Alexandra Stoddard is far more than an interior designer with an eye for color, balance and proportion. What makes this internationally published author stand out from the plethora of expense-is-no-object decorators is her humanity. In her books and in person, she comes off as part contemporary philosopher, part Zen student, part feng shui master and all heart.
Unlike design diva Martha Stewart, who makes many people feel inadequate because they can't possibly live up to her superwoman abilities, Stoddard encourages her readers to be themselves and shows them how to live a wonderful life without spending a lot of money, time or energy.
So how did this impeccably dressed woman who reeks breeding and good taste get so empathetic?
The turning point in her life came at age 16 when her aunt Elizabeth Johns, a pioneer international social worker, took her on a world tour. The tour exposed Stoddard to art and architecture but also to sorrow and suffering.
"It was one of those eureka moments," she said. "I was a bratty blond teen-ager who didn't know where Asia was. I was very insulated. It was an eye opener. It changed my life."
Aunt Elizabeth exposed her to other influences that became an integral part of Stoddard's psyche -- the Eastern philosophy of feng shui, Taoism and Zen as well as the quotes from literature that she sprinkles throughout her speech and books. Stoddard speaks about psychic energy and Ralph Waldo Emerson as much as other designers chat about space, fabric and finials.
"Through all my work I really get to see and feel energy, health and vitality between people and their surroundings and how they interact with each other," she said.
And then there are her Emersonian references.
"Emerson said we should greet people at the highest level. Home should be a place to meditate and contemplate. Feel the dignity of who you are, stand up for your values and express what you do."
But standing up for your values isn't always easy.
In her book "Daring to be Yourself" (Avon Books, $14), she revealed how she once felt inadequate about her home. Stoddard, an apprentice decorator at the prestigious firm of McMillen in New York, gave a dinner party for senior decorators and colleagues. After the party, her assistant commented to one of the bosses on how attractive her apartment was. Then another woman said, "Yes, but Sandie has nothing of quality."
Stoddard admitted it took years to shrug off the comment.
But since then, she's had the courage to build the publishing segment of her career on the same philosophy she used to decorate that inexpensive New York apartment. Stoddard had created a unique environment -- indoor window boxes filled with red geraniums, books, music and a warm fire. The room evoked what she describes as "a general feeling of love and hospitality that had more charm than most rooms filled with 'quality' possessions." And most of all, it reflected who she was.
But at the time, Stoddard said, she felt insecure.
"My grandfather was a Methodist preacher, and my father was an unsuccessful businessman," she said. "We didn't have status or wealth."
These days she has both. She has appeared on the Barbara Walters show, "Oprah" and the "Today" show and is host of HGTV's "Homes Across America." Her clients include stars such as Marsha Mason and Sandy Duncan. The late, great decorators Billy Baldwin and Mark Hampton were her friends.
She has just finished writing her 21st book, "At Home" and her 20th book, "Open Your Eyes: 1,000 Simple Ways to Bring More Beauty Into Your Home and Life Each Day," has just been published by William Morrow.
She and her husband of 24 1/2 years, Peter Megargee Brown, live the dream life of well-heeled New Yorkers. They have an apartment on Park Avenue and have rehabbed a former boardinghouse in Stonington Village, Conn., for their weekend retreat. Brown is the author of five books and a former federal prosecutor. He is also chairman of Alexandra Stoddard Inc. and is at his wife's side during public appearances.
An integral part of Stoddard's philosophy is her love of color. She traces that back to her childhood. When she was 4, she had her own garden. At 5, she organized a garden club in Westport, Conn., and bribed reluctant members with chocolate. Their gardening activities weren't always genteel. One club project was to pick daffodils, tie them with ribbons and sell them back to the woman who owned the lot where they grew.
"I think of myself as the little girl Renoir painted with the watering can," she said.
The one color she can't tolerate is taupe. She compares it to the color of cardboard boxes and worse.
"Any color that you don't see in the rainbow has no energy in it," she says.
No matter what colors or decorations you pick, Stoddard said, it's essential that they reflect your tastes, not someone else's and certainly not the latest fad.
"If you can't be yourself, you will never be at home," she said. "Your house should be a spiritual center or a sanctuary. There should be no other place like it in the world."
THE DETAILS THAT COUNT
One of the things that make Alexandra Stoddard's books extraordinary is her "Grace Notes" -- details to add to the rituals of your life. They include:
* Think about the things you loved to do as a child -- read, paint, sing -- and set aside time to do them.
* Always add a touch of yellow to a room, even if it's just a bowl of lemons. Yellow is the color of sunshine, and it's important to your psyche.
* If you love quilts, as Stoddard does, use them in your decor. Stack them in piles. Hang them over banisters. Hang a favorite quilt on the wall.
* The decoration of your home should never remain static. Change it as you change.
* Don't save your best dishes for once or twice a year. Use your good china and crystal. And use cloth napkins rather than paper.
* Start a color palette box. Line it with white tissue paper and put in it anything you love.
* You don't always have to frame pictures. Sometimes it's nice just to put one on an easel and make a still life out of it.
* Always have something growing in a room, even if it's just a single flower in a water glass.