Life Lessons: Rita St. Clair

Life Lessons: Rita St. Clair

Rita St. Clair, interior designer, Rita St. Clair Associates
By Sarah Gilbert Fox


Rita St. Clair is a rare breed of interior designer— a woman who possesses as much artistic sensitivity and business acumen as pride in the work of her team. Her obsession to bring together colors, lighting, textures, fabrics, shapes, movements, furniture— everything within walls— has placed her in Grande Dame status in the world of interior design; yet, as with all artists, she understands the importance of giving credit to others— and of listening. Her work graces homes, hotels, retirement communities and restaurants (walk into Petit Louis and see what real French bistro style is— one of the many stylistic interpretations compliments of Rita and her team). And the interiors of the fondly remembered Polo Grill were her creation, as well. Recently Style magazine had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. St. Clair in her Tuscany/Canterbury home to talk with her about celebrating her 40th year in business.

> When I first came to Baltimore, I got off the train at the old Camden Station. It was a ruinous neighborhood at the time, and I asked the cabdriver to take me to downtown Baltimore. He replied, “Lady, you’re in it.” I nearly turned around. But I’m glad I didn’t. I took the job and worked in a store that specialized in modern interiors, my love at that time, and commuted for about four years and got to know Baltimore. I moved here and became madly in love with it. And I still love this town and would never live anywhere else.

> To be good at what you do, you have to be focused. And you have to have an understanding that the only people you’re going to change are those who are willing to be changed.

> If you know that you’re not the best— but you could be— then you’ll be hungry and you’ll strive for that, and you won’t want to be diverted by other nonsense. Like crying about things or putting people down.

> I wish there was more camaraderie in the local interior design and architectural establishment. There used to be more and I miss it.

> My first clients who came to me were people who were the up and coming— those who wanted to live in more impressive homes than they originally grew up in. I often had carte blanche because they did not have a clue as to what they could do with the new ranch home or cathedral-type ceilings of their new living rooms.

> There is an issue of people being afraid of going to an interior designer, because they think a designer will tell them what and how their home or office should look, and it is really a two-headed monster.  Believe it or not, some people insist on a designer doing just that.  But it’s really very difficult for the designer, because there’s no client input, and you have to guess what their needs and lifestyle is— or what will be in the new space.

> I believe that good and successful design is based on the designer listening to the client. The client’s input, and the designer’s interpretation of the client’s needs and the needs of the space— its beauty or its limitations— and the reality of the budget, is a necessity for a successful project.

> Today, people are much more knowledgeable and sensitive to their environment. But with all this information— and really bad stuff out there— if there has ever been a time that the services of a professional interior designer are a must, it’s now.

> I like people. You can’t expect people to embrace you, unless you have something to offer— even if it’s a bad joke or something.

> Some people think that when they get something for free they have to reciprocate. It burdens them, which I think is ridiculous. I never do anything that I don’t want to do.

> One thing that humans have that animals don’t have is a sense of humor (besides a bank account). Nobody can screw around with your sense of humor or mess with it. My sense of humor keeps me alive.

> Today our work is with a more sophisticated client. No more carte blanche, whether in a home or a condo or a restaurant, hotel or retirement community. And, frankly, it has many advantages. If you listen and know how to guide the process, you get a better project and a happier client.

> We don’t need to be superheroes ourselves. I give the individuals on my team total visibility. The client should know who is working on the project. It’s not just Rita St. Clair! I’ve had one designer who has been with me for 40 years— the whole time I’ve been working. Another one, 30 years, and some who have been here 25 and 20 years. So when I call them senior designers, it’s not because they’re old!

> It’s interesting that I don’t really like change in my environment, unless I go to another one.

Written for Baltimore Style magazine, December 2009

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