On a recent sunny afternoon, Chris Madden frowned at a sisal carpet in her living room where, the day before, a dog had an "accident." Madden, a syndicated columnist to 400 newspapers, host for eight years of HGTV's Interiors by Design, and decorator for such celebrities as Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey has, of course, styled her rambling house in West-chester County, N.Y., to a fare-thee-well. Yet one of her West Highland terriers, Lola or Winnie, was not showing her mistress the respect she deserves.
A more uptight home design guru -- any name come to mind? -- might have allowed this blot on perfection to ruin her day or, at the very least, put a sharp edge on her mood. Madden, however, simply sighed before dissolving into a merry chuckle. She is petite and trim, but has a slightly husky voice and comic demeanor that her friends compare to Diane Keaton's. Thanks partially to artful blond highlights, she appears a good deal younger than her 56 years.
Cool in a lime green pantsuit and white T-shirt, Madden slipped off her shoe and poked hopefully at the carpet stain with her bare toe. "I'll give it another day to dry before I wash it again. I try to make things nice around here, but my dogs do their best to destroy my decorating," she said, rolling her eyes playfully at the injustice of it all. "You see? I'm just like my customers at J.C. Penney. I'm really a very normal person."
Perhaps. Though normal people -- whatever that means -- do not have brilliant blue sprays of fake hydrangea set in all their window boxes, left over from a House Beautiful photo shoot (the magazine's July issue features Madden). While checking e-mails, an average Josephine doesn't explain that she started using a Blackberry at the suggestion of a dear friend, author Toni Morrison. And, above all, not just anyone could, in nine months, mastermind the design of 675 separate items -- including carpets, lamps and furniture -- which together were launched this month as the Chris Madden Home Collection at J.C. Penney's nearly 1,100 stores nationwide.
Given all that she's accomplished in her 20-plus years as an interior design expert, Madden is far from normal, and probably should be even a little intimidating. Those who know her best, however, insist she's anything but.
"Truly great people are always simple. The thing about Chris is that she is so smart, she doesn't have to act smart," said Lynn Von Kersteing, who owns The Ivy Restaurant and Indigo Seas, a home decor shop, in Los Angeles. "She is so full of fun, her wit and grace just shine forth. Unlike many decorators, she gives a true picture of what life can be."
"When we met, I didn't know anything about decorating, but knowing Chris made me learn," said Nancy Palmer, a writer in Washington, D.C. "She has a way of offering advice that isn't threatening or at all scary."
It is Madden's accessibility, in fact, that made her most attractive to J.C. Penney, said Charles Chinni, the company's executive vice president of merchandising. When Penney's decided to associate its $1.4 billion-a-year private label business with a celebrity, Chinni interviewed scores of household names, and was approached by even more.
"What set Chris apart is that she really lives the life she professes; her personality is completely sincere," Chinni said. "As the country gets to know her more, her warmth will come through more. It's there. You can't stop it."
Birth of a decorator
As Madden points out, her background is quite similar to Martha Stewart's -- to whom she is often compared -- in that both came from large families and grew up in the suburbs of New York. Born in Rockville Centre, Long Island, Annchristine Casson was the second oldest of nine children, and the first of four girls. She shortened her name to Chris at age 7. "Just a little bossy," she said, with a chuckle.
Though such a brood was obviously a handful, Ann Marie Casson, her mother, found time to wallpaper, paint, sew clothes for her children, and cut all their hair, in addition to cooking and cleaning. That there wasn't a lot of extra money in the house was, for Madden, a source of creativity. "It forced me to look around and use the gifts I had," she explained. Learning to sew from her mother, she first made simple outfits for her dolls, but by age 11 was able to tailor a fully-lined overcoat.
Her father, Edward Casson, was a salesman for the Mohawk Brush Co., and Madden recalls the pleasure she felt as a child looking at the brushes' satin wood handles, carved into serpentine shapes. She also liked to visit her father's office in Manhattan, where he'd clear a desk, and allow young Chris to pretend she was running the show. Casson was a poet, deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement.
"My dad proved that one could be a businessperson and creative, too. One didn't preclude the other," Madden said. "He also showed me that to change the world, you can't just stand apart and say, 'I hate that. That's not fair.' You have to get inside to effect change."
Her blond, blue-eyed appearance nearly defined what was considered the all-American girl in the 1950s, so she (also like Stewart) began to model at an early age, starting with an appearance in Mademoiselle when she was six, and moving on to print ads and catalog work.
Some of her earliest memories are of lobbying her parents for the right to design her own bedroom. In one incarnation, it was purple and turquoise; then, it was black, white and red. "I had to have things a certain way," she remembers. "I said to my mother, 'I don't want red pillows, I need them.'"
Even as a youngster, Madden didn't hesitate to broadcast her aesthetic opinions. When her father gave her a small printing press, she began to write and publish an occasional newspaper, which she claims had "a fashion and design page, and neighborhood news."
"We grew up in a modest Irish Catholic home. We weren't poor, but we certainly weren't rich," said Jeanne Viadero-Dupont, Madden's youngest sister. "To me, Chris was always an example that inspired, not alienated. She showed me that there was a bigger world out there. It was a little mysterious, though. It's like there was an aura around her."
Madden's family weren't the only ones to see her glow. At St. Agnes High School, Madden was considered such a gifted communicator that her compositions were read in all classrooms to provide inspiration for other students. She designed greeting cards, complete with logos drawn on their backs, and gave them to her pals. No sooner did she get her driver's license than Madden began ferrying her girlfriends on educational tours of Long Island's more affluent neighborhoods.
"We'd stare at all these houses, and Chris would comment on the landscaping, the architecture, about what was beautiful and why," recalls Liz Morris, one of Madden's classmates. "It was a talent that seemed somehow innate. The way she taught then, and teaches now, seems nothing more than her wanting to share something she's excited about."
Morris also remembers that Chris could spy an outfit in Seventeen magazine on Thursday, say, a pair of corduroy culottes, and be wearing "a cuter version," one that she'd designed and sewn, to a football game on Saturday. Upon graduating from St. Agnes, Madden was awarded a full scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
Three credits short of fulfilling her requirements at F.I.T., Madden dropped out when she was offered a job as a "Gal Friday" in the photo department at Sports Illustrated. In the three and a half years she worked here, she got her first Nikon camera, experimented with lighting techniques and studied what made a great picture. "I really took to it," she said. "I learned everything there."
She also met her husband, Kevin Madden, then an advertising salesman for Time Magazine (and later a magazine publisher). He played on the Time-Life baseball team in a game that Chris attended. They were married in 1974, and now have two sons, Patrick, 24, and Nick, 19.
Madden did stints at several major book publishing houses -- Random House, G. P. Putnam & Sons and Farrar, Straus & Giroux (where she was director of publicity) -- before she returned to her youthful love of writing and design, and began to produce books of her own. Eventually, she would produce 16, including A Room of Her Own: Women's Personal Spaces (Clarkson Potter, $35), for which she researched the private sanctuaries of 40 American women to discover how they replenished themselves.
"Women need to carve out time and space for personal renewal," she said. "I tell women, even if they can only have a sliver of one room, it will act as a visual reminder, a 'kicker,' and they will go there."
The book touched a nerve with American women and became a best-seller that's now in its 11th printing. Madden herself, however, says she didn't fully understand the implications of her writing, until she suffered a nearly fatal accident shortly after Room was published.
"I was talking the talk," she said, "but not walking the walk."
After the fall
All this changed after a vacation in Colorado Springs that Madden took in July of 1998 with Kevin, and their son, Nick. She'd convinced the men that, no, they didn't want to go golfing, but would much prefer to join her on a rafting trip on the Arkansas River. Led by under-qualified guides, the Maddens' raft flipped over in white water. Though her husband and son managed to swim free, Madden was trapped underneath as the raft shot downriver. All she could see was a "dark, swirling cloud." Madden to this day has no memory of how she finally got out from under the raft.
She says, though, that she emerged from the water with a new perspective on life. "I was doing incredible stuff. Decorating for Toni, Katie and Oprah was a delight. But, I needed to follow my own vision, and not do what others were impressed by."
Madden still wears a neck brace at night, and practices yoga every morning to counteract the long-term effects of her mishap. Even so, she calls the accident "an incredible gift," because it led to sharing her design philosophy with an even wider audience. "I want to take the judgment out of decorating," she said. "It's not about impressing the neighbors, but turning your home into a place where kids, friends, family can all come and relax."
This credo is now taken a step further in Madden's latest book, Haven: Finding the Key to Your Personal Decorating Style (Clarkson Potter, $29.95), which was timed to coincide with her launch of product at J.C. Penney.
"People have gone from cocooning to 'hiving,' " said Chinni. "They are sharing their homes with friends, entertaining at home more, and they want their rooms to present their personality and lifestyle."
So strongly does J.C. Penney believe in Madden's viewpoint, that it's given her what Chinni claims is the largest launch of home products by a single designer in American retail history. "We couldn't do it piecemeal, and just put out a towel, a sheet or a bed cover," he said.
At work and at home
Because her home collection for Penney will appear twice a year, in spring and fall, Madden recently expanded her staff to 11 people and, in early April, moved into new offices in Port Chester, N.Y., in what was once a Fruit of the Loom underwear factory.
It's an airy suite of offices, where walls are covered with cork and hold hundreds of Polaroids, drawings, sketches and swatches to provide inspiration for future products. In a day of design meetings, Madden speaks authoritatively about such diverse influences as Spode transfer wear plates, vintage Porthault pillow cases, and costumes that Leon Bakst designed for the Ballet Russes. Not to mention Ikat fabric, kilims, paisleys, toile, men's suiting and mattress ticking. Madden admits to being "a little crazy" about textiles.
"Some of the things I love, I've loved for 20 years. I seem to always come back to chocolate, beige and cream."
This is obviously true at her home, a carriage house with a quarry stone facade and slate roof built in 1910, and set on 3 1/2 acres about an hour's drive from Manhattan. After years of decorating for others, Madden is thoroughly enjoying feathering her own nest. Placed throughout the cozy rooms are several pieces of furniture she made for J.C. Penney, though as she points out each, Madden brags about their low prices, not their excellent design.
"Affordability, durability and style," she said. "It's my holy trinity."
Madden's house is very lovely, but nicer still, it's not antiseptically perfect. There's some funky tile in a downstairs bathroom that she's "getting around to." Son Nick's bedroom looks like it was hit by a tornado. Old is mixed with new, gems with junk, the fancy with the fanciful. Madden has a dazzling collection of dinnerware, including a delicate set of Mottahedeh plates, yet alongside the swimming pool there's a $300 sun pavilion from Costco.
"Actually, it blew over not too long ago," Madden cheerfully reports.
For all their similarities, it's difficult to imagine Martha Stewart so matter-of-factly admitting to such a domestic disturbance.
"But that's the greatness of Chris," concludes her friend, Lynn Von Kersteing. "She is comfortable in her own skin, so she has nothing to hide. Rooms that she's done look like they were decorated by life."
Occupation:Decorator, designer, author
Birth name: Annchristine Casson
Education: Fashion Institute of Technology
Family: Husband Kevin Madden, sons Patrick, Nick