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'Prince of Chintz' sticks with the traditional

Modernism is not for Mario Buatta.

An invitation to spend "An Evening With Mario Buatta" gathered a crowd of several hundred folks who still have a place in their hearts - or their living rooms - for the floral fabric known as chintz.

Buatta, nicknamed "The Prince of Chintz" more than two decades ago, has had his own New York decorating firm for 45 years. At 72, he has won every major design award and makes virtually every list of top designers. His lavish yet cozy rooms, resplendent in cabbage rose print slipcovers, swagged curtains, and dog paintings, evoke an Americanized view of English country style.

In between chairing antiques shows, combing London flea markets, meeting with clients, and schmoozing magazine editors, Buatta likes to pack up his rattling carousel of slides (PowerPoint is so 21st century) and go talk to people.

Even modernists can appreciate his longevity and his rock-star client list. He has lacquered walls in peach and lavender at a Manhattan triplex for Mariah Carey and accessorized and mixed patterns for Barbara Walters, Billy Joel and Malcolm Forbes.

During the 1980s heyday of tasseled pillows and blue-and-white porcelains, Buatta fringed his way up Park Avenue and landed the plum job of refurbishing Blair House, the president's official guest house in Washington. He split the more than 100 rooms with fellow designer Mark Hampton, and the two have left a floral legacy that lives on 20 years later.

As minimalism and modernism have invaded America's homes and shops, Buatta has continued doing his traditional thing. He is decorating a penthouse with 23-foot ceilings across from Carnegie Hall in New York; an estate in Charleston, S.C.; and a house in Birmingham, Ala.

"I get a lot of business in the South," he says. "It's still the hotbed of traditional decorating."

Buatta, whose father was a society band leader, grew up in a modern house on Staten Island without a lot of clutter. "But my aunt had summer chintz and winter chintz," he says. Never one to hold back opinions, he says, he once told his mother, "This living room is more like a dead room."

He studied at Parsons School of Design and Cooper Union. In 1961, he saw Nancy Lancaster's famous egg-yolk yellow London drawing room and was smitten.

Buatta does business the old-fashioned way. No employees. No Web site. "That's too commercial. We are too exclusive," he quips, checking his daily schedule on a crumpled, scribble-filled page ripped from a yellow pad.

We had a cup of tea with Buatta in the austere lobby of the Madison Hotel before his lecture. "Well, there certainly is no chintz here," he says, settling into a hard-edged chair. He's gotten used to it.

Question: What's your advice to people decorating their first apartments?

Answer: You should do a layout of the furniture based on your space before you go shopping. Figure out what the best sizes for sofas and chairs are and get those first, before end tables and coffee tables. Put in an etagere or cabinet for height.

Today, we live in the best of times. Good design is accessible and available. Crate & Barrel, Ballard Designs and Pottery Barn have things at great prices. Everything good is copied in two minutes and sold at retail. Whenever someone like Vicente Wolf or Kelly Wearstler designs something, it shows up right away in a store.

The way I see it, people decorate three times in their lives: The first time is when they get married and get their own place; the second is when their children grow up and they redecorate with better things; then after 60, they do it for the last time, and they make their home look the way they have always dreamed.

Q: What does a Mario Buatta house look like?

A: It's got color, textiles and lots of patterns. It looks like a Vuillard impressionist painting. I love the warmth of a house that looks like it happened over generations.

Q: What's the biggest mistake people make in doing their own decorating?

A: Scale. They never get proportion right. . . . You should have both high and low pieces, to take your eye to different levels. If you have a tiny bedroom, even 10-by-12, if you put a big canopy bed in there or a huge armoire, it will look better.

Q: What is your all-time favorite chintz pattern?

A: Lee Jofa's Floral Bouquet. I've used it in every apartment I have ever had.

Q: Do you ever go to back to Blair House?

A: I am doing things there all the time. They call every year or so and need a room redone, some new wallpaper or new fabric for something that has worn out. The house is like a hotel; it's constantly in use.

Q: Will chintz ever be back?

A: Everything comes around. Most decorating trends begin in the fashion world. Right now, Seventh Avenue is giving us so many flowers again. Just wait.