January 15, 2013

Opting for Simple Over Lavish

“If one is born a Baltimorean, one remains such for life, no matter where it takes you…” 
~Billy Baldwin

Over fifty years ago David Mlinaric, then a 21-year-old visiting New York from London, stopped for drinks at the interior designer Billy Baldwin’s apartment on the Upper East Side.  Mr. Baldwin was a commanding figure in American decorating, but he had a surprisingly modest apartment, with glossy brown walls set off by white moldings.

David Mlinaric furnished his London apartment with the mix expected of a true eclectic. “I’ve thought a lot about that apartment since then,” he said “I remember thinking that it was so small, and yet it had everything he could possibly need.”

Mr. Mlinaric would go on to be England’s foremost decorator of period interiors, with grand-scale commissions.  His career was propelled by a resurgent British economy and a renewed appreciation for aristocratic country homes and other historic buildings that had gathered dust in the postwar years.
“Often the simplest things are easiest to like, in clothes, food, gardens and landscape, as well as in buildings,” Mr. Mlinaric wrote in the afterward of “Mlinaric on Decorating,” a monograph written with Mirabel Cecil and published by Frances Lincoln. It may sound like a surprising declaration from one so strongly associated with Italian castles, marble columns and gilded detailing. But the truth is, despite that grand portfolio, he favors simplicity in his own homes.

His apartment on the second floor of a six-story Flemish-inspired building in Chelsea faces the Thames. In the afternoons the pale blue walls are awash in a silvery river light that is amplified by mirrors. “They probably double or triple the sense of light” he said. He also capitalized on the light in a small space by opening the entrance hallway so that it connects with the living area.

He was an originator of the eclectic decorating style that has become prevalent in recent years. Mr. Mlinaric had a faithful eye for historical recreation, but was not afraid to judiciously insert modern pieces into the mix. For example, in the dining room of Waddesdon Manor, Lord Rothschild’s estate in Buckinghamshire, he hung a pendant lamp that Ingo Maurer made three years ago from shards of shattered porcelain next to 17th-century lamp stands and 18th-century paneling.

In his own flat he uses distinctive pieces sparingly, with a mixer’s touch. His goal was to make the apartment basic and low-maintenance so he could turn the key and leave without fuss. “I enjoy its simplicity enormously,” he said. “I couldn’t have said this earlier in my life. When you’re young you want a place where your friends can drop in, and you have to look after them and keep a lot of furniture around.” He rarely entertains at the apartment, preferring to eat out with friends or spend time with the grandchildren.

Mr. Mlinaric’s preference for simplicity at home has increased now that much of his career is behind him — as Mr. Baldwin’s was when Mr. Mlinaric visited him. “I go around to shops now and think, I don’t want any of these things,” Mr. Mlinaric said. “The acquisitiveness falls away as you get older.”

Can you?  I can.