I love when the topic of discussion with my weekly lunch dates serendipitously corresponds with something in the air. Today, I can say without question, I was thrilled that my conversation with Charlotte Moss was the polar opposite of the ugliness that has taken over the news cycle and consumed so many people’s every thought.
Charlotte Moss is all about beauty – seeking it out and creating it in everything from interior design to the dinner table to the backyard garden and, of course, in the pages of her latest lush illustrated book, Charlotte Moss Entertains. Having just returned from France last night, Charlotte sailed into Michael’s at the appointed hour with looking fabulous, pleasantly perfumed (Portrait of a Lady by Frederic Malle) and not a bit jet lagged. “I’m fine! I’ve been up since 3 o’clock this morning,” she told me as we settled in for our chat with Michael McGraw of The McGraw Agency, who arranged for us to meet.
This multi-tasking lifestyle maven is a renowned interior designer, author of ten books and a dedicated philanthropist to a host of causes that a close to her heart. In addition to her 34 year-old interior design firm that caters to a small number of select clients (Michael Bloomberg was one of her first), Charlotte has created a myriad of collections of furniture, carpets, fabric, china and jewelry (more on all this later) while somehow still managing to write and produce gorgeous “coffee table” books every few years. “I’m from a military family. My dad was in the military,” she told me between bites of soft-shell crab when I asked her how she keeps all the balls in the air. “I learned as a child how to manage my time.”
But the secret ingredient to her success is “passion,” said Charlotte. “If you really want to do something, you will. The minute you lose your passion, try something else.” Charlotte’s passion for creating beautiful environments and collecting objects goes back to her childhood in Virginia where she rearranged her mother’s furniture and loved to find ways “to make anything better.” She told me it was her maternal grandmother who introduced her to the idea of creating a welcoming and inspiring home for entertaining. “She had a way of setting a table and arranging family buffets,” said Charlotte. “She had that ‘je ne sais quoi.’ I got that gene.”
There is plenty of evidence of that in Charlotte’s new book that is filled with page after page of beautiful table settings at home, outdoors and in spectacular spaces – all coordinated down to the smallest detail. She took almost all of the photographs in the book explaining to me, “These are photographs of actual lunches, dinners, and parties. How do you have a photographer live with you and get all that?” Still, Charlotte doesn’t consider herself a photographer. “I love being behind the camera. When you’re writing, it’s a pretty solitary activity, but behind the camera it’s you and ‘it’.” Being both writer and photographer of the book, she said, “allowed me to stretch.” Then added, “Intellectually, we all need that push.”
Our far-ranging conversation covered, among other things, the indecipherable design tastes of millennials, the scourge of the selfie stick and the well-earned label of the ‘Ugly American’ rightly bestowed on tourists who show up in fine French restaurants in Europe wearing flip-flops and shorts. “Americans are always the worst dressed,” said Charlotte of her observations she’s made traveling around the world. We can’t say we disagree.
When it comes to “dressing” a house, Charlotte told me there are similarities in her work as interior designers and writing a book. “In both cases, you’re telling a story.” When working with clients, she told me, “Knowing what to ask is important. Sometimes it’s a matter of me getting out design books and putting Post-its on pages. A ‘no’ tells you what not to do.”
I’d venture a guess that’s not a word Charlotte hears often judging by the impeccable, inspiring spaces she created that are featured in the book. All the photographs are of “real meals, real parties and real events (some featuring Charlotte and her friends who are lucky enough to attend her annual “Caftan Caucus”). Gatherings of family and friends are at the heart of the book for a very specific reason. “Now, more than ever, people need to come together,” she said. “Too many kids are eating alone at the kitchen counter. We’re all hither and yon. It’s about having a conversation, checking in with each other and talking about your day.”
Besides the engaging photographs, Charlotte Moss Entertains is a treasure trove of advice and insight the designer has acquired over the years ranging from how to seat your guests to keep the conversation flowing to creating an element of surprise. All the basics are also covered highlighting the finer points of creating a theme, decorations, and menus.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a section in the book devoted to “Entertaining Ladies” where Charlotte pays tribute to many of the style icons whose influences are still felt today including Audrey Hepburn (“She was a great mom who loved to cook!”), Betsy Bloomingdale (“The ultimate hostess”) and, of course, Jacqueline Kennedy. She did the same thing in her New York Times best-seller, Garden Inspirations. “It’s important for me to a have history, not just have [the book] be Charlotte Moss going off.” I don’t know what made me ask, but I had a feeling Charlotte, being such an avid collector of beautiful things, would have bought something at the famous Jackie Kennedy auction years ago. It turns out she had bought a few things at auction that once belonged to the former first lady – but it was at another smaller Sotheby’s auction where she inadvertently stumbled upon a set of watercolors that Jackie had owned as well as her housekeeper’s notebook from her time at White House. It contained the typed menus of White House dinners as well as the guest lists, a vitamin chart, and even handwritten notes written in Jackie’s distinctive loopy script. “There was a note from her saying she wanted these daisy placemats used to serve the children dinner one night because they made her happy,” said Charlotte. “It’s all in the details.”
That’s the name of the last section of the book which is a stunning collage of all the details needed to create the perfect event big or small — placements, tableware, and her signature floral arrangements. We both agreed the much-maligned carnation gets a bad rap. “I love the smell!” she told me.
In her work as an interior designer, she creates “couture” for clients and no detail or job is too small. “We’ve done bookplates, stationery, China, embroidered linens. We’ve been asked to do libraries and monographs on artists.” For such a personalized task, Charlotte has called in a specialist to find the right books and install them.
She has interesting advice for a client once she’s finished designing their living space. “The minute we’re done, we make sure the client has planned a party,” she said. “It breaks in a house.”
Books play an important role in Charlotte’s leisure time. She’s a voracious reader and is never without a title on her nightstand (currently it’s Proust’s Duchess by Caroline Weber). “People ask me, ‘What are you reading?’ and I say don’t ask! I’ve always got a book.”
Her other passion (there’s that word again) is philanthropy. She sits on many different boards including American Corporate Partners, which mentors veterans returning to the workplace. Charlotte just completed a year of mentoring a returning female serviceperson and is set to get a new mentee at the organization’s next meeting. She is a trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and has been working with the Bone Marrow Foundation, which helps families ease the financial burden of treatment, for almost ten years. The work of the Foundation is especially important to Charlotte, who was a donor for her late brother who died of leukemia. “Treatment can be very expensive and there are many people who can’t afford it.”
As we sipped our cappuccino, Charlotte filed me in on her upcoming appearances and projects. She’ll be in Summit, New Jersey, next week for a book signing and reading at A Home. Her calendar for fall is packed with product launches including a jewelry line for P.E. Guerin which will include cuff bracelets, a collection of occasional furniture for Century which debuts in New York in September and a collection for The Ibu Movement, an organization founded by minister-turned-artist Susan Walker whose not-for-profit supports the handmade work of female artisans around the world. “It’s all women. Talk about timely!”
I was exhausted just listening to everything Charlotte is doing and plans to do, but she showed no sign of jetlag after our two-hour lunch. Do you ever just do nothing at all? I asked her. “In my next life I’m coming back as a client so I have more to time read and relax!”
Seen & Heard Around the Room…
Jane Flom at Table One … Wayne Kabak on Two … Joan Jakobson and Mary Murphy onThree … Frank McCourt, former owner of the LA Dodgers on Four .. Andrew Stein on Six … Author Daisy Kahn, whose new book, Born With Wings: The Spiritual Journey of a Modern Muslim Woman, is a must-read and producer Beverly Camhe on Seven … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and Emilia Saint-Amand at his usual perch, Table Eight.
And There’s More…
The New York Post’s media columnist Keith Kelly and Dawn Bridges in Twelve …Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew on Fourteen … Carol Anne Riddell and pals in Sixteen … PR maven Liz Kaplow on Seventeen … Discovery ID’s head honcho Henry Schleiff and attorney Paul Levy on Eighteen … Jack Myers and legendary ad man Martin Puris on Twenty-One … Sara Beth Schrager on Twenty-six … And Kira Semler and Vi Huse enjoying a champagne lunch at the bar.
I’ll be taking an extended ‘Lunch’ break starting next week and won’t be at Michael’s for most of the summer this year. I might pop in for a few special lunches in July, so stay tuned!