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Todd Romano: House Calls

Todd Romano’s sitting pretty atop the design world these days. With clients in New York, Texas and across the world, why wouldn’t he be? Here, in an exclusive to Brilliant, Romano reveals his tricks of the trade, his Texas roots and how the client-decorator relationship can be both nurturing and healing… often with amazingly dramatic results.

Let’s face it, the perfection business can be grueling. When you only want the best for your clients and anything within eyesight, perfection is, without a doubt, a 24/7 job. Enter: Todd Romano, the mix master of perfection. Manhattan resident and San Antonio native, Romano attributes his extensive generational Texas roots to the incessant need to create the perfect room, the perfect house, and ultimately, the perfect life. “I was really lucky to be brought up in a house where travel, reading and the decorative arts and culture were all very important facets of the world.” Over a recent long and leisurely lunch on the patio of the Argyle Club in San Antonio, Romano revealed a career’s worth of insight to the creative process.

Most of the great designers realize the importance of their relationship with the client. Like any alliance, whether it is with a good hair stylist, mechanic, lawyer or doctor, trust is key. The designer, technically hired to remedy a challenged living situation, often plays the role of a therapist. How does that make you feel? When you walk into an environment, what senses are stirred? What childhood memories are affecting you right now that you may or may not like? And so on, leading both designing-healer and client-patient to walk hand-in-hand through many situations for the most effective, long lasting outcome. Sound intense? Maybe for some. Certainly not if you are Todd Romano.

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Calm, cool and collected at age 48, Romano is riding high through New York, Paris, Rome, and Texas these days – locations that reflect his clientele’s enviable real estate ventures and the lengths he travels to ‘make it work’. “It’s really about living well, and so many people don’t know how to do that,” Romano confides. That’s where Romano hits his stride – helping people live far beyond the means of their imagination. “San Antonio is like the Charleston of Texas. We’ve historically had marvelous architects and residents,” he states. “These people would come in from their ranches or oilfields and they built Monte Vista, Olmos Park, and parts of Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills. Texas has always had beautiful homes.”

Lest anyone should think that Romano was to the high manor born, he is quick to rebuttal as the son of a public school teacher and an engineer. “They instilled in me the confidence, curiosity and the ability to go out and explore, doing all I have been blessed to do,” he says emphatically. Growing up in San Antonio in the 1960s and 1970s was a simpler time for Romano. “My mother’s generation was the first one that could sort of ease away from some of that Betty Crocker stuff in which she had no interest.” He came into his own sense of structural thinking from his father, while his mother instilled practical style at a young age. “She was ultra conservative and when it came to redecorating would say, ‘Can’t we take the fabric off the back of the chair and move it around to the front?’ And I’d firmly ask, ‘Can’t we just buy seven yards of fabric and redo the whole damn chair?’”

After his education at the University of Texas, Romano headed to glittering Manhattan of the decadent 1980s, while maintaining his Texas sensibility. He quickly landed his first job with Mario Buatta, the Prince of Chintz with a bent toward Old World values, where Romano earned a virtual PhD in both style and commerce. It’s no surprise that he cites formidable authorities Billy Baldwin, Nancy Lancaster and Sister Parrish as his greatest design influences of the 20th century, while a more recent influence was New York socialite and Slim Aarons photography subject, C.Z. Guest. “She was the expert of mixing. Very old guard,” Romano recalls. “She’d plop an orchid in its original greenhouse plastic pot right onto a Louis XIV carved console table. Now that’s style.” Guest’s daughter, Cornelia Guest, is Romano’s best friend and also, a client. The junior Guest is a big fan of Romano’s.

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It’s that willingness to implement a client’s own style, refine it with his insight and make it spectacular, that has won him both fans and patrons. He feels that designing accessibly elegant vignettes that remain relevant are crucial; therefore, Romano constructs rooms that stand the test of time. His secret? The rooms always contain comfortable, upholstered furniture, perfect for conversation and entertaining, a painted piece or two, and contemporary art.

His spaces, although considered traditional, are always hip with a whimsical touch. No strict period piece rooms for Todd Romano. Want all Biedermeier? Keep walking. Feeling like a pure 1950’s re-do? Romano’s not your guy. He wants his clients to live – and be able to breathe - in the rooms he creates. He understands when bolder colors should be used for a residence’s public spaces - chocolate brown in a library, aubergine lacquered walls in a dining room. Yet, Romano is quick to point out that no one should feel like they are living in a gumball machine, so calming neutrals play an important part in his color palette.

Recently, in a Fredericksburg home nestled in the German Hill Country town best known for its antique shopping, bed and breakfast inns, and old world architectural preservation, he took the best of Texas and made a masterpiece for Manhattan money manager owner, Cydney Donnell. He kept the native Texas rock in tact by working around it adding large, comfy pieces that would work harmoniously in the vacation home. Buttery chintz, claret plaid and cobalt blue were the colors for the tapestry of their collaborative visions. “I had everything in New York and said we’re putting it on a truck. Then I was going to install it in three days. And I did,” Romano recounts. “And Cyndney walked in the door to a finished home. It was, suffice it to say, a glorious experience for us all.”

Whether in Texas, the Hamptons (Romano has owned and decorated dozens of homes there over the years), upstate New York or Europe, Romano is the go-to guy for the rich and famous. “I do encounter a number of clients that have great collections of art, or furniture or something. Everyone’s got one bag, one thing they’re interested in, usually,” states Romano. “Sometimes it’s the trifecta - you know, they’re interested in everything, the way my parents were. So that’s great: you have wonderful furniture to work with, and great pictures to work with, and great rugs to work with and things like that.” He’s quick to comment on how the recent rollercoaster economy has affected the design world by saying, “I always think people are going to want to feel good about their homes. Plus, they might feel too guilty to go and buy a $15,000 Oscar de la Renta dress. Instead, they can have things to enjoy every day and pass down to their heirs.”