A DESIGNER'S INTERIOR MOTIF Mixing the old with the new is John Saladino's signature


The hallmarks of the style of John Saladino are his impeccable taste and the timelessness of the interiors and furnishings he designs, characterized by classical roots such as Greek or Roman columns, architectural fragments, wall moldings and what he calls "metamorphic" color.

"I don't like explicit color," says Mr. Saladino. "I like color that changes according to the seasons, light and the time of day."

A preference for shades of amethyst, gracefully skirted chairs, mismatched chairs, diaphanous fabric veiling windows, texture contrasts, corroded surfaces, opulently scaled accessories, a mix of antiques with contemporary furniture of human scale and, above all, elegance, suggest the Saladino signature.

Done well, one of his rooms might bear a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But he says that good design and style don't have to cost a fortune.

A meticulous design practitioner, Mr. Saladino has been known to match a client's skin with the paint shade that will grace her walls. He admits he indulges in a little fantasy. "Most interior designers and architects are dealing in reality," he has said. "I am not. I'm interested in mood and theater. Houses should cater to our emotional needs. If you walk into a room and it doesn't move you, then it's a failure."

A pre-eminent presence in the creme de la creme of design publications, Mr. Saladino has a well-documented credo. He has always been a proponent of simple silhouettes and has paid scrupulous attention to detail and craftsmanship. He considers himself conservative, although his furniture has always been tagged "modernistic." In fact, he once described a furniture collection that he created as having "one foot in the ancient world and the other in the 21st century."

Some classical designs, he insists, can't be improved. So why try? He is, above all, respectful of the past and more than a little "proper." "My furniture is meant to appeal to ladies and gentlemen," he said of a 60-piece line that he recently designed for Jack Lenor Larsen.

Mr. Saladino's international clientele includes the rich and the celebrated. He is most excited about a Harvard project, awaiting funding, which will take him to Florence to restore the villa of the late art historian Bernard Berenson.

Mr. Saladino's point of view is highly respected, and he is the frequent recipient of design honors. He takes design seriously, both as historian and critic, often uttering pithy, caustic and always entertaining put-downs of what he regards as design atrocities.

For example, he told a writer for Mirabella magazine that he parted ways with a client because she insisted that a huge crystal be imposed on his design. "She came around with this meteor," he said. "It was the size of three basketballs, like a giant hideous cantaloupe that had been broken open and filled with glass stalactites. She wanted to put that in the entrance hall and she wanted it underlit."

Such candor, he admits, intimi dates prospective clients, whom he assures, "I don't bite the first two or three times."

The trend-savvy Metropolitan Home has cited Mr. Saladino as one of "100 people, objects and ideas that have shaped our lives and have transformed our world at the beginning of the 21st century."

"I've always said, I'm a romantic by birth, a classicist by choice and an intellectual by default," he says.

Mr. Saladino achieved recognition early in his career. In the late '60s, within a year of starting his own design practice, he was discovered by House & Garden (now called HG.) His own bachelor pad caught their eye. "I did the entire apartment on the diagonal," he said. "That doesn't mean a lot to people today, but nothing was done that way in 1969. A lot of architects responded to it. And that's when I initiated the idea that the interior is a walking still life."

A native of Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Saladino grew up and went to prep school there. He got his bachelor of fine arts degree from Notre Dame and, years later, a master's from the Yale school of art and architecture.

A chance meeting at his brother's college at the University of Virginia profoundly affected the course of Mr. Saladino's career. There he met an architect from Rome, who invited him to spend a year in his office there. "My yearlong experience in the Eternal City changed two things about me forever: my sense of scale and my respect for the past, specifically, my love of corrosion."

The agelessness that distinguishes Mr. Saladino's work is to him the definition of a design classic. "Classical means non-trendy and ultimately as neutral as possible. It doesn't impose on people. They impose on it. I like furniture connected to history," he has said. "So much furniture today is trendy, very thin and shallow. It comes and goes."

This philosophy inspired his furniture design of "very simple silhouettes out of geometric forms -- a rectangle, a square, a drum and a triangle, the basis of classicism."

"My metal tables are drums or circles, sort of streamlined versions of what might have been a natural progression had Pompeii continued to exist. The sofas [which are uphol

stered in Jack Lenor Larsen textiles] are very simple, with tuxedo arms. There are several chairs that work for dining or conference rooms, such as the Villa Chair, which is skirted to the floor, concealing casters.

"There's a wonderful new glass-topped demi-lune [half-moon] console with one leg. There's a desk, with three proper drawers, so you can put a telephone directory in it. It may function as a dining table for those who live in small apartments. My biggest coffee table is two-tiered, to give you extra storage for magazines. The top is glass, the lower shelf wood."

He prides himself on practicality as well as looks. "I like to think the bottom line is that the furniture is as elegant as I can make it and very, very comfortable. If it weren't comfortable, I wouldn't want it on the floor."

Even in his own Manhattan apartment, in a living room that is three stories tall, he managed to cozy up its ballroom size. He did it by creating three groupings, one featuring a 17-foot-long refectory table, another a grand piano and the third a seating group dominated by overscaled upholstered pieces with 4-foot-tall backs.

Mr. Saladino's bedroom juxtaposes antiques (a pair of 18th century European chaises and a Queen Anne chair) with contemporary furnishings (such as an updated sleigh bed). The walls are lacquered in mauve, like a fine piece of Oriental furniture. With the fireplace and Tibetan rug underfoot, the space seems like a sitting room.

He is fond of what he calls the "modern ruin." He took great pains to get the walls to look like they've been around since the Renaissance. He covered them with scratch-coat plaster that he mixed with instant coffee, and turned on the radiators full blast so the walls would dry unevenly.

Mr. Saladino is a master at restoration, the epitome of which is a West Coast villa inspired by a 16th century counterpart in Rome. It was a job Mr. Saladino especially loved -- he himself had wanted to purchase the villa. In the soul of the house, the atrium, Mr. Saladino replaced the original corkscrew columns with simpler Tuscan versions and added a beautiful russet marble floor. It's entirely furnished in upholstered pieces of his design. 00 The master bathroom makes as much of a statement as any other room: It has a chandelier and a fireplace.

It's no accident that his interiors are neither overwrought nor hard-edged. He never succumbed to the excesses of the '80s, which overdressed interiors. This overindulgence already is disappearing, largely because of the economy as well as an unstable world.

"The sort of space-technology excitement of the '70s, which manifested itself in a lot of chrome tables and hard-edged furniture, gave way in the Reagan years to a lot more traditional attitudes. But the traditionalism of the '80s was gift-wrapped with a lot of costly exuberance. That is being pared down in the '90s.

"The whole slavish interpretation of the English country house is pretty much passe now. I think people will start to look for things I might describe as more American, like the kind of lean traditionalism of Thomas Jefferson. If we're going to look to the past at all, that would be the source for inspiration -- not the exuberance of the French court or the 19th century dandified English."

Mr. Saladino still acknowledges a certain nostalgia in design. "The more technologically advanced we become, the more people . . . look to the past for comfort, to remind them of a simpler way of living. That will continue. I don't see people living in Mies van der Rohe glass boxes in the future. If they live in Mies buildings, they'll probably put in crown moldings and Oriental rugs."

Actually, the simpler design to which Mr. Saladino refers is a kind of editing that he does in his interiors. "Timelessness," he says, "has to do with a minimum of means, a paring down of something. It's sort of like good tennis. Why do in 12 strokes what you can do in one? Materials and logic create the shape of something. Fuunction is enhanced by common sense. The key is what we leave out, not put in. I don't gild the lily; I simplify. If anything, I keep space underfurnished."

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