A room by Rose Tarlow might have brown English furniture; afternoon sunlight raking across bare, lovingly waxed wooden floors; a few lacquered seed pods scattered about; and ivy growing into it through the windows. The value of the contents might be many millions, or the gas it took to get to a flea market in Provence. That might be a de Kooning leaning over there, or a drawing by Tarlow’s grandchild. You may not be able to explain it, but you will be instantly aware that this is one of the loveliest environments you have ever seen.
“I can’t stand decorating,” are the first words out of the legendary American designer as she sits down for a chat about her new book, her new shop, and the story behind a career that has made California Taste—her taste—the respected equal of any other kind. This is Rose Tarlow’s year: She is preparing to release her second book, Three Houses (essentially a biography of three of her houses), and she has crowned her career as an antiquaire and furniture designer with an extraordinary new shop, Rose Tarlow Melrose House, in West Hollywood.
One must listen closely, because Rose Tarlow is two people. There is the legendarily tough cookie, who, when it comes to choosing design projects, may (or more likely may not) take your call. “I’m more famous for not doing them than for doing them,” she says, as L.A. developer Rick Caruso and many others used to getting their way have discovered. (When Caruso asked her why she had come so far just to say no, Tarlow said, “We thought you were handsome.” Game recognizes game, and he laughed.) Eli Broad, Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, and Bruce Springsteen have gotten the nod. Her reputation as a businesswoman is right up there with her style; three weeks before the 2008 crash she sold her company, Rose Tarlow Melrose House—then bought it back eight years later.
Then there is the decorator, whose contribution to this art form (and in Rose Tarlow’s hands it definitely is an art form) is full of the most tender visual poetry. There is also an emotional aspect to her work, rooted in memory and the pain of loss. Her own family’s rambling summer house in Deal, New Jersey, wrapped in porches and next to the sea, was clearly a source of great happiness in her early life, and it influences her today. “My family’s house burned down when I was 20,” she explains. “Having been through that once, when the fires came to Santa Barbara a couple of years ago, I realized that without pictures I wouldn’t have anything left, that nothing would live on about my house now. That if I didn’t do this book, they would just go away.” All the beautiful environments she has made since the fire, along with the passion that went into making her new book, are perhaps the children of the house that went away.
However sui generis a particular design talent may appear to be, behind each one are the influences, encounters of consequence, and relationships that become bricks in the road to a great career. “I think Michael Taylor was a genius,” Tarlow says, opening up about the pioneering California designer who became a client at her first shop in 1976. “He was like Pollock: He started a new wave of work. He would come in and look at a piece of furniture for an hour.” Taylor was an early friend and mentor, if she ever had one. Bill Blass, with whom she used to go shopping, is another. I ask her if there’s anyone from an earlier time in history whose taste has had the same objective as Tarlow’s—to make minimalism feel warm and antiques look modern—and the answer is direct and illuminating. “Errázuriz,” she says, referring to Eugenia Errázuriz, the Chilean designer who was a mentor of Jean-Michel Frank and of whose work only a handful of photographs exist. “I love my house,” Errázuriz once said, “as it looks very clean and very poor!”
The current state of interior design is of negligible interest to Tarlow: “It’s been years since I cut anything out of a magazine.” What’s next? She will let the new book and shop do the talking, and the teaching, and through them show people her style and what it stands for: the intersection of quality and simplicity. That good decorating is also about more than just looking. “Most people who go into houses, they don’t see…they don’t understand—but they feel. My new book is about atmosphere, how you feel.” Visit Melrose House and see what she means. At the end of our meeting, Tarlow had some parting words of advice: “Forget cool. Concentrate on beauty.”
This story appears in the October 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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