At Home with Designer Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stuart’s inspiration board is filled with quotes from designers, architects and writers of the past, along with images of nature, travel and art. The detail of a pile of butter beans, a bird’s eye view of the Rockies, a close-up image of a cobblestone street, all combine to create and inspire her unique vision. Stuart is a leading American interior designer, based in Los Angeles who appears regularly on both the AD100 list and the Elle Décor A-List, but both her personality and design aesthetic lack pretense. She is approachable, friendly, and open, and this mindset translates to her work. Form and function are a crucial marriage for her, and she achieves this with an attention to detail that creates a timeless design. Stuart’s design firm, Madeline Stuart Associates is known for both interior design as well as architectural restoration and remodelling, with a focus on reversing years of neglect and damage to properties. I spoke with Stuart by phone from her home in L.A. about working through a pandemic and her design vision.

Photograph by Trevor Tondro

A Book Tour Diverted

Stuart was in the middle of her book tour when the lockdown happened. Her book, ‘No Place Like Home, Interiors by Madeline Stuart (Rizzoli, 2019) was published the previous September and her last talk on the East Coast was March 12th “half the people didn’t come,” she recalled. “It hit home in a profoundly clear way that this was now happening. It had taken hold, everyone was fearful, I couldn’t wait to get home. The next day we closed our office for three months; L.A. was on such a strict lockdown. There was something oddly, eerily blissful about L.A. with no people; something kind of captivating about it. It was not something anyone had every witnessed, it was serene,” she shared.

Living Room Details from Stuart’s Santa Barbara home. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

Designing in the Midst of a Pandemic

Working in isolation took some adjustments. “Ours is a tactile business,” said Stuart, “it’s such a collaborative effort. You can’t look at fabric, samples or trims online.” I have a project in Seaside, Florida that we pushed to September, and I finished it remotely. I have a great friend there and she and I Facetimed for 2 or 3 days. She did the styling while I directed her, and it worked! I worked with the art installer this way too; he was responsive and I was fully present and accounted for. Most of the work was already done before the pandemic hit. I re-designed all the interiors; the project had been ongoing for a couple of years. The installation and unveiling is my glory moment; so much of what you’re doing is in your head and when all the instruments in the orchestra reach the final crescendo—the installation is akin to that, so not being onsite is not my preference. We’re all willing to take certain chances, but how much of a chance? How far are we willing to go? I don’t want to test those waters,” she admitted.

Italianate Living Room by Madeline Stuart. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

A New Attitude

The lockdown changed Stuart’s view of her own home, a 1930s Spanish Revival house in the Hollywood Hills. “If I’m to be perfectly honest,” she said, “my house isn’t a collection of exquisitely curated furniture and objects–I’d say it’s more like an accumulation of stuff and things. There are antiques and vintage pieces, custom furniture that I designed, and a Dunbar sofa that was my parents when they were first married and lived in Manhattan in the mid-50s (needless to say, it’s been recovered many times since then.)  There are flea market finds, some contemporary things, and a few pieces I regret buying,” she admitted.

“The one thing lockdown has done is make me want to change every single thing in my house,” she said, “the more time I spent in L.A., the more I wanted a new look, I wanted to experience something different, I wanted to SAY something different. So, I think I’m committed to making incremental changes that will refresh and revive my house. We all bring things in and take things out–I want to start over. I’m a shopper by birth–and profession–and have found some beautiful things that are exceptionally meaningful to me: I placed an Arne Bang ceramic vessel next to an Edo period bronze turtle, which sidles up to a Jean Dunand vase, that sits on a monograph of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work.  I have artwork that was given to me by my father and three 16th century Iznik tiles that came from the collection of Lockwood de Forest.  Without some of these highly personal objects, my house would lack its center and its soul. These are the pieces I see when I curl up on the sofa in my living room, which is like a tufted island in the storm. It’s always been a place of peace for me, but even more so now, during this challenging time.  Ideally there’s a pile of magazines and newspapers on the floor at my side, a cup of Earl Grey tea on the table, and my dogs at my feet.   The worries of the world are held at arm’s length, at least for a short while.”

Hacienda Living Room by Madeline Stuart. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

Stuart’s Approach to Clients

Stuart takes a very different approach when creating a home for her clients, “designing for yourself and for clients is such a different approach,” she explains, “I don’t design for myself, It’s a process of accretion, accumulating things over times that might have struck my fancy at one time and now not so much. When I am designing for clients I am trying to design for a level of permanence; everyone changes their mind, their taste. My approach is to find, buy and install things that are timeless, and worthy. You can’t help but design in your own time and of the moment. I am always designing for them, their needs, level of comfort, how they want to live and present themselves to the world. It’s a very different process.”

La Jolla Living Room by Madeline Stuart. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

A Second Home

Stuart and her husband bought a second home in Santa Barbara, which gave her a new project. “Some designers design their homes to represent a specific style of how they want to present themselves to the world,” she said, “I’ve never been able to design my home that way. But in my Santa Barbara home, I was able to start from scratch. I was almost paralyzed because I knew it was going to represent me and my style and every decision I made would be analyzed. ‘Why did she choose that lamp? Why put that painting there?’ she pondered.

My former assistant forced me into a direction that I am glad I took. As designers, we are judged and the decisions we make are up for consideration by others, it’s interesting. I design because I have firm beliefs about approach. For a client you are designing for them and are also aware of others experiencing the home you have created for these people. There are judgments being made,” she explained.

Stuart believes a certain degree of insecurity is a good thing. “When designers get too cocky, they lose the ability to step back and see their work in a realistic way.  I don’t think of myself as a decorator in the truest sense of the word.  There are those who decorate at such a profound level (i.e. Mario Buatta), and while I admire that kind of work, that’s not my process.  I maintain enough insecurity that it causes me to think carefully about my decisions–I just don’t throw everything out and see what sticks. I think my approach towards designing a home is more restrained, more reductionist.  I never want my interiors to appear overly decorated.  For me it’s about acquiring beautiful things and putting them in a setting that feels cohesive and comfortable for the people who live there,” she shared.

Interior of Madeline Stuart’s house in Santa Barbara for C Magazine. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

On Collecting Antiques

Stuart is a collector and enthusiast of antiques and always tries to weave pieces from different eras into her projects. “I can’t imagine creating a room without furniture and objects from the past,” she shared. “Even when I design interiors that might be considered contemporary or modern, I always include something old alongside something new. Without that juxtaposition, I think a room lacks interest, depth, and soul. I’m not snobbish about antiques, I can find a marvelous piece at a brocante, an established dealer, or a prestigious show.  The item doesn’t have to be expensive to be worthy–some of my greatest finds are things I bought for a song,” she admitted. “For me, it’s not always about provenance or price–it’s about introducing an element or an object that brings with it a bit of history,” she explained.

Stuart has long been an avid shopper and is a past lecturer at the San Francisco Fall show and was invited to create a Designer Vignette for the Grand Entry of the 2018 show with the show theme “The Sun, the Moon and the Stars”. The result, ‘Moon’, with custom designed de Gournay wallpaper and panels inspired by the work of Japanese artist, Matazo Kayama, was magical and illuminating.

‘Moon’, Designer Vignette by Madeline Stuart at the 2018 San Francisco Fall Show.
Custom wallpaper by de Gournay. Photograph by Drew Altizer

Stuart is a champion of the show, “The level of satisfaction I have when walking through the show with a client, when we would see something and then see that thing in their home that we created together, it becomes not just an object but a thing of meaning,” she shared. “There is no show like the Fall Show. There is a level of excitement and energy at that show that I’ve never felt anywhere. Conviviality, people not jaded, not walking the show with a jaundiced eye. There is an enthusiasm and joy that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. It’s about the dealers, the history, years of tradition. It’s the level of connoisseurship that is on display. What you’re seeing is of such a high level and exquisite beauty and it shines and makes you excited. There is such a welcoming atmosphere. People dive in and want to have fun. I’ve spoken to so many dealers in the past few months about how much I’ll miss seeing them this year,” she reminisced.

This image features pieces that represent myriad eras, cultures, and styles:  The chairs are 18th c. Italian, and the gilt bronze lantern in the doorway is by Caldwell, an American lighting company founded in the 19th century.  The screens are 19th c. Chinese, and the tables are fashioned from eggshell lacquer trays made in France in the 1930s. The carpet is an antique Oushak,  the brass palm tree lamps are mid-century, and they sit on a pair of Italian 19th c. bronze and marble tables.  The oldest piece in the room is the white porcelain vessel in the foreground.  It’s Chinese, from the Southern Song dynasty, which dates from 1127-1279, and was purchased from the Lotus Collection at the San Francisco Fall Show a few years ago. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

Stuart developed her taste and eye for antiques over years of exploration, education, and relentless curiosity.  “I relish the hunt, what I call the ‘seek and ye shall find’ approach,” she shared. “I learned most of what I know about antique or vintage furniture and accessories by seeing things in person, chatting with dealers, and appreciating the patina that develops only with time.  Besides, I’m an inveterate shopper, so even when I’m not shopping for work, I’m shopping for pleasure,” she said.

She admits her work isn’t tied to any particular period, “although there are some I favor and a few I eschew,” she admitted. “For me it’s all about how a particular piece can find its way into my life, or into a client’s home; whether those items or objects date to the 1970s, the 17th century, or 700 BC, these things are part of our collective history and shared memory, and as a designer, I treasure being able to incorporate something truly unique into a space,” she shared.

“I think the most beautiful homes are those that reflect the personality and lives of the people who live there.  An exquisitely decorated house may contain a collection of nice things, but I find it a bit sad when those things have no connection to their owner.  Find stuff you love–whether it’s of great significance or sentimental value–and surround yourself with pieces that remind you of who you are, what you care about, and where you’ve been,” she advises.

Jackson Living Room. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

With the pandemic closing out the year, Stuart is missing the energy of the design industry, “I love traveling and meeting people all over the country, being a part of an industry that is social and engaged,” she says. “I love hosting dinner parties, I miss having people over, I miss living!” She exclaimed. “You have to feel creative, and this current atmosphere is not conducive to feeling creative, I think there is a lot of unrest, discomfort, unease, so you have to work harder to be creative. I work and go home, and I am grateful and lucky to have a place in Santa Barbara to go. It’s a little house but I love every corner and it brings me peace and joy and that’s all we can ask for – a little spot where we can find joy at the end of the day. I still find wonderful moments in a day-I love pulling fabrics and collaborating with my staff, I’m still completely immersed and invested in that,” she shared.

Photograph by Trevor Tondro

“We’re all doing our best and making it up as we go along. Hoping we arrive on the other side with our sanity, humour, creativity and good will towards others still evident.”

By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat
Ariane served as Show Director for the San Francisco Fall Show for 7 years through 2019. She is now the show’s international liaison as Director at Large, living in London with her family.  Follow Ariane on her blog, Sojournest, where she focuses on all things home and travel.