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Living with her favorite things Mary Pat Andrea enjoys her surroundings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Finally: Someone in the interior design business whose house doesn't look picture perfect.

Jho has a basket of children's toys sitting in her living room.

Things piled on her kitchen counters.

A sitting room overflowing with clutter.

Someone whose home looks like yours and mine.

Except that Mary Pat Andrea's Victorian town house in Baltimore is beautiful and fresh-looking and enormously appealing, in spite of the fact that it's obviously lived in. That's the difference.

How does she do it, this 45-year-old mother of a 5-year-old and owner of six decorative accessories shops in Baltimore and Wisconsin?

Her answer is simple -- the kind of simplicity that raises more questions than it answers. "Things are the background that you live your life against," she says. "Not the goal. Don't take them too seriously."

This is from someone whose main store, NightGoods in the Gallery, is filled with all sorts of wonderful things: picture frames, linens, pear-shaped candles, throw pillows hand crafted from antique fabric, decorative cherubim, potpourri, nursery furnishings.

Ms. Andrea believes you should be able to live comfortably with everything you have and, most important, use it. She doesn't believe in collecting merely for the sake of collecting (even though she sells plenty of collectibles).

Be brave, she says. Use it. "Your things should be out there on display giving you pleasure. If not, it's time to give them to a friend."

It's all part of what Mary Pat Andrea sees as the trend in interior decorating and, in fact, of life in the '90s.

We've heard ad nauseam that this is the stripped-down decade. Andrea sees the simplifying as a more subtle influence. People still want to be surrounded by beautiful and unusual things; but they want them to be useful, comfortable and easy to take care of. There's less "froufrou-ing," as she puts it. There's more practical color; not so much white-on-white.

"It's all about getting your priorities straight," she says. "It enriches life to have lovely things, but we no longer need layer on layer of them."

The first floor of her town house reflects the change in attitude. Ms. Andrea collects fish: painted wooden fish, plates with fish motifs, prints of fish -- anything with fish on it.

"Five years ago," she says, "It would have been the Haussner's approach. The whole collection would have gone on the walls."

Now, simpler seems better. Her husband and partner in the business, Christopher Swift, loves the outdoors and has a bookcase full of books on nature in the living room.

The couple painted the walls of the high-ceilinged rooms a beautiful celery green with white trim. The furniture is upholstered in creams and neutrals.

It's a wonderful backdrop for decorative accessories with a nature theme. On the walls are a select few fish, fish plates, fish prints. One large nautilus shell has pride of place on the mantel. And brooding over the whole living room is a strikingly realistic (but fake) stuffed head of a gemsbok, a strikingly marked African antelope. The dining and living rooms are contemporary in their spareness, but remain true to the Victorian architecture of the house.

As in her decorating, Ms. Andrea as buyer for her stores has an unusually good eye for trends. The right sort of trends.

"You see the same things over and over again in other shops," says interior designer Catherine Bitter. "Her things are a little bit unusual, but not so trendy that they can't fit into a traditional Baltimore home."

Of course, Ms. Andrea has been lucky as well as good. Trained as a graphic designer, she opened her first retail operation in the early '80s in Kenosha, Wis., where she grew up. It was a cart called Celebrate Wisconsin. (She's also the owner of two other regionally themed shops in Wisconsin with her sister, and of Celebrate Baltimore -- formerly Hometown Girl -- and Hard Crab Market in Harborplace.)

This was the very beginning of the black-and-white cow craze, one of the last decade's hottest trends, so there was plenty of Wisconsin-appropriate merchandise to be had at the wholesale gift markets.

"The Wisconsin cow craze will never die," she says with a laugh.

When she opened NightGoods in 1987, she looked for accessories with a celestial motif (particularly moon and stars) because of the store's name. She got in early on what may be the trendy motif of this decade.

NightGoods was conceived of as a store that focused on the bedroom, both furnishings and specialty linens. Over the years it evolved away from such a narrow niche to become one of the city's most successful decorative accessories and gift shops.

"She's good with trends but homey, too," says interior designer Joy Owens, who has used objects from NightGoods for several show house rooms. "It's the type of shop I'd like to have."

Perhaps even her trendiest accessories work in various settings because of how Mary Pat Andrea chooses them.

"Spotting trends is an introspective experience," she says. "You find things that work on a deep level, or by reading, listening to the culture, noticing how people respond to things."

If that sounds a bit high-falutin' when we're talking about cow motifs and candles, she gives a specific example.

In her family room are five gold vintage letters spelling "trust," probably from an old bank sign, which she found at a stall at an antiques market. They held an immediate and personal appeal for her. She gave the letters to her husband, who arranged them on the mantel.

Since then she's begun to notice what she calls "talisman words" appearing on home furnishings (such as wallpaper borders) and decorative accessories. These are words that resonate, that have some personal or mystical meaning.

Her latest acquisitions for NightGoods include smooth, gray, river stones with words like "peace" and "dream" engraved deeply into them. Expect the stones to sell very well.

Mary Pat's husband says she's a successful buyer because of her vision of herself: What she likes has a strong relationship to what the market wants.

"Right now," Mary Pat Andrea says, " 'keepsake' and 'useful' are shaping what I'm buying."

Forecasting the trends in accessories

* Celestial is blending into mystical themes. Recently it's been combined with more cherubim, seraphs and magic.

* The West Indies are emerging as an important influence, from raffia lamp shades to massive four-poster beds in native woods.

* Saturated color.

* In linens, no dye. Cottons come in wonderful natural colors or tone on tone with a fine "hand."

* Gardening is so important now as a leisure activity that it spills over into fruit motifs, bulbs in museum reproduction vases, all sorts of garden-related accessories.

* Potpourri continues to be very strong.

* Illustrator Mary Engelbreit's designs in home accessories are hot. "What I call new wave country," Ms. Andrea says. "A cozy style with a real graphic sense."

* More plaids, more checks, more checkerboards.

* Christmas ornaments as year-round gifts, like large, deep-red roses of hand-blown glass with glitter on the edges.

OC * Tea cups and tea sets. Symbols of slowing life down a little.

Design solutions from Mary Pat Andrea

* Every problem has a design solution, Ms. Andrea insists. When her marriage was about to break up because there weren't enough places for towel racks in her Victorian house, she put a handsome white hatrack in the master bedroom. With towels hanging on it, it looks like a white palm tree.

* Keep changing things. People tend to leave a room alone once it's done. Decorating should be an evolving process.

* If you have large rooms and not many furnishings, "Gather the wagons in." Group furniture within soft-conversation range.

* Use bright colors in your kids' rooms. All the toys they'll love, all the figures they'll bring home from McDonald's, will be in primary colors. They won't work with pastels.

* To warm up an adult environment introduce whimsical or childlike things, like a keepsake doll.

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