Sara Ruffin Costello has a strong affinity for interior design and it is that love that has been the central force in her diverse career, from magazine editor, to stylist, to writer, to interior decorator. She began as the assistant to the doyenne of all things home-related, Martha Stewart, became a part of Domino magazine which successfully demystified the sometimes unapproachable shelter magazine world, then decamped from NYC to New Orleans, where her interior design business took off. Here she shares the advice she learned from advertising guru Peter Arnell, her dream interior that comes from a movie and why 10 a.m. could be the ideal cocktail hour (in theory, anyway).
How you personally describe who you are and what you do? I call myself a designer these days, and along with that I write, most recently I wrote a book for Hunt Slonem the artist. I design interiors and clothing, and this is all coming out of the chute of being a magazine editor, being in the shelter industry.
What your career path has been to date? I started at Martha Stewart; that was my very first job. I was obsessed with magazines, and even more so with photo shoots and the process of making a magazine, so that there was no question I was going to New York and I was going to work at one of these places. Immediately I had my dream job. It wasn’t exactly my dream job, but somehow I got a gig with Martha Stewart when she was first starting a magazine. Rather than put me at the magazine they sent me out to Connecticut, to her house, to be her lackey. After two weeks, I remember calling Isolde Motley who was the editor-in-chief at that time and I was like, “Isolde, there’s been a terrible mistake. I’m meant to be at the magazine, not out here in Westport, Connecticut chasing around turkeys, and going to the Stew Leonard’s and picking up Swiss chard for 50.” Isolde said, “I’ve been waiting for your call, it was a test.”
That’s so funny.
It was funny. We had this weird office in the Time-Life building, you know just like your classic weirdo office for magazines, very old school. Then within the year, we moved over to a brand office for Martha Stewart Living Magazine, and it was extraordinary. There were beautiful white flat files filled with dried leaves in one drawer, gold leaves in the next, tulles. The girls on the staff from RISD had made an art and crafts department that would blow your mind. I had a desk in the corner facing these windows, I mean I was 24 and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Really, I thought, “Oh my god, I’m in New York. I’m looking out my window at midtown Manhattan. I’m going on photo shoots.” It was incredible.
Martha was doing something really important at that time with that magazine. It was a great place to be, where you were reinventing how people looked at housekeeping. Again, it was just like that same feeling when I was at Domino, it was visceral, it was like magic, their readership was on fire. Martha was turning into a household name. Everyday I learned how to do something that I didn’t know how to do, such as like peel garlic. Martha taught me everything.
She really did. It wasn’t just learning about magazines, it was learning everything–how to gold leaf an egg, how to put chicken wire on the front of the house. I mean, why would you ever do that? You’d do it for Christmas, of course, to put boxwood in it, to make the front of your house look like a wreath. Every insane thing you could think of we learned how to do. That was the beginning of a long ride in magazines which, probably a lot like your career, vacillated between being freelance … I was freelance stylist for a bit, and then I’d go full time and then I’d go freelance again. I was at Glamour a lot, first under Bonnie Fuller with Donald Robertson, and then Cindy Leive. That was also a really great place to be, Donald was extraordinary. I mean, just all these great mentors, I must say, in my life on the way up who taught me incredible things.
There was a brief stent at Peter Arnell Advertising, and he was also doing extraordinary things. We were going to Paris to the Ritz to do the Chanel account, I mean Paris on the Concorde and staying at the Ritz.
Peter taught me how to be chic, how to deal with the chic-est of the chic. You know, “Don’t go to this meeting with Chanel and try to wear fashion, I want you to wear jeans and white button-down and Chanel flats, that’s the look, and I don’t want you to stop taking notes.” He was just all about the perception, how you present.
Then there were a series of people starting at magazines, and I wound up at Domino. After that closed, then I turned myself into a writer, because I didn’t want to work that hard anymore at a magazine full time, and I’ve always been writing here and there, but then I really did that for the next probably eight years.
All along, throughout this business, I’ve helped people decorate and I’ve done my own places. Once I got to New Orleans in 2012, people just asked me to decorate. It got busy and I had to hire someone, and then someone else. All of the sudden, I had a decorating business by accident.
It’s interesting how life goes, it meanders. I never would’ve expected this.
It’s not a linear path.
No, and also you have to be prepared and flexible. My dad used to say to me, “You don’t want to be selling buggy whips when everyone’s driving automobiles. You’ve got to change with the times.”
Is your design business mostly based in the South, or do you do projects all over? I do projects all over, I’ve done New York and LA, and we have this kind of DIY business, sort of digital mood boards that we send people, so I can talk to someone in Chicago, or wherever, really.
So you create ideas for them? Yes, and then they buy everything. They do their own installation and all that. It’s an easy, fun way to get out of being paralyzed, which so many people are.
That’s such a modern way of thinking about interiors.
It is and it’s fun for me. It reminds me of being a magazine editor, like “this is this story”.
What made you go into designing clothes? Well, that, oh my God, it was a burst of creativity. I found this dress at a vintage yard sale in Montauk, it was a French turn-of-the-century butter churning dress, a linen smock dress, that I bought and wore every day for a year. Then it just started to rip and I thought, “I really need another one of these, it’s so great.” It’s low-cut in the front, it’s got little buttons, it’s weirdly sexy and so comfortable, and you want to do everything in it. I guess ladies used to do everything in these kind of dresses, before pantaloons were accepted. I made one, and then my friend Julia Reed was having a popup shop of her own, and she said, “Just come have a little booth in here. What’s that dress you’re always wearing? Why don’t you make that and sell that?” We did that, and then one thing led to another. That dress did really well, sold like crazy, and people asked for different colors, then we made it in denim and olive, and then a couple other designs ensued. That is just how things start, and I swear to God, if you think about it too much, you would never do anything.
So true. What drew you to New Orleans? What do you love about the South? After being in New York for 20 years I guess, it was just…we’re pretty restless people anyway and we were always moving around in New York from place to place. I think it was just so seductive. We were down here on vacation, and I don’t know that we knew that we were going to move. First of all, I’m from Virginia, so I’ve got roots in the South all over, and the older you get there’s some weird tug back home.
Then we found this paradise here. This place weirdly reminds me of New York in the ’70s, super gritty, it’s dysfunctional, and then there’s all this great old stuff that is disappearing everywhere, of course. For some reason, New Orleans does not let these institutions die, like Galatoires and other old school places, they keep them alive. I’m a nostalgic person, so it appeals to me. And of course, the most important thing of all is a connection to the land. This is definitely a city, we’re living cheek-to-jowl with neighbors, but it’s just brimming with life, with smells and Earth. We have chickens and a garden and peppers; we grow lots of stuff.
What inspires your work and what inspires you? It could be anything–a conversation, a dream, a movie, art, a piece of fabric. I mean, generally speaking it’s when I travel and see something new. As trite as it is, the eye must travel. [A Diana Vreeland quote.] You just have to get up and get on your bike, get on an airplane, go look at something new. Drive through a different neighborhood. Do things a different way. That’s the only way for me.
How would you describe your interior design aesthetic? It changes a lot depending on who the client is and what their needs are. If you’re coming to me, you’re probably looking for something that’s a little bit undone, not decorated, a little Bohemian with an underlying thread of classicism and simplicity. I don’t like it too trendy, just the tiniest bit of trendiness. The favorite aesthetic for me, where I get the most excited is like the look of the villa in “Call Me By Your Name”.
That sort of sensual, undone, it’s been here for a while, nobody’s trying that hard–that’s heaven. I love that, but most clients don’t want their house to look like that, so unfortunately I don’t get to do it too much.
What do you think is the most important aspect of an interior space? What do you prioritize when you’re thinking of a room? I’m still learning what to prioritize, because I was never very good at comfort, I was always drawn to beautiful little chairs and things. For me, it’s always a goal to find a really comfortable armchair, and personally I never put them in my house. I wish I could hire an interior designer to come do it for me.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I read somewhere, and I do it now all the time, if you have something really hard that requires some creativity, do it first thing in the morning. Don’t start answering emails, emails kill creativity because they take you down rabbit holes, go straight to work for four hours uninterrupted.
Best career advice you’ve received, or something you would share to somebody else starting out: Master whatever it is you’re doing. Follow your curiosity, and whether it’s a story you’re writing or a look you’re trying to do for a client, immerse yourself, .
What motivates you? I think probably staying curious, that generally leads me in the right direction.
Three words that describe your work: For my work, I hope there’s a sense of humor. I think it’s “traditional”, I think it’s also “Bohemian” or sort of “laissez-faire”, “imperfect”, “undone”. That’s more than three words, sorry.
Three words that describe you: You know your work is you, so those are the words that describe me too.
Women you identify with/admire: I love Georgia O’Keefe, Charlotte Perriand, Diana Vreeland–when I first moved to New Orleans, I read her quotes every day. For some reason, it reminded me of New York in a great way.
I never feel dressed without … a smudgy eyeliner.
Do you have a favorite brand? I do, I just discovered it, it’s Bumble & Bumble, and it’s actually a hair stick, like to cover your gray roots, but I use it as a smudge under the eye.
Three books that opened up a new world for you: Currently I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver, she’s amazing, I love all of her books. Joan Didion always, and my favorite book of all time, and this is so cheesy, but it is “Gone With the Wind”.
A perfect evening is? At home in bed of course, but if you make me go out, then probably a martini at some great place in New Orleans. Basically, our kitchen is around the corner, it’s called Coquette, and I would love to just sit at the bar and have snacks and a martini, and then maybe go see a show, at The Saenger or something.
A table is never set without? This one’s easy, water. I get so upset when hostesses or hosts don’t put a bottle of Pellegrino or a pitcher of water, so you are just drinking like four times the amount of wine you would normally drink. Why don’t we punctuate with water? Please.
Favorite flower: I love scented geraniums, pansies, roses, ranunculus. I don’t have a favorite.
Handwritten notes or email: Okay, I’m the worst with the handwritten notes, but I got some really cute new stationery so I’m trying it out. I got it from Scriptora, and I really love it. But generally, and this is horrible but I think this is where we are now, I just text people. You know, “I’m so sorry about your father, terrible news, he was a great man. Text me if you need anything.”
Well, it almost seems like if you don’t do that, you’re not responding immediately enough anymore.
Yes, you have to text, and then I think you could send a hand-written follow-up.
Favorite artists: Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, I love both of those guys. Then my husband is a photographer, I love his work, and other photographers like Hirosho Sugimoti, Gregory Crewdson, Tina Barney is one of my all-time favorites. Then I discovered a painter down here during the last prospect, his name is Barkley Hendricks, he just died, he was amazing. Cy Twombly, I would like to receive a Cy Twombly.
Me too. That would be nice.
Five things that make a perfect room: We talked about that comfortable upholstery, so that’s like a cozy chair, preferably with an ottoman or something to kick your legs up on. What is better than a roaring fire? Nothing. A dog. Lighting, layers of lighting, beautiful lighting, that’s four. And a hot guy.
Always on your bedside table: Stacks of books whose first chapters have been read.
Always in your handbag: Lately I’ve have been carrying a book around a lot. I don’t like looking at my phone that much, so I like to pick up a book.
You can tell a lot about a woman by….I think this is such an interesting question, and I wish I had a better answer. The first thing that came to mind is how she’s dressed in the morning.
What time in the morning?
At the time when you would be greeting people. I do think it’s sort of telling. I’m in my yoga pants most of the time, but I have friends who are impeccably dressed. You know what these people’s houses look like, you know how their life is ordered. The people that get dressed, you know what kind of people they are. The people that don’t, you know what kind of people they are, and no value judgments on either, because I love all of them for different reasons.
Do you collect anything? I don’t. I de-acquisition. I have so much stuff coming through the house, and I want it to move right back out.
Travel wish list destination: I’m really intrigued by Istanbul right now, I’m threatening planning a trip.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: We got private yoga lessons, and we take those at our church. We have a church that we work out of, it’s an old church we rehabbed, and doing yoga here is incredible with our private instructor. It is a splurge, and it’s amazing. We used to do it at six a.m., but now we pushed it to 8:30, because 6 got really ambitious.
Favorite small indulgence: Just spacing out for me is bliss, like sitting down and staring at the sky.
Album currently on repeat: This indie band called Wallows that my son Harrison turned me on to.
A scent that brings back memories: Fracas, because Martha Stewart wore it, and you come across it all the time.
Lucky charm: My mother died when I was much younger, so I always have some piece of her jewelry on.
Sunday morning means…pancakes.
Favorite hour of the day: Morning, 10 a.m. It’s all systems go. If I could have a cocktail party at 10 a.m., that would be perfect.
Follow Sara: Instagram.
photographed by Paul Costello