Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

Although this Richmond designer's interiors display all the hallmarks considered quintessentially Southern–warmth, hospitality, and comfort–she doesn't hesitate to color outside the lines.

Text: Karen Carroll
Photos: Images courtesy of Janie Molster

Southern Home (SH): If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?

Janie Molster (JM): An English teacher—I majored in English literature in college.

SH: When did you realize that decorating was your destiny, versus Austen and Shakespeare?

JM: I was young and newly married. We bought our first house, and I was long on creativity but short on budget. I really had fun and was experimental in some of the things I did. I remember being seven months pregnant with my first child, on the second step of a ladder, and rolling paint on the walls because I couldn’t stand one more hour in that room with the current color. Friends started asking me to help rearrange their furniture or pick out a paint color, and then it became friends of friends. Eventually a dear friend took me out to lunch for my birthday, gifted me with printed business cards, and said, “You need to do this.” I thought, this looks serious, maybe I should listen, since she knows me so well!

Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

Designer Q&A: Janie Molster

SH: Choose three adjectives to describe your style.

JM: Southern, livable, and pretty. The Southern part is about making homes gracious and welcoming, and I’m always thinking through to the party, the gathering, the family life. Livable for me means not being overly stylized or a stage set—rooms where you can stretch out on the sofa as easily as host a proper tea party. I’m the mother of five (four sons and a daughter), and now I have daughters-in-law and grandchildren. I know a thing or two about rooms where a lot of life happens. And although pretty seems to come in and out of favor in the design world, there’s just something about softer elements, whether it’s the beautiful legs on an antique settee or the hand of an embroidered fabric.

SH: We’d also add colorful, as you have such a flair with it. What’s your typical starting point?

JM: I believe every person is born with an innate preference for a palette. It might shift in intensity, or the colors you mix with it might change, but your basic favorites are consistent. When we’re starting a project, I’ll ask clients to look back. Tell me about your last house, your bedroom, what’s in your closet. It’s like peeling the layers of an onion. Then we’ll flash a range of images, which tells me a lot about their color tolerance. A knee-jerk reaction says so much, and I get almost as much from what they don’t like as what they do.

SH: We’re going to guess your favorite color is pink—it appears in so many of your rooms. What draws you to it?

JM: First of all, people look good in rosy hues, whether they’re wearing them or sitting in rooms decorated in them. And it plays well with a lot of colors. I can convince almost anybody that they need to have a little pink in their life. With the male population in my house, I figured out comfort was much more important to them than palette. If they could put their cheek on a soft fabric and take a nap in the afternoon, or swivel a chair around to see the television, I could sneak in as much pink as I wanted.

SH: What’s your favorite pink paint color?

JM: Currently it’s Benjamin Moore Pink Beach, which is subtle and quiet. It’s hard to do pale pink and avoid that nursery vibe, but this one does. I’d use it as a backdrop anywhere in a house.

SH: How vital is it to create quiet moments, even when you’re working with a client who loves strong color?

JM: I like to have what I call palette cleansers, especially in transition areas like hallways, foyers, and vestibules. I’ll go more neutral, particularly if they’re leading into a room with a lot of pattern or color.

SH: You don’t seem to be afraid to color outside the lines—you’ve even wallpapered your refrigerator! We’re curious about the interesting way you’ve accented your living room walls with stripes of pink.

JM: Hand me a can of paint, and you better nail down the things you don’t want me to put it on. It’s the ultimate tool in the toolbox. So many things in our houses are true investments—a kitchen or bath renovation, a beautiful antique rug—where we need to be confident in our tastes and design direction. But a gallon of paint is an economical drop in the bucket, so if you want to be adventuresome, there’s the option. Our home is my laboratory, and I’m always calling the painter to say I have a new idea. And that’s sort of how that all happened. Let me play with the paint. Why do we have to do a wall in only one color?

SH: In some of your curtain designs, you create pattern by color blocking, rather than choosing a printed fabric—simple, and yet so impactful.

JM: I remember agonizing for days with a client, going back and forth between a wonderful mango color and a rosy sherbet for the curtains. Finally, I said, why not have them both? I love a big swath of contrast at the top, or, as in my own living room, dashes of pink at eye level. Color blocking adds another level of detail, without bringing in a busy pattern. I don’t think you tire of it as quickly as you might a print, which is why I often do it.

SH: What are other design elements you often repeat?

JM: Antique Swedish settees, clean-lined sofas, and fabulous abstract paintings.

SH: We can tell that art takes center stage in a lot of your rooms.

JM: It’s such an important part of telling the homeowner’s story. If a client hasn’t had the time or interest in collecting art, I love taking them to meet gallery owners and artists to start determining what they like. I believe in buying what speaks to your soul, rather than worrying about pedigree, how it’s framed, if it “matches,” or even where to put it—if you love it, you’ll find the spot. And then there are the clients who come to me with art they’ve had forever, and it’s fun to sort through pieces and reimagine them. I want the owners to walk into a room and say they hadn’t really noticed that painting in 10 years, but now maybe it’s hung in a different way or grouped with new pieces.

SH: We love a good gallery wall. What’s the secret to turning a mishmash of pieces into a successful grouping?

JM: It doesn’t have to be a homogenous group of similar frames, or all landscapes or pen-and-ink drawings, although it can be fun to create a theme, like I did with an arrangement of female portraits in a client’s dining room. When I’m doing a gallery wall, I think about color, but balance is everything, and just about anything is fair game for the mix. I’ll find an expanse of floor to arrange the grouping and start with the biggest piece. I never put it dead set in the middle—I always want it to be a little off so it doesn’t dominate. Ultimately, I’ll get on a ladder to look down and sort of squint my eyes to see if something is getting lost or becoming too much of a scene-stealer. If so, I just keep moving things around until I’m happy before we put the first nail in the wall.

SH: To wrap up, will you share what’s on your horizon?

JM: I have a book coming out in September with The Monacelli Press. We’ve been shooting houses and pulling it together for more than a year. I almost feel like I’ve birthed another child!