Sara Ruffin Costello—interior designer, sittings editor for Vogue, founding creative director of Domino magazine, contributor to T magazine and Travel + Leisure (among others)—has many admirable qualities and talents. She’s smart, she’s glamorous, she has an incredible eye for fashion and home style. But less apparent on paper, and more so the minute you start talking with her, is that she’s a really good time. Frank, ribald, and loosey-goosey, she has both polish and mischievousness, and that comes through in her home.
Sara’s appetite for fun was never in doubt, but her ability to engage in it got a major boost three years ago when she, her husband, and their three children moved from the relatively cramped confines of a Manhattan apartment to a grand 1868 home in New Orleans’s Garden District. There, in an Italian Gothic house once owned by a railroad tycoon, she finally has the time and space to throw all the parties she wants (a lot) and to design and live in rooms that reflect her chic, playful esprit and love of good lines. “It’s formal, yet informal,” Sara says of the house. “It’s city, yet country. It’s got kind of a formal flow to it with the center hall and voluminous rooms on each side and this grand staircase, but it’s not so formal that you feel like you can’t have a ping-pong table in the dining room.” Which she does.
The Kismet of Finding the Right House
Though Sarah went to college in New Orleans, she hadn’t planned on moving there. But during a visit a few years back, tootling around looking at houses in a car full of friends, the driver, “a real estate agent who is not stupid,” as Sara tells it, “very slyly pulled up to this house and was like, ‘Oh, this one is actually on the market,’ planting the seeds of fantasy. We got on the plane to go back to New York and couldn’t get this place out of our heads. Like relationships, houses that speak to you come so rarely into your life, and when they do, you have to seize the moment.”
The moment was right: Domino had just closed, and Sara was working freelance (husband Paul, a photographer, can work from anywhere). They bought the house. Sara’s initial impulse was to make major structural changes, but architect Michael Carbine intervened. “I thought, ‘Let’s open the kitchen out to the garden and put a big garage door in there,’ and he talked me out of that, which was really wise. He really understands historical details, and that is so very important down here. He said, ‘You have so much modern stuff, just let the house be old,’ so we kept it exactly the same.”
Sara’s Secret for Building Drama, Part I
As Sara is the first to point out, filling an old house with new things is not new, nor is combining traditional and modern pieces. “Everyone does that,” she says. But her house has something extra: a sense of drama, which she accomplishes by deliberately, almost provocatively, pairing high-contrast colors and shapes in every room. “It all boils down to tension, which I find exciting. The theme of light and dark—of old and new and curvy and straight—is established at the front door, and it weaves through the whole house.”
In the living room—dominated by white, black, and wood—a stern brown wooden huntboard that once occupied her parents’ house in Virginia shares space with a contemporary white occasional table; traditional wing chairs sit across from a modern sectional. These contrasting pieces “just seem to be eyeballing each other all day, and that creates a little heat.”
Sara’s Secret for Building Drama, Part II
Pulling off a mix of old and new can be challenging. The key, says Sara, is to “build a bridge to harmony through palette and form.” In the living room, you can see both of these aspects at work: The disparate pieces are united by a limited palette of white, black, and wood. In terms of form, Sara plays close attention to line—how a piece is shaped—and how it will pair with its neighbors. “It’s about geometry—how the curve of one piece will interact with the line of another. I mostly prefer straight edges to curvy ones, and that goes for any style and any century. But I have a touch of the French littered about just to keep it soft.”
It’s about geometry — how the curve of one piece will interact with the line of another. I mostly prefer straight edges to curvy ones, and that goes for any style and any century. But I have a touch of the French littered about just to keep it soft.
A House Built for Family—and Party Guests
Sara’s house not only feels special but also functions well because it was decorated to suit her needs as both a parent and a hostess. “I have kids, and I entertain a bit—those are the two items that inform many of the design solutions around the house. I wanted to blend rather than separate those two ideas.” This means every space in the house works as a hangout spot for the family and for dressed-up guests. “I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone walked into any of the rooms—they all clean up easily, and if something gets a little wear and tear, it winds up expressing a more interesting narrative.”
This flexible attitude makes for more good times for everyone. Instead of being banished to a dank rec room, the in-house wear-and-tear-devils—Harrison, 14; Carolina, 12; and Ruffin, 4—get to listen to records under a Sol LeWitt and sprawl over a white leather sectional in the living room (a surprisingly practical piece that can be Magic Eraser-ed clean in an hour) or play ping-pong in the dining room alongside a chintz settee and antique French side chairs; at party time, the ping-pong table gets rolled away, making room for dancing or rented dinner tables. When Harrison is away at boarding school, his room easily accommodates grown-up overnight guests.
I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone walked into any of the rooms—they all clean up easily, and if something gets a little wear and tear, it winds up expressing a more interesting narrative.
How to Create Rooms with Soul
In addition to writing (American Master, her book on noted designer Jeffrey Bilhuber, was just published by Rizzoli), Sara has recently been busy decorating homes for clients in Los Angeles and New York. Her goal, for both her clients’ homes and her own, is “to build rooms with soul.” Sara acknowledges this is a lofty and somewhat amorphous goal but also really quite simple: A home should have a spirit. “Isn’t it great when you see a room, see how someone lives, what books they read, and you are dying to meet the person who inhabits it?”
On a practical level, this means using pieces that have personal sentimental value or bring their own sense of history to the party. “I love something that looks a little used—nothing too new or shiny, please. I like things that make you want to know their secrets if they could talk. I like it to feel very much today and progressive, but I don’t want it to look like it was installed this morning.” Her house is filled with furnishings handed down from her parents and collected over the years, bit by bit, each piece a reminder of a specific moment (for instance, the hat-wearing bust in the living room was one of the first things she and Paul bought together).
Isn’t it great when you see a room, see how someone lives, what books they read, and you are dying to meet the person who inhabits it?
I love something that looks a little used—nothing too new or shiny, please. I like things that make you want to know their secrets if they could talk.
Keeping the Living Easy
Living in party central, Sara quickly learned some valuable entertaining strategies. First, to cut down on preparty stress, keep all your party essentials (glasses, platters, votive candles, etc.) in one place. For her, this is the butler’s pantry, which also has room for a bar. Second, forget about flowers. “I’ve decided flowers are just too expensive, so I just cut stuff out of the garden, banana leaves or weeds or otherwise. Literally I have arranged weeds and they looked great.”
Making entertaining painless is essential in New Orleans, where parties abound (Sara hosted five benefits in her first year here) and where enjoying oneself is practically a requirement for residency. Sara is thrilled to be in a place where there’s less rushing around and more time and space for what matters. “I’m happy to have found a house that’s really livable and conducive to having people over, having drop-ins, which was always tough in New York. Here there is enough room so that I can shove the mess out of the way and people can come in and I can give them a drink, we can sit down—there’s a living room. This is kind of the big thing: I can actually live in this house and do the things that I’ve always wanted to do and never had time to do.”
I’ve decided flowers are just too expensive, so I just cut stuff out of the garden, banana leaves or weeds or otherwise. Literally I have arranged weeds and they looked great.
This is kind of the big thing: I can actually live in this house and do the things that I’ve always wanted to do and never had time to do.