Sara Ruffin Costello, the former Domino magazine creative director, is a decorative chameleon—part stylist, part interior designer, part consultant, part writer, even part dressmaker. Her homes and style are rapturously covered in magazines and on social media, bound by an ethos which, according to Costello, is an undone look. “People come to me and say, ‘I don’t want it to look decorated, I don’t want everything to match.’ That suits my personality,” says the designer.
From an outsider’s eye, Costello channels an aristocratic bohemian point of view, playfully and irreverently blending high and low and forbidding any whiff of preciousness or pretense. In 2011, Costello, her husband, photographer Paul Costello, and their three children, ditched their West Village townhouse for a Gothic Italianate Revival home in New Orleans’ Garden District, which the couple assiduously restored.
Her house can be seen as the apotheosis of her aesthetic panache. The living room, rendered exclusively in shades of cream, white and black, is, however, anything but minimal. Densely layered and full of interest, it forces the eye to tumble and meander from massively scaled zig-zag upholstered wingback chairs to a Noguchi lantern hung beneath an elaborately scrolled rondel.
There is a lush insouciance to her work and, most importantly, a resistance to being hemmed-in in one direction or another. Costello and her husband recently renovated a decrepit church in the Irish Channel neighborhood of her adopted home. “It was the most unattractive building in a city where you have a hard time finding anything unattractive, but when we peeled back the layers we found the most extraordinary things,” she says of the deconsecrated chapel, which they now use as an event space and hospitality rental.
She recently started a dress line based on the “perfect linen sack—a butter-churning ladies dress,” she found at a yard sale in Montauk. It quickly “sold like hotcakes” and Costello has been riffing on it ever since, including an ikat version. The fil rouge threading through her endeavors is a strong editorial eye. “I would say to myself, ‘What would I wear in this room for a picture?’ That wrap dress makes me think of it. ‘Let’s put her in the green room in the orange ikat dress.’”
Who are your decorative muses? I discovered John Saladino early on and I can’t get some of his rooms out of my head. Reason being he is a minimalist but a maximalist minimalist. Veere Grenney is the second coming of Saladino; grand but humble. There are usually a few big exclamations points in every room but it’s not overwrought. I can’t live with too much cacophony around me.
What are your favorite house museums? I was completely inspired by The Soane in London. Sir John Soane was like a hoarder of very fine objects. I loved seeing Frida Kahlo’s house, Casa Azul, in Mexico City, and Yves Saint Laurent’s Villa Oasis in Marrakesh—places where people had a vision and style and it’s all jammed in the house; what’s better than that? And Leon Trotsky’s house, which was around the corner from his friend Frida Kahlo, was just like he left it, as though he ran out the door and got shot in the head.
Where do you shop in New Orleans? The city is a dumping ground for French antiques. If you want one great bergère, you will find it here. You can find things for a song at auction houses—they basically pay you to take it from them. And then Magazine Street is where you hoof it—Karla Katz Antiques, Malachite Home, Katie Koch Home, and The Sunday Shop.
Is there another house you wish you could restore? I’d rather kill myself. If I had to do it again, I’d do it in New Orleans because you’re either going fancy with a 17-foot-tall entrance hall or shotgun Creole. It’s high and low and fun to work with both. Otherwise, I would want to be in a surf shack in Malibu.
You’ve been dipping your toe into hospitality and are working on a hotel right now. Tell us about it. The difference between residential and commercial decorating is trying to pull off something and manage your vision in narrow criteria, which is your budget. You have to decide everything up front. The hotel is an old house, close to Tulane. If you ever saw Pretty Baby, it’s like a big brothel with twenty rooms and an updated modern Victorian look. It’s got a Creole/Caribbean vacation vibe that’s breezy and romantic, but in a home. The Hotel Oloffson in Haiti is our vibe, but hopefully the electricity will stay on.
New York versus New Orleans? New Orleans without hesitation. I stumbled on the magic land—but don’t tell anyone. It’s a great place, but not everyone gets it. It has a way—it’s a self-selecting city. The reasons I love it are the reasons I love Saladino—maximalist minimalist with plenty of places left to discover. I’m not as inspired by New York as I used to be. You get tired of everything being an Instagram moment.
Where was your last vacation? Japan.
Where will your next vacation be? Surfing in Peru.
The thing you can’t travel without? A fiction novel about the place I’m going. I recently read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver on my way to Mexico City—brilliant.
Plane, train or automobile? Automobile. Road trips are like a time machine back to the ’70s. No cell phone service, old-school maps, miles of scenery, windows open and a rocking playlist.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Business travelers—they know all the tricks to maximize sleep time.
What is your in-flight ritual? I’m obsessed with my Delta status, so I’m always checking out how many MQM’s I have and where the Delta Sky Club is.
The language you wish you spoke? Spanish. I am starting a class so I’ll be able to speak poorly in both French and Spanish soon enough!
When were you happiest while traveling? Summer road trips are appealing because the plan is flexible—we take three weeks to get from A to B, but the route is spontaneous. The real beauty is being in your own little bubble. Last summer we stumbled on a campground in Nevada at a lonesome place called Cathedral Gorge—a John Pawson-esque campground in the middle of a geological preserve. We stayed up all night reading passages out loud from a book about aliens and staring at the sky which was lit up with stars and secret military aircraft.
Desert island or downtown? I want to say desert island but I have a sand crab phobia (Costa Rica is my least favorite place to travel), so I’ll go with downtown.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? El Fenn in Marrakesh.
What is your room service indulgence? Filet mignon.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? In a quadruple bunkbed at a cowboy ranch in Utah.
What is your favorite market? Marché aux Puces.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? The Gilded Age of New York during the late 1800s.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Bicycling from the Garden District through the French Quarter, the Marigny and the Bywater in New Orleans.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
Weekend: Rockhouse Hotel, Jamaica.
Week: The Beaumont, London.
Month: Amangiri, Utah.
Year: Hoshinoya, Tokyo.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Hotel gift shops.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. I always eat at Basta Pasta and Omen in New York. But hands down the homemade noodles at the Xi’an Chinese restaurant in Tokyo Station.
Travel hell is? Arriving from an international flight in Atlanta airport alongside 4000 other Americans and not having global entry.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Neither Rome, Florence nor Venice.
Three favorite stores on earth? I could eat three meals a day from the 7-Eleven in Tokyo. For clothes and jewelry, I spend my dough at Capitol in Charlotte, North Carolina. And for chic home stuff I go to Rose Uniacke in London.
Most treasured travel memento? Some leaves I framed from the Jardins des Tuileries in Paris a long time ago.
Why do you travel? Looking for beauty.
Mieke ten Have is a New York City based design and interiors writer, stylist, and consultant. Formerly the Home Editor of Vogue magazine and Design Editor at Large of Elle Decor, Mieke contributes to a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, House & Garden (UK), Architectural Digest, and Boat International. She is Cultured magazine’s New York Design Editor.