01 March 2008

Happy Birthday to a Design Mentor!

 

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My living room with inherited French antique chairs

Ask any interior designer who their mentor was, whose style first influenced them, who introduced them to a certain look - and most likely they will have a long story about that person and how important they were in shaping their aesthetic.  Ask me and I'll answer with two words:  Betty Rae!

Betty Rae - just the name itself goes so far in describing her:  A southern lady, gracious and beautiful, with an accent that matches her name.  I always say that Betty Rae's style influenced mine more than anyone  - bar none.  Who is this Betty Rae you are probably wondering?

Legally, she's my step-mother, but we don't use the word "step" - she's my mother in every sense of the word and today is her birthday.   I've been wanting to write about her and how she influenced my design style, so today - her 78th birthday, seemed the perfect time to do it. 

Betty Rae came into my life when I was 14,  after my mother, Sonia, died unexpectedly at the age of 42.  My father had one date and was hooked.  Who wouldn't be?  She was beautiful with dark brown hair and eyes, sweet and loving, and very stylish.  She introduced me to antiques and french design and for that I'll always be grateful.

 

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That us, me and Betty Rae at my high school graduation.

Thinking about it, I guess you could say I came out of the womb interested in design.   When I look back,  it must have been well known in my family that I was into decorating.  One of my more vivid childhood memories is when a elderly cousin brought me all her old home magazines.  I was so excited to get them - in those days back in the 50s, there weren't a lot of design magazines like today.  I remember after my cousin went home, I sat down to look at the magazines and was utterly disappointed.  She had brought me her old magazines and I was expecting new ones!  They were probably from the 40s (ones I would kill for today!) and were such a let down.  I must have been only six or seven years old at the time - I know this because we still lived in our old house.  A few years later, my parents built a home across town and that experience was a further strengthening of my interest in interior decoration.  They let me help design my room all in lilac and white, I even had a lilac sink!   We all pored over the architectural drawings for months and this fueled my fascination with floor plans.  For years, I drew plans - doodling them in school instead of listening.  At that time, it was thought I might become an architect - but those hopes were dashed when the reality of my lack of math skills became apparent.  And so, when our lives changed for ever, and I ended up with a new mother - her sense of style was an extra bonus in the package.    Betty Rae was into French antiques, two words I knew nothing about, but which would form the basis of my design aesthetic forever. 

In contrast, my own mother who had immigrated as a teenager to the United States on the heels of Hitler invading Poland, knew nothing about interior design.   A redhead and a natural comedienne,  she only knew to hire someone to fix up our house in the popular "modern" style of the 50s and 60's.    Because of this,  modern design was all I knew - everyone in my life decorated their houses this way.  It's not that I wasn't interested in other styles, I just had never been exposed to them.  French antiques weren't a part of our lives or of our neighbors.

When I first met Betty Rae and her two daughters who would become my sisters - they were living in a fashionable high rise apartment, something that was an anomaly to Houston at that time  and something that was extremely exotic to a teenager from the suburbs.    I can remember that apartment vividly:  the living room was designed around a blue and green flowery fabric on a cream background which covered a down filled sofa.  There was a light blue velvet skirted table in the room and French antique chairs were scattered about.  The family room had an antique bakers rack (what's that?!!) that doubled as a tv stand and a bar.  The master bedroom was done  in blue and white, with a french headboard and a huge, fruitwood antique armoire that housed the tv.  Picture this:  Jacqueline Kennedy's personal space in the White House and you can get an idea of what the apartment looked like.  It was as if Stephane Boudin had decorated it himself, instead - the french antiques and reproductions were bought from a Mrs. Handy. 

I can not begin to explain the effect that this apartment had on me.  It was so beautiful, so feminine, so foreign to me.   I just loved everything about it then and still do today.  My love of french antiques was born on that day I first visited them in their apartment.   They say good taste runs in families, and Betty Rae's was no exception.  The youngest of three daughters, they all shared great style.  Her  two sisters both lived in New York, so their more cosmopolitan exposure trickled down to Texas.  At one point, Betty Rae and her best friend opened a small antiques store that specialized in accessories.   The two went to England to stock their inventory and were nice enough to let me work there sometimes on the weekends.   Over the years, as I became more and more exposed to french antiques, Betty Rae was always there to help guide me and teach me about them.  We would often go to antique stores and shows together, along with her daughter - my sister - Cathy.  We had so much fun antique shopping together, most times not even buying, just looking.  We even flew to Dallas to antique there.  We would go the Round Top antique fair twice a year and slosh through the mud to find some great piece of Masonware for Cathy or transferware for me.  We still will rehash the new Veranda or Southern Accents over the telephone or talk about some great new design book.   For fun, we'll go together to someone's new home to admire their antiques and ooh and ah.  In short, Betty Rae and I developed a great closeness centered around our love of French antiques.

Betty Rae's taste has remained impeccable and she can "kill" something with a just a glance.  She will quietly say, "Oh, I don't...know...." and she might as well of have shouted "I hate that with all my might, don't buy it!!!!"   She's my best sounding board and I never make major decisions about decorating my house without talking it over with her first.  When I bought my own armoire, I needed her and Cathy to approve it and say, "buy it" and the decision over which buffet a deux to choose - I left to Betty Rae to tell me which one I should pick.  Her vote of approval, whether it's for a dress or a husband, means the world to me and I would have trouble making a choice she didn't approve of, even though I'm 53 years old now and not a shy teenager any longer. 

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My mom and dad:  This was taken on Betty Rae's birthday a few years ago.

While I still love French antiques and live with them, Betty Rae's tastes have evolved over the years.  She and my father now live with Biedermeier antiques.  Their look is more sophisticated and eclectic these days.  But, whenever she gets lonesome for her old furniture, she doesn't have to travel far.  In fact, much of the furniture from that first apartment that I so admired is now in my own house, slowly accumulated over the years as Betty Rae's furnishings and houses changed.   The french chairs in my living room are from that apartment and so is the french secretary in my entry hall.   Her bakers rack is in my breakfast room along with her antique tole light fixture.  I have her french desk and antique nightstands from her master bedroom.  The armoire?  She sold that to someone else!

I hope that one day my daughter will share my love of antiques and that we might be just like Betty Rae and I are.   I even secretly hope that one day Elisabeth will join me in my interior design business, but she doesn't seem to have a great love of it, like I did at her age.  I was really lucky in my life, to have met Betty Rae who always encouraged me to put my heart into my home and fix it up and I try to instill that in my daughter.   I wonder, sometimes, if I had not met Betty Rae and she wasn't my mother, would I even be into antiques and French design today?  I honestly don't know that answer.   Maybe, but I'm not positive about that.  We talk about how few families out there get along with their stepmothers and stepchildren and we count ourselves so lucky that we aren't like that.  Not only do we get along, we are all the best of friends.

And so, today, Betty Rae, even though you are sick with a "full fledged" cold, happy birthday and thank you!  I love you!

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Betty Rae, Happy Birthday!