An ambitious exploration into high-end residential markets across the globe.
Don’t be scared of using black” is one tip in Patina Modern, a new book by Chris Mitchell and Pilar Guzmán that sets out nine principles for designing “warm, timeless interiors”. Their instructions are clear, attainable, and sometimes a little offbeat: “Take a bird’s-eye view of the room,” is another. The couple talk readers through their own taste, and the covetable interiors of their houses in Brooklyn and Long Island, though neither trained as interior designers, and they describe themselves as auto-didacts. Guzmán, an editor, has long worked with America’s chief lifestyle experts Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, and Mitchell is also from a publishing background. (“Our first love is storytelling: magazines and content,” he says.) Their skill lies in mixing their refined lifestyle with chatty, upbeat, and forthright advice.
Do the couple ever break their own rules? “All the time,” says Mitchell. “But I would liken them to the rules of grammar. You can break ’em if you know ’em. And the thing that separates people who are a little at sea with interior design, and people who knowingly veer, is taste.”
In Patina Modern, they set out to make anyone—even those who might feel at sea—think they can achieve such nebulous ambitions as “taste” and “style”, with a few simple rules.
Guzmán grew up in LA in an artistic family and a house full of antiques. She describes waking at dawn to be first at the flea market and taking out a subscription to Architectural Digest at the age of eight. Mitchell, who says he is a “modernist by instinct” grew up “in the most conventional of American homes”. “Then we arrived at something in our intersection,” says Guzmán.
“‘Good taste’ has been democratized with social media,” she adds. To counter blandness, they advise us to expand our design knowledge and hone our eyes by pursuing curiosities, accumulating what Mitchell calls “rabbit-holes of discovery”.
What are their current obsessions? “Sixties lighting that I would describe as ‘soviet bureaucracy’”, says Mitchell. “Nineteenth-century geometric rugs,” says Guzmán.
But in Mitchell and Guzmán’s world, every object is given space to breathe. The one trend they avoid is maximalism: the piled-on clutter and pattern-upon-pattern so fashionable in recent years. “A lot of Americans have taken cues from the UK, and the layering in ancestral homes,” says Guzmán. “It’s a harder thing to manufacture in the US in a meaningful way, and our eyes have gotten a little tired of it. I think it has run its course, especially in the American adaptation.”
“There’s a terrific quote by [US architecture critic] Paul Goldberger,” says Mitchell. “He says the problem with humor in architecture is that the joke gets old but the building remains. And that’s true in interior design. Exuberant florals are super fun. But you might get tired. Our approach is to have fun, absolutely. But do it with accessories. Change is easier.”
“Or in a smaller room, like a powder room,” Guzmán suggests.
The book’s title refers to the couple’s guiding principle to mix old and new: sharp, sculptural ceiling lights with art deco brass side-lamps, say, or custom leather banquettes with curvilinear, Victorian woodwork. It is not an entirely original trick, but they had to learn it themselves, the result of years of trial and error over several renovation projects.
They also advise learning to live with patina—the scars and the imperfections that showcase the history of a home: scuffs on furniture legs, spilled-wine splotches on leather upholstery, the torn edges of a framed vintage poster. They even suggest buying broken or damaged antiques and collectibles, to be restored if necessary.
Guzmán and Mitchell’s book is an admirable attempt to transcend the fleeting trends and advice of the digital age with a set of solid, consistent principles. It is, I suggest, a design book that follows a cookery book format. “That was our inspiration!” says Mitchell.
“Imagine if cookbooks showed only perfect photographs of food without recipes,” he says. “Many interior books are like that: they give you rooms and houses but don’t give you the formula to get there. We insist on utility.”
Photos: Excerpted from Patina Modern by Chris Mitchell and Pilar Guzman (Artisan Books), © 2022, photographs by François Dischingerand Adrian Gaut