“There’s always a duality to what I’m into,” says Sara Ruffin Costello, touching on what seems to be one of her defining features. With her unerring eye, the decorator, writer, and mother of three has a gift for conjuring up rooms with a pitch-perfect mix of the old and the new, the sophisticated and the definitively laid-back. Case in point, her dining room features a chintz-covered settee paired with a Ping-Pong table, to stunning effect.

Watch the tour below and shop the Antiquing in New Orleans collection HERE to steal her look!

From her Garden District home in New Orleans, where she lives with her kids and photographer husband Paul Costello, the former New Yorker and founding creative director of Domino magazine is currently busy penning pieces for the likes of T Magazine, and Vogue, partnering with decorators on their monographs, working with design clients to craft what she describes as “classic, bohemian, slightly modern” spaces, and lending her aesthetic to a capsule collection of dresses, jewelry, and housewares. All the while, her personal design projects around her own home hum in the background. “Big plans,” she says.

Here, we go inside the tastemaker’s home with Quintessence and pepper her with our own design questions. Spoiler alert: genius budget decorating ideas ahead!


I’m all about the fringe right now. I’m also really into a kind of Havana thing with these houses that breathe, where you have the doors open and let some things rustle around. To me the most luxurious thing in the entire world is a warm cross breeze. Sign me up! We’re so sealed off in our climate controlled houses we forget what it feels like to sit on the porch. Let a ladybug in for God’s sake!

If someone had a really limited budget and they wanted a lot of wallop, I’d say start by painting rooms, because that really is going to transform everything. Also, I love, love, love roller blinds. I’m obsessed with them. I think they look really great in rooms and are thousands of dollars cheaper than having curtains made.

I am a sucker for throws. I love to buy random blankets, like Pendleton blankets, and then when the mood strikes, like before a party or before houseguests come, I’ll redecorate with blankets. Sometimes I even throw them over a table as tablecloths.

I love this color from the old Benjamin Moore fan deck, DC-10. My kitchen is painted that color and it’s like creamy, mascarpone.


Traditional Living Room With Velvet Armchair and Ottoman and Natural Inspired Metal Chandelier
In her library, a bold paint color and a graphic Pendleton throw add impact.

I always love chintz, which is, I’ve come to find out, really hard to mix in. It’s not for everyone. It’s so feminine, but I’m kind of a sucker for it at the same time. You’ve really got to work a house around chintz, not the other way around.

Busts. I have a thing for them.

Right now, what I’m looking at is the stuff that nobody wants, like really good English and American antiques. You might think that using this heavy Sheraton sideboard for a dining room is so mawmaw because you’re imagining it in a room where everything else looks like that. But, if you abstract it, it can make a room that’s filled with more modern stuff.


Master Bedroom with Large Canopy Bed and Vintage Coffee Table.
The master bedroom, featuring a Fornasetti table and canopy bed.

I really cover every category. I dig deep into that well. I love walking into houses that have that nuance and history that vintage brings. It’s just a charm, a patina. There’s nothing really off limits for me – that goes for art, case goods, upholstery, and especially outdoor furniture, my favorite category in the vintage department. I love finding old stuff for the garden. My lighting is about 60% vintage, and then I’ve got some new stuff. It’s good to mix.

You always overlook the fabric when shopping for vintage pieces, because that’s the first thing you’re going to change. Fabric should not prohibit a purchase. I had all these wingback chairs that I inherited from my parents that were so ugly when I got them in a gross, damask silk fabric. One I covered in this kind of old leather with a suede seat, and the other one I covered in a Clarence House, black and white stripy fabric. If I had a nickel for every time I get pinged on Pinterest with that black and white wing chair.

Moroccan Styled Living Room With Textile Rug and Yellow Settee Couch
A vintage settee and garden chair perched in a sunny alcove.

Sara reveals a bit about her design process to help you jumpstart your next project.

1. Find the Feeling
First I really sit and think about what I want the room to feel like. Do I want it to feel like the Ace Hotel or a light, bright garden room? Who do I want to channel, and who do I want to be? Do I want to be Babe Paley in Jamaica, or do I want to be in a cozy luxe cabin in the Alps?

2. Do a Floor Plan
I always start with a floor plan, reluctantly. I hate doing floor plans, but it is the only way to figure out how big a sofa can be, how small a bookcase must be, etcetera. It’s kind of worthless to go out shopping if you don’t know how long the sofa can be. It’s really important to do a floor plan, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick to the floor plan at all. It just means you have a really good working idea of what’s going to fit in the room.

3. Take Inventory
Then I examine what I have to start with. That could be inherited pieces of furniture, an old rug in the attic, something in storage. Most people come to a place with a couple of things. You look at what you have and decide if you want to use it, or lose it.

4. Check Off the Basics
There are basic needs like a bed, a mattress, a sofa, something to put on the windows. For those basic needs you have to invest there first. But you don’t have to spend a lot on a sofa. It could be an $800 vintage one that you recover for $1,500, and you’re still within a really nice budget.

5. Invest Instinctually
From there, I think whatever moves you the most. Often where you invest makes no sense at all. It’s more of a heartfelt thing. The first thing I did when I had a few thousand dollars to spend was I blew it on a sculptor’s stand. I mean, how stupid? An antique French sculptor’s stand. But it wound up being the statement piece that I’ve had in every single living room corner of my house, and I love it!

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Photos by Paul Costello

February 26, 2017

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