Interview: Mimmi O'Connell

A few weeks ago, I wrote (see here) about a favorite designer of mine, Mimmi O'Connell. Working out of England, she has a very distinct decorating style whose appeal transcends across the globe. Her "look" consists of the use of casual fabrics such as mattress ticking, lots of black iron furniture, accents of Oriental antiques, visual symmetry, a strong contrast between light and dark, and a sense of sophistication that comes from the unusual rather than the expected. She is a master at using texture in her designs. Her accessorizing plays an important part: sparse, large pieces are spotlighted. She has a penchant for four poster beds piled high with down pillows and snow white sheets of expensive high thread count. Mimmi was a pioneer of what is called fusion design - eastern and western combined, antique furniture mixed with bamboo blinds, seagrass matting used with fine blue and white porcelains. She fueled her designs with Oriental imports she bought for her famous store: Port of Call. That name, alone, conjures up visions of red lacquered boxes, baskets large enough to use as coffee tables, iron lanterns burning spiced candles, and bamboo furniture placed in a living room instead of a garden room. That's Mimmi.

When I wanted to write about Ms. O'Connell, I had trouble finding images or even information online. I finally stumbled onto her web site by going on Google, not the google-based AOL search. Thrilled to find her web site filled with pictures of her work, I posted a story about her which enlisted a large commentary from readers who had never heard of her work, but who knew her look and loved it. The response was overwhelmingly positive. So, imagine how thrilled I was to hear from Ms. O'Connell herself! She was gracious and full of thanks for the mention. She agreed to an interview and even sent me a list of what is vital to her designs. Also, she offered up the web site for her Italian home, which is available for rent. What better way to spend a vacation than in a home designed by the incomparable Mimmi O'Connell. All photos here are of her Tuscan villa, formerly a schoolhouse totally renovated by Ms. O'Connell.

A guest room in Italy: the ticking, the iron bed, the oriental chairs, the symmetry, the contrast: Mimmi!

1. Ms. O'Connell - tell us something about your background - where you were born, where you grew up, where you went to school?

I was born in Torino, Italy, grew up in Switzerland and Buenos Aires (Argentina) and I hold a Swiss passport. I went to Geneva University reading Political Sciences. I took Art courses at Sorbonne University in Paris (France), Perugia (Italy) and Sotheby's in London.

2. How did you get started in the design business?

To make my Bank Manager happy! - I was always short of money. I showed a certain talent doing up my houses and people used to say: you should do this professionally and get paid! I've always been very disciplined, blessed with extraordinary energy and loved, loved dearly what became my profession! Designing houses is not puffing up cushions!! You have to visualize finished rooms, be patient with workers and clients and keep in mind that you are a service, not a star. Humility and a sense of humor have helped a lot along these years!! I looked at houses, palaces, cathedrals, farms all my life, wherever I've been visiting. Places have inspired me and traveling has helped a lot.

3. Who are those in the business that inspired you early in your career?

Pauline Rothschild, the American wife of Philip Rothschild, had the best taste I can remember. All the grand houses in England and Ireland with fabulous furniture, never pompous and then the Far East: China with the purity of the Ming style, the beginning of minimalism. Always Bali, from the magic of the island 30 years ago with the perfection of their bamboo houses to the sophistication and today's grandeur of the Aman Resorts: the huge hall of the Amanusa with scented baskets of tuberose flowers and the impeccable, exquisite style of the Amankila, the best hotel on a beach I have ever seen.

4. Tell us about your company Port of Call! What gave you the idea to import oriental furniture? What were the obstacles, what were the successes?

I lived and worked in Hong Kong in the '90s for 2 years and, when I came back to London, I started Port of Call. (note: the company Port of Call was started in 1975, the gallery opened in 1994) That was the beginning. The shop was pretty, different and people liked it. I did not realize I was starting a serious trend!! Port of Call has been a very successful shop and a very successful company, sophisticated, yet simple and the eclectic mixture of furniture did and does work very well! There have been no obstacles, just a lot of people copying, taking and making my ideas more commercial along these years. I sold Port of Call gallery and company in 2006. I go on working as a Design Consultant and I am very busy.

5. You have such a wonderful and defined design sensibility. Your choices of fabrics, your use of antiques and iron furniture, the oriental accents --- did you always favor interiors with these elements?

I always loved fabrics, textures and red color. There are a hundred shades of white and a hundred shades of red to choose from if you want to be difficult. Gray and black are divine only when their quality is perfect. I love velvet silks and Fortuny fabrics from Venice, French silks from Lyon, marvelous embroidered Ottoman textiles, Irish linen. I am, sometimes, extravagant in the lining. I want the inside as chic and precious as the cover. That is why I use the striped cottons a lot. I never, never use lining as such. Iron furniture taste comes from my childhood in the Italian countryside. We always slept in fabulous iron beds. I love them, you can dress them up or leave just the frames. They are chic to die for!!

6. What do you think of the younger generation turning to mid century modern design and retro?

A lot of people are turning to mid century design, but it is not my idea of simple luxury!! There is an incredible freedom of choices in today's design.

7. After great success in Europe and England, do you care about conquering America too?

I always loved U.S.A.! How can you not be overwhelmed by the mineral beauty of New York, by the real perfect deco of South Beach in Miami?, by the chic of your flag?! I loved New Orleans as it was. Your south is divine and you all marvelous people! Of course I would love to work in America!

8. And lastly, what do you see in the future for you and your interior design business?

To be a Consultant to some super projects bringing new ideas and a different soul wherever is requested.

The beautiful, fun loving and energetic designer.

"The World According To Mimmi"

My work is evolving toward a mood “less is more” that is not minimalism but a need for order. I like rhythm in homes and disciplined elegance. Rooms where there is a subtle fragrance of rare sophistication and the arrangements of furnishing is so good to look really casual. I design with the full eclecticism of Oriental, European 18th and 19th century and contemporary furniture in mind, complemented by marvellous soft furnishing.
Mimmi's details:
  • Fireplaces wherever possible with logs in large country baskets.
  • Pure and dramatic benches in precious woods from Northern China to sit on.
  • Candles, candles, candles at night mysterious and sensuous lighting!
  • Oversized tables somewhere full of books or clean, as sculptures.
  • I like bedrooms, with impeccably crisp white linen. Lots of pillows piled up and no bedspreads. They can look sober and innocent! I will always fit double beds in small guest bedrooms. They are comfortable, even when there is little space left for anything else.
  • I like wonderful, simple curtains with tape borders, bias borders, unlined or the most extravagant, rich, voluptuous layers, always spectacular! I like them flirting with light and shadows. Curtains have become a signature in a lot of places I have decorated.
  • Books in large oversized bookshelves along walls.
  • Kitchens that are kitchens, not metallic displays, where it is wonderful to cook and eat casually. Meals should always be a sensuous and fun occasion to gather friends sharing the pleasure of food.
  • Outdoor furniture used indoors: folding old garden chairs that make serious furniture looking bearable and less pompous. Wonderful Javanese teak tables and chairs. They all look good indoors.
  • Flowers: only one colour and really tight together: all red, all purple, all white, all yellow!
  • Fabrics: from crisp linen and cottons to the most extravagant silks from Claremont in London. I buy textiles wherever I travel: batiks in Java, old silks in Bangkok, silk velvets in Venice and in Como, old precious textiles at London specialised fairs. The romance with fabrics and textures has been a long faithful affair throughout my life!

Upholstered twin beds in Italy. Chairs serve as night tables to hold piles of books that Mimmi loves.

The villa in Tuscany with its comfortable and inviting living room filled Mimmi's favorite books, and a basket filled with wood awaiting a fire.

A departure from the iron bed: bamboo. Black and white ticking.

Orange and black guest room in Italy. Mimmi's candles are an important element to her.

The great hall filled with tuberoses at the Bali Hotel: Amanusa. One of Mimmi's favorites.

Mimmi's favorite beach resort: In Bali, the Amankila

Entrance to the bedroom suites at the Amankila.

A Collecting Couple

Recently, my sister and her husband moved from a high-rise condo back to a ground level townhouse. They decided they are just too young to live in a high-rise building and they longed for the advantages of a garage, a garden, a neighborhood. Plus, my brother-in-law really missed b-b-qing outside! I was there the other day helping them hang all their paintings. They're pretty settled after just one week, except for the rugs, which had to be cut down to fit the new floor plan. Both of them are die hard collectors - just of very different things. My sister likes to collect antiques, French and English. My brother-in-law likes to collect - well, I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves!

My sister and I collect many of the same things, but for some reason, her collections are much better than mine! For instance, I'm very envious of her masonware collection - her pieces are more varied and unique than mine and I love going over to her house to examine her masonware. Since we collect the same things, we've often gone out on the search together, which is great fun. When we were first starting out collecting, we would go to the Round Top Antique Fair twice a year to buy new pieces. On birthdays, we try to gift each other a new piece, if we can find something affordable. Now we both collect on Ebay occasionally, but you have to be very careful. I've been burned a few times when a reproduction was sold to me as an antique. Over the years, we've seen our collections increase in value. For example, a transferware plate used to cost us around $50 or $60, but now we are lucky to find one under $100. Antiques are a great investment, as long as you can find a buyer.

Regarding the interior design of the townhouse, originally my sister hired designer Billy Francis who worked with them on their previous home. Francis, who passed away recently, was a well known Houston designer who eventually moved to NYC to live, though he retained business ties in Texas. He used a color scheme of rusts and blues in various shades. The mark of great design, her upholstery all coordinated throughout the home, allowing them the flexibility to move furniture from one room to another, as needed in the new townhouse. Below are a few pictures of their new townhome with an emphasis on their collections. Enjoy!!

As you enter the townhouse, you get your first glimpse of her wonderful Masonware collection. Here are three jugs in the same pattern and a platter of a different pattern.

The living room with its fabulous antique french screen. We found this at the Mews in Dallas when we were antiquing there many years ago.

One of my favorite pieces of my sister's: an antique French bonnetiere. Here her English pewter collection is on display. Some of these pieces are over two hundred years old.

On the side table next to the sofa, is a collection of mauchlineware boxes - small boxes from Scotland made of wood from plane trees.

Also in the living room, another French antique piece holding her collection of blue and white spongeware - notice the jugs up on top of the buffet.

Going down the center of her Rose Tarlow dining room table are more Masonware jugs - all of various sizes. At dinner parties, she puts matching flower arrangements in each jug.

Against one wall are two buffets holding her magnificant collection of Masonware - ironstone made in England in the Mason factory. Most pieces are from the 19th century.

A close up of my favorite Masonware pattern: yellow scale.

Under a collection of botanicals, more Masonware - Bandana pattern jug in a bowl and large platter.

In the family room, another French buffet displays two collections: blue and white transferware and yellowware.

A closeup of her superb blue and white transferware. Her yellowware isn't too shabby either!

On the shelves, a small sampling of her collection of antique biscuit tins.

In the family room, another biscuit tin rests on her coffee table.

The master bedroom features beautiful Manuel Canovas material. The bed rests under a collection of antique furniture prints.

Master bedroom: A close up of her antique French desk.

Close up of the master bedroom.

Pair of antique French beds in the guest room.

My brother-in-law's office filled with sports memorabilia.

The star of the memorabilia: bobble head dolls from college football teams and favorite baseball teams of his youth. Totally organized in a system only he truly understands, this collection of dolls is priceless. These dolls are original, made of papier mache - not the cheap plastic or wood dolls sold today. Many of these dolls, if not all, are extremely rare - this collection took quite a determination to finish and it still is not complete. He's lacking a few bobble heads that he wants. Despite that, the breadth of this collection is phenomenal. It's a unique collection - few in the country have anything close to rival this.

Close up of the bobble heads - this shelf features baseball teams. Don't they have the cutest expression?

The personality of his collection: on the left, the University of Texas football team. On the right, the University of Oklahoma football team. In between, the symbol of the famous OU-UT rivalry: Big Tex from the Dallas Fairgrounds where the game is played each year.

Hill Country House

I want to welcome a new blogger to the design blogosphere: Hill Country House. She's a native Texan, born in Dallas, but now living in Fredericksburg with her husband and children. Fredericksburg is a great town - small, atmospheric, and home to Carol Bolton's famous Homestead. Bus loads and car loads of antiquers flood the town on the weekends and during the summer. It's become a hub of unique bed and breakfast places which have enjoyed volumes of national press these past ten years or so. If you've never visited the Texas Hill Country and especially, Fredericksburg, it is well worth a trip.

There is tons to blog about from Fredericksburg, and Hill Country House is starting out writing about her gorgeous "house" - a term I use loosely. It's a large home, on over 20 acres of beautiful countryside. It's actually more of a resort than a home. It's fabulous! She is taking her readers on a tour of her house, room by room, and I suggest you take the tour if you are at all interested in seeing how other people live. And it's quite a life she's living over at Hill Country House!

In order of fair disclosure, I admit Hill Country House and I are more than blogger friends. Once, a long time ago we were married to brothers. Alas, no more. Imagine my surprise when one day, I received a tentative email from a reader of mine - "could you be, is it possible, but is the Ben Webb you are writing about THE Ben Webb I was once a sister-in-law to?" Of course he is! One and the same - a flurry of emails were exchanged late into the night. Our wrists were sore from emailing each other so much! And oh, so much lamenting that we are no longer related because we share so many interests!!!! So, it is with great pride and much happiness that I introduce you to my former sister-in-law: Hill Country House - enjoy!

Hill Country House, built of Texas limestone and long leaf pine, the home is evocative of the houses that Germans who settled in the Texas Hill Country built and added to over the generations. The limestone, the tin roof, the deep porches are all elements that Hill Country House shares with older, German homesteads.

David Easton and his Balderbrae

Years and years ago, when I still formulating my design aesthetic, I stumbled across a magazine article that featured Balderbrae, the summer home of David Easton and his partner, artist James Steinmeyer. The home was large, but consisted of just a few rooms - a living and dining room, master bedroom, and a study, along with two large porches or loggias. This house, a study in symmetry appealed to me on every level: the studied, cluttered look similar to English country estates, the copious use of antiques, mostly rustic rather than signed, formal pieces, the casual linen fabrics, french windows lending the house to indoor-outdoor living, the beautiful fireplaces, terra cotta pavers, lighted sconces and pedastals mounted on walls, blue and white porcelains everywhere, mirrors - in short, the house was everything that I loved - then and now. Over the years, the house was used in advertising campaigns for Lee Jofa, the fabric company where Easton has a popular line. For twenty years, Easton and his partner reworked the property, added gardens, rebuilt the existing stone cottage on the property as a guest house, and built a swimming pool.

Last year, the two decided to move on. They sold the house and the entire contents went into a warehouse. Rather than keep everything there, it was decided to sell the lot at Doyle's auction house last March. A family friend works for Easton and mailed me the gorgeous catalogue. Item after item - there's not a stinker in the bunch. Realistically, I couldn't find much that I wouldn't want for myself - the catalogue is that impressive and desirable. In all, 600 items were auctioned off to a tune of $1,600,000 plus. The original estimate was $773,300 to $1,154,800 - so the duo must be happy with the results. Asked if he was sad about selling 20 years worth of possessions, Easton said he wasn't, he was looking forward to building a new, modular, modern home in Virginia, featuring a two story library. Looking over the entire contents on display at Doyle, he planned to buy back a few items that he said had slipped by him.

Here are pictures from the estate before it was dismanteled. And following, are pictures of the most publicized items that went on sale. Even though these pictures are at least a decade old, Balderbrae still appeals and serves as a design inspiration to me personally and in my business.

The great yellow room at Balderbrae: the symmetry of the room and it's furnishings is apparent despite its cluttered appearance. I love the center table piled high with books - a look I have copied in my own home. The terra cotta pavers, yellow walls, and wood beamed ceilings add a warmth and coziness to the large room that might have seemed cold and overwhelming.

A close up of one side of the living - dining room. Note the tea table in front of the blue french chair - this was a much publicized piece from the auction. Also notice the blue and white pieces hanging on the walls - this is just a very small portion of the blue and white from the auction, which featured over six pages of these pieces in the catalogue.

Another view of the living room - close up of the skirted table. I like this version of the table more than the previous image. I prefer the airy branches over the green plant in the blue and white vase.

The gorgeous master bedroom with the same high ceilings as the living room. Two story french doors bring the outside indoors.

The master bedroom again. This mirror is one of the more well known pieces from the auction.

One of the porches. I love the outdoor fireplace.

Updated view of the same porch or loggia, as it is called.

Artist and home owner James Steinmeyer's painting of the loggia.

View of the interior courtyard looking towards one of the two loggias.

Auction item: $27,000.

Rare Victorian Tilt Top Tables bought from Geoffrey Bennison! These tables were the most talked about items of the auction.


Louis XV commode (this reminds me so much of the Amy Howard chest).


Dutch chandelier from the living - dining room.


Set of 4 Swedish style chairs designed by Easton


Another Louis XV commode.


Italian sunburst mirror. Oh my - Easton, way ahead of the current trend, had quite a few sunburst mirrors. Non antiques, valued in the $1,000 range, these items went for outrageously overpriced sums.


Set of 4 Louis XVI gray painted armchairs.


Italian Mirror from the bedroom. Another well recognized auction piece made familiar from Lee Jofa ads.


Painted sunburst mirror. Ouch.


Set of eight painted armchairs. I love these chairs!


William IV gilt wood mirror.


Unusual Dutch colonial brass and walnut side table.


Italian Sunburst Mirror. Oy! What a crazy price.


Italian chandelier.


Regency style center table designed by Easton.


Carved antlers. Easton was again way ahead of this current trend with his faux stag heads. Estimated to go for $1,000 - the sale price was ridiculously overpriced for a non antique.

The auction was a huge success for Easton and Steinmeyer, but still, I can't imagine selling my possessions like this and completely starting over. Apparently, his new home will be very modern as Easton has said this is the direction design is taking him right now. I'm anxious to see his new summer home, and something tells me there will be lots of press accompanying his new venture.