she influence your design sensibility?

I definitely got the gene from her. The house was layered and full of handmade things, things that were knitted and crocheted, her hand towels, even her apron. I still have the embroidered sheets she made, though I don’t use them because I don’t want them to wear out. And she was a great people gatherer.

She had five kids, and each of them had at least three of their own, so she had to be a good diplomat.

What was Virginia Commonwealth University like when you were there?

I worked my way through college at VCU back in the early ’70s, when it was rockin’.

I watched every nickel. It was a different time back then in the Fan. It was emerging from a sleepy downtown neighborhood to realizing how vital it was, so full of history—and architectural and cultural significance. And it was a divisive time, politically. You’d go to a party and you wound up in a debate. It was analogous to the Beat movement; they sat around writing poetry, and we sat around debating politics. Vietnam was tough. Some of our friends didn’t come back, and some didn’t come back right. When you’ve had a life-altering experience like that, you form convictions and beliefs and opinions in a very grounding type of way.

What did you do for fun?

I had a VW Beetle, and I spent a lot of time on the road. I’d drive up to Mary Washington, stuff a couple of girls and their bags in the car, and then head to Charlottesville for the weekend. You had to have an outfit for Friday night, the game on Saturday, Saturday night’s party and Sunday brunch with Bloody Marys. It wasn’t a duffle bag, it was a suitcase.

After years of traveling the world, what places in Virginia resonate with you?

Charlottesville always had a pull on me. The first time I went there was on a class trip. We visited the University of Virginia, Monticello and Ash Lawn. We learned about the Honor Code, how students could take exams out of doors. I still remember the serpentine walls and the smell of boxwood and wet brick. That combination was such a powerful detonator, I named my house in East Hampton Boxwood Terrace.

You cite the influence of female designers and decorators such as Elsie de Wolfe and Nancy Lancaster. Have you modeled yourself off anyone in particular?

Diana Vreeland and Fleur Fenton Cowles come to mind. There’s a certain type of female who is fierce, focused, funny, smart and curious. They take no prisoners.

Your business is already so successful. Why venture into retail?

I felt there was something missing in retail. Now we have a flagship, a permanent show house in which to display all of the things we’re designing, either private label or under license. Retail brings a quicker turnover, short-term gratification—and you have more control over it than you do over a client or a project, where the work can take a long time.

What do you most like to collect?

I love vintage books. They’re a great thing to collect and a great way to help build someone’s library. Among my favorite acquisitions for the store are the memos of Diana Vreeland when she was the editor of Vogue. I can imagine her sitting at her desk, eating a sandwich and sipping her Scotch, typing memos on her manual typewriter that said things like, “Go find me pearls!” In my private collection, I have books owned and or signed by Elsie de Wolfe and Nancy Lancaster and magazine collections including Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, House Beautiful.

What is your philosophy?

It’s not just about design. It’s about living. I don’t view decorating as being about inanimate objects; they’re just the necessaries. A place to sit at a table and eat, a lamp for light. It sounds terribly functional, and I believe it should be beautiful, but it should also be hospitable. A place where friends are always welcome. Everything else is backdrop. A room should be intoxicating. It should make you want to linger.

What’s been Virginia’s greatest contribution to architecture and interior design?

You can talk about Monticello as an informal and refined aesthetic. That’s where design has been heading for quite some time. Rather than having a lot of things, it’s having the right drawing, the right piece of furniture. Classicism is really what it is, and it takes a lot of discipline to keep it pure.

(Originally published in the October 2008 issue.)

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