Design Tips from Leta Austin Foster That Are Priceless: Read for an Exclusive Q&A

From wallpaper to wastepaper baskets, this Palm Beach-based designer brings rooms to life with her meticulous eye for detail, stylish-but-practical decorating approach, and instinctive way with color.

SH: You have offices in New York and Palm Beach, and you have decorated many points in between. How does the environment influence your color choices?

LAF: Every project is an amalgam of the people who hired you, the architecture of the house they’ve either bought or built, and the location. Those three things have to influence what a house is going to look like. One of my earliest humbling lessons was when I brought back all these beautiful fabric samples after my internship. Once I got home, I realized none of them worked. London, with its soft gray light, made the colors glow. But in Florida, with our bright light, they looked drab and dirty. I learned you can’t just do a London townhouse in the middle of Palm Beach. Well you can, but it wouldn’t be very smart. Although I love highly glazed walls, and I might do them in deep, rich colors in New York, they don’t look right in Florida. The sun is so intense, and you end up not being able to see in the room—everything becomes a silhouette. I always have to think about where I am.

coral, green and light blue parlor
Interior Design by Leta Austin Foster

SH: How do you approach combining colors in a room?

LAF: I never want things to look matchy-matchy. I’m looking right now at some classic prints from Colefax, and one that I like so much is called “Amelie.” It has creams, whites, and shades of green on a natural background. There’s a time when I might have used it in a green or beige room, but where I think it would be fabulous is in a deep coral library. That’s when rooms are the prettiest, when they’re just a mélange of colors.

wallpaper, accent table, mirror and matching lamp
Interior Design by Leta Austin Foster

SH: It’s clear from many of your rooms that you’re also a big fan of wallpaper.

LAF: I absolutely love it. People call me the wallpaper queen! It’s where you get the biggest decorating bang for your buck. Think about it—you no longer have to have the antique screen or the big oil painting, although those items can look terrific against it as well. Wallpaper makes a room so cozy and warm, even when it’s cool. It gives a room depth. And it can be way less expensive than doing some of the elaborate paint finishes.

SH: What are some of the smallest details that make or break a room for you?

LAF: Oh, I can think of quite a few. If you can believe it, I started my boutique 19 years ago because I could not find a good wastepaper basket, and I can spot a bad one from 50 feet away. I also hate when the plastic bag is looped over the top. I tell all my clients not to use plastic bags—put a doily in the bottom! Bed linens really matter to me. Fine French and Italian linens are probably the most important items in my shop right now. I also like a bench at the foot of the bed, but if you can’t have one because there’s not enough room, having something folded on the end of the bed gives it delineation. It’s also important to use the right lightbulbs. That may seem small, but it makes a difference. If the bulbs are too bright, they can ruin a room. If they’re too soft, you can’t see well. Three-way bulbs are a good thing. I mainly use 60-watt ones for the main light, but I have to have a 100-watt bulb to read—otherwise I’d go blind.

SH: It sounds like bedrooms play prominently in your decorating priorities.

LAF: I believe the bedroom is the most important room in the house. Where do you go whenever everything seems against you? You go lie on your bed. I’ll almost never do a contemporary one. People need to have pretty things around them that make them feel really good. I confess that I’m also a voracious reader, and I tend to read lying down, so I often head straight to my bedroom after dinner.


blue and while patterned chaise lounge
Interior Design by Leta Austin Foster

SH: Given that you love a good book, if you could decorate a house for any fictional character, who would it be?

LAF: Hmmm. Even though she was awful and selfish, Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby comes to mind. There are moments when she’s reminiscing about when she was young—people coming in from the dances and throwing their dresses on a chair and kicking off their little sparkly shoes—and somehow I just see those dim rooms and how pretty they must have been. I’d love to do a house like that. Or maybe a composite of Twelve Oaks or Tara in Gone with the Wind, or even the houses in one of my favorite books of all time, All the King’s Men. I find a grand Southern house that has kind of been left to molder so beautiful and mysterious. I’d certainly restore it, but I’d want to leave it looking just a little decrepit.

SH: Finally, what is the best advice you could give about developing a sense of style?

LAF: If you respect a certain person’s design and the way they live, go to that person and just listen. You’ll always learn more from other people, so don’t assume you know everything yourself. In a book I just finished (though it wasn’t a particularly good book, so I won’t recommend it), there is this one sentence that I just love: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Nothing could be truer.

For more colorful and captivating interiors, check out the issue below!

March/April 2018 Cover

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