Peak of Sophistication

Designer Charlotte Moss blends classic elements, both antique and reproduction, and pulls off a sophisticated, yet livable, traditional look

Trying to pin down designer Charlotte Moss, metaphorically or geographically, is not an easy task. She’s a moving target. She can work a corner of a formal living room around a chinoiserie cabinet, add sex appeal to an alcove of a master bath by installing a 19th-century beaded-wood chandelier with live candles, or use a collection of antique American flags as the takeoff point for decorating a boy’s room. She appears to be equally at home in a mountain house in Colorado, picking through a flea market in Paris, or combing the collections at Colonial Williamsburg for inspiration (she has just been named interior design director of its licensing program). And you’re likely to find her working in any of those modes or in any of those places within days of each other.

Or, you might find her perched on a library ladder in the living room of her Long Island, New York, country house, searching for a reference among books or her prized collection of design magazines. Moss uses her home as a laboratory of sorts, recombining furniture and accessories. "Things are constantly moving," she says. "I think clients should be the same way. There’s not just one way to do something. We change. We grow."

She likes to revisit former clients’ homes–like the two shown on these pages–in order to see rooms with a fresh eye and make adjustments. "Those pictures we put in the master bedroom, let’s move them out now. And that lamp on the table, let’s put it on the desk in the library and get something more important for she’ll suggest. "I was always redoing my own room when I was little, and helping my mother rearrange the living room. That’s what keeps things fresh. It suggests open-mindedness."

Moss grew up in Virginia and was influenced as much by her mother and grandmother’s mannerly, hospitable ways as she was by her surroundings. "My mother was a great homemaker, and my grandmother was a natural. I don’t think there is anything she couldn’t do."

Moss brings that same energy to decorating projects. There was a time she would take on as many as a dozen clients at once, all the while tending her shop. The store, now closed so she can focus frill time on larger jobs, sold occasional furniture and accessories, antiques, and custom pieces, and was a magnet for decorators in search of items that brought 20th-century zip to traditional rooms–such as leopard print wastebaskets and silk lampshades.

Her rooms emanate warmth. She uses brave colors on walls, like the raisin hue in the dining room of a descendant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (page 28). She works out medleys of patterned fabric to add richness to a scheme, as in the great room for the Orensteins, whose home is shown on pages 23-39. Pools of lamplight are important to Charlotte and are provided by elegantly shaded table lamps made from handsome objects she’s found. Candles, she notes, are always apropos in dining rooms.

Moss stresses the importance of working a room in profile, as well as in plan, from the get-go: "I always say to my clients, ‘Picture yourself standing around a cocktail party elbow-to-elbow, when no one can see anything on a tabletop. What are they looking at? You’ve got to think about moving the room up. You want movement.’" Hanging an intricate chandelier, like the one made of antlers at the Oren– stems, is one way of ensuring motion. So is massing artwork to dominate a wall behind a bed or over a fireplace-she does both in the Roosevelt house. The use of commanding curtain treatments, at windows or to crown beds, also does this job for her.

Movement and mix are interlinked, and key to the success of her style. "I think there’s not a room I’ve done that doesn’t have mix, whether it’s country of origin, period, wood vs. painted finish…whatever. All those things that have come together from different places give a room patina, give it excitement," she says. The range of elements she assembles are consciously balanced by classic shapes, whether custom-made or antique. "A classic is something that has good lines. But it also works over and over again, no matter how you treat it, color it, or paint it." The trefoil ottoman in the Orenstein living room is one of her favorite examples.

One of her colleagues calls Moss "the new old guard." Her taste is refined, and that she lives the life for which she decorates lends validity to her choices. Moss is a contemporary woman who grants herself free access to a multitude of traditional styles (antique and reproduction) and the right to combine them within one house or within one room. "It’s all about the mix, not about the match," quips Moss. "You have to throw things off a little…by planting a simple geranium in an extraordinary 18th-century Limoges cachepot, or by standing a little American 1930s chair next to a Regency cabinet of great value."

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