The difference between most interior designers and those in the top tier boils down to one thing: a larger-than-life personality. Richmond-raised Charlotte Moss has that in spades, plus an encyclopedic knowledge of design, a way with words and an overall grace that perhaps Richmond can claim. And as House Beautiful editor Stephen Drucker put it: "hair that could rule the world."
But what sets Moss apart most of all is her ability to sell a lifestyle, whether it be to high-end clients through her design services or to the everyman, with her books and licensed products. She's designed an array of items, including fabric, carpet, china, even a home fragrance. Through these products she's lured many into her world, which includes wearing a fur stole to walk the dog, having a rich library of necessary texts and using only cloth napkins, preferably with a custom monogram. Not such a bad place to be, --and neither was her Upper East Side brownstone on a brisk January day.
Moss's house manager buzzed her guest past the iron gate and into a marble-floored entry hall, where Charlotte quickly gave a warm welcome before heading upstairs to the library for some tea and conversation. With BlackBerry and notes from an assistant close by, Moss spent the next few hours discussing the psychology behind educating clients; her belief that comfort and elegance are not mutually exclusive; and her take on color.
Budding Decorator Although Moss says she wouldn't consider herself a gray person, it's the color she chose to brand her business; it's also one she associates with her hometown. Gray was one of the colors of her high school, Douglas Freeman, but more importantly, she fondly remembers the Old-World elegance of Montaldo's department store, something she "aspired to." "I just loved the thought of going in with my babysitting money and coming out with that chic gray-and-white striped bag," she says.
After a childhood in Richmond and college at VCU, Moss spent several years as a marketing executive on Wall Street. A fork in the road led her to open Charlotte Moss & Co., an English-inspired garden shop with drapery and other design services. It was the mid-'80s and the shop boomed, and her decorating career did, too. After 10 years she closed the shop, to concentrate on her brand, which soon grew to include six books (the latest, A Flair for Living, was published last year), teaching, lectures, products and quite a bit of volunteer work. Now, after 22 years, her name is associated with a timeless, English- country-inspired elegance, which has earned her regular appearances in design magazines and projects across the country for clients that include billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Townhouse and Today
In November, Moss closed her five-floor townhouse store on East 63rd Street after being open a year and a half. It was an ambitious undertaking with fully decorated rooms in which everything was for sale, including custom products she developed, accessories and even vintage gowns hanging in the home's dressing room. "The store worked, but it didn't work for me," she explains. Moss wanted to be involved in each level of the business and found herself in meetings constantly. "It just kept getting me further and further away from the creative part, which I love, and I thought, this is not moving forward for me." She continues to develop products and now offers some on her Web site, which also features a blog, or "Tête-à-tête," as it's called.
Designing a Lifestyle
When you hire Charlotte Moss to design your home, she is not simply choosing fabrics and planning layouts. You are hiring a style guru who will gently educate you on significant design doyennes, plan your parties, compile your library and even travel abroad with you in search of just the right piece. These days she only takes on about two projects at a time with her staff of 13, which includes three decorators and two graphic designers, who (in part) create custom house stationery for clients.
"I've never wanted to do just decorating," says Moss. "I've always wanted to have a business that was about design. It's an organic process; you can't just decorate for someone and pick out market goods. You've got to design things for people." Designing furniture for clients led Moss to develop a line of fabric for Brunschwig & Fils and china for Pickard. The benefit of designing products, Moss says, is that she can explore things she's interested in, things that a client might not hire her to do. "The older I get, definitely the less appealing it is for me to jump on a plane 6 o'clock on a Monday morning and come back Thursday night every week doing site visits all around the country."
Curator of Style
If you've ever read any of Moss' books, you know that she is influenced by great women of style, no matter whether they were born with money, like Jackie Kennedy, whom she is writing a book about; earned it, like Coco Chanel; or married into it like Pauline de Rothschild. Moss takes bits and pieces from these women and other design greats from history, along with ideas she spots in books and magazines, and makes scrapbooks. The pages often appear in her books or get used for clients' idea boards.
"There is no way that you will ever be good in this business, ever, if you don't have some sense of history," she says. "How do you just go look at stuff to do a room or a house if you don't have a sense of Louis quinze is a curved leg and Louis seize is a straight leg? … How are you going to provide value to somebody else, educate them, pull together something that's meaningful?"
Life After Decorating
Comfort is as important as style to Moss, although she's not fond of "casual" great rooms and "formal" living rooms. Instead, she decorates elegant rooms that are comfortable — rooms where the newspaper can be read without worry over fabrics, or feet can be put up to read a book. "I think to be truly elegant you have to be comfortable," she says, "because comfort comes from confidence and confidence is the base of style."
The other key to a Moss room is having an element that doesn't work. Sounds strange, but Moss says the one thing that bothers her is a matchy-matchy room. She strives for rooms that have "simpatico" and look like they developed over time.
"It's the odd thing that makes it right; it takes the room down," she says. "I think a lot of rooms that you would define as comfortable look like they weren't done yesterday. It looks like this room has been organic just as someone's life has been: You buy this, you buy that, that wears out, you try something different, and there's an ease to a room like that."
Moss goes to great lengths to make sure her clients are at ease with the home she's created with them. "One of the things about this business is people come to you to elevate their lifestyle in a lot of cases," she says. So she sees it as her job to educate, and that doesn't end when the house is done. Moss has even worked on tablescapes, taking pictures and putting them in a reference book for clients. She's also catalogued clients' vase sizes, sending a set of photos to their florists. "Over time that person is going to learn how to do it on their own," she says. "And I think that's one of the greatest things you can leave behind. It's not [waving her hands around the room] all that. It's someone feeling comfortable with it. I guess I've always felt like it was part of my role."
Charlotte's Favorite Shops
The Muse in the Design District, lots of dealers under a couple of roofs, great accessibility
Every shop on Pimlico Road and where it intersects Wholebine Place, and then rest your heels at Como Lario for great Italian food
If time is limited, a day at the flea market always proves fruitful. Go open-minded and grab your Starbucks before as there isn't any in the flea market!
A trip is never complete without hitting La Cienega near Melrose Place, Hollyhock on Hilldale and boutiques along Robertson Boulevard, and end with lunch at the Ivy.
Full of great shopping areas — I always have success on Bennett Street and The Galleries of Peachtree Hills
New York City
Todd Romano on Lexington Avenue and Joe Nye on Third Avenue and the Interior Design Building on East 61st Street
Charlotte's Must-Read List
- Billy Baldwin Decorates by Billy Baldwin
- Colefax & Fowler: The Best in English Interior Decoration by Chester Jones
- The Art and Technique of Color Photography by Alexander Liberman
- The Decoration of Houses by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr.
- Jansen Decoration Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century by Mark Hampton
- A Passion for Flowers by Carolyne Roehm
- Roomscapes: The Decorative Architecture of Renzo Mongiardino by Renzo Mongiardino
- The House of Good Taste by Elsie de Wolfe
- Vogue's Book of Houses, Gardens, People, photos by Horst, text by Valentine Lawford, foreward by Diana Vreeland