Ask the Experts

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Home decor advice from women who have been there, done that

Usually, we at New Orleans Living go to one or two great sources to bring readers tips for decorating, design, home and garden. This month it so happened that I found myself sitting among a group of gals, each pros in their fields, who had renovated, redecorated and renewed their environments several times over in the last decade.

The group, called the Pic Chicks, are all former staffers of The Times-Picayune who held positions of serious status: former fashion editor Chris Bynum, lifestyle editors Bettye Anding and Mary Lou Atkinson, travel editor Millie Ball, Sharon Litwin, Lily Jackson, Susan Finch, photographer Kathy Anderson and more. These are gals who have been there, done that, reported on it and, heaven knows, have great taste. Among them, they have lived in every part of the city, from the Marigny to the Lakefront, from Uptown to Downtown, from Mid-City to the Quarter. In fact, our hostess Renee Peck has lived in all those places! One is a part-time plantation owner, another has seen her home burn down and more than a few have had major to minor damage due to Katrina/Rita/the levees breaking.

Having upsized, downsized, converted and reverted, I asked if they’d share a tip or two with us.

Renee Peck, whose renovations, Road Home tussles and contracting mayhem were well chronicled in the Picayune, simply said: “Learn to be flexible. Tastes change. Houses change. Needs change. It’s the people in your home and how you want to use your home that are important. Those things may change, too. What serves you best? A guest room is nice, but if you don’t have a lot of houseguests but need a home office, turn the extra bedroom into an office.”

Chris Bynum, whose beat covered fashion in places like Milan, Paris and New York, has rubbed elbows with trendsetters the world over.

Seeing so much change has made her positively Zen. “I believe in finding one really beautiful thing. Let it be your starting point. It might be a beautifully designed teacup or a hand-blown vase. If it speaks to you, listen. I like simple, classic things, be it a decorative object, a sofa or a carpet.”

Millie Ball’s apartment could look like National Geographic on a caffeine overdose, but it doesn’t. Millie and her husband, Keith, have

been traveling for business and pleasure all their married years. Morocco, France, England, Italy, the Orient, Antarctica, India. How could you not bring home treasures from each? But where would you put them? Millie just downsized to a 900-square-foot apartment, so what to do with that oversize sombrero from Mexico? (Actually, there was no oversize sombrero, because our Millie has more sense!) Instead of collecting myriad souvenirs, Millie says, “A single photograph can capture an entire trip. A print or small object evokes a memory, leads to a story, sets the tone without being too overdone.” I’d kill for one of Millie’s photos from Antarctica.

Lilly Jackson is one of those funny, insightful types whose moves, like her stories, show a real creative streak. “Advice? Make paint your best friend. It’s inexpensive, easy and an instant mood changer.”

Susan Finch, whose writing was more on the hard-news beat, agrees, but says, “Nothing, nothing beats having a really good contractor.” That Susan, so sensible! She got an “amen” from everyone.

Suzanne Stouse’s talent as a wordsmith could turn a ho-hum piece into a great read. She has always been a playwright and a thespian, but she is no diva. “I try to edit things, clothes, stuff. It’s an uphill battle. I’m very sentimental.”

Ah, we are all sentimental in our own ways. We hold on to a special broken lamp because one day we will get it fixed. We have a decorating wish list that changes with the times or the newest issue of House Beautiful or Architectural Digest.

I know who I am and how I operate. And I am mature enough to accept myself. I swing from clinging to old magazines and auction catalogs, many unopened for years, to something akin to a whirling dervish when everything has to go. Then I start offering things to Bridge House, the Vietnam Vets, some niece or nephew furnishing a new apartment or home. For a while, things look
clean, uncluttered and peacefully in place. Then I have to find something and out come the boxes and the mess starts all over again.

Do I have a great decorating tip? Sure. Lots of them.

Here is one that has served me well: When I travel to some place exotic, romantic, rugged or breathtakingly beautiful, I buy textiles, such as scarves, cocktail napkins, bed linens and just lengths of fabric. They get worn, used, made into pillows, cover chairs, drape over tables. They are weightless, mostly handmade and worth far more than their weight in memories. And with one glance, I am transported to Burma, India, Chile or Italy.