The Chris Madden Moment
With a bestselling line of home goods, her own television show, and a new eponymous magazine on the racks,
Chris Madden can be found everywhere—including her own sanctuary in lower Westchester
By Dana Asher
Photography by Phillip Ennis
For Chris Madden, the ah-ha! design moment centered on a blue-green Princess phone at the tender age of 11.
“My sister and I, who shared a bedroom, got matching turquoise Princess phones as gifts. In a moment, I decided that we had to completely redecorate so the room would coordinate with our fabulous new gifts,” Madden says with a laugh. “And they weren’t even real!”
While the 56-year-old celebrity designer might not opt to do a room revamp around a telephone today, she still recognizes the importance of making one’s space a personal haven. As a matter of fact, her entire design philosophy—and her 12-room, 5,000-square-foot lower Westchester home—hinge on it.
If you haven’t heard of Chris Madden, you are among the few. Author of 16 lifestyle books (including, of course, volumes on interior design), Madden hosted her own HGTV show, Interiors by Design, for eight seasons. She was also a syndi-cated newspaper columnist on subjects ranging from home decorating to entertaining. Her furniture line, Chris Madden for the JCPenney Home Collection, introduced in May 2004, constituted
the largest home-furnishing launch in JCPenney’s 100-year history. Exactly one year later, she got her own national magazine when Hachette Filipacchi debuted At Home with Chris Madden, which stresses its editorial director’s vision of the home as a place of sanctuary, celebration, and rejuvenation.
“Turning home into haven has always been my mantra,” says Madden, whose interior design work has been performed for family, friends, and celebrity clientele. (She has decorated a “personal space” for Oprah at her Chicago studios, has decorated Katie Couric’s office, and has done some design work in both of their homes and the home of author Toni Morrison.) That mantra has become more like a big-bang theory. At Home with Chris Madden is not just a new magazine, but part and parcel of a veritable Chris Madden explosion. If you want to stay in the dark about this doyenne of design, you’ll have to go into seclusion.
Madden is a lady who practices what she preaches—and a visit to her new home proves that she uses what she produces. Her con-verted 1910 carriage house is a fluid mix of one-of-a-kind antiques, global influences, and pieces from her moderately-priced JCPenney collection. The variety of designs flows seamlessly throughout a home that captures the intimacy of turn-of-the-century architecture while embracing the functionality of modern amenities. Madden’s outlook: if she’s not happy living with what she designs, why should anyone else be?
A prime example is Madden’s living room, which she’s filled with a mixture of her own treasures and pieces from her JCPenney Collection. The room, in butter-and-cream hues, epitomizes the understated elegance that characterizes her entire home. The space exudes a warmth not often found in carriage houses designed in the French Normandy style. The personal touches of the built-in bookshelves, showcasing both favorite volumes and cherished objects such as the assortment of mostly porcelain and some metal miniature dogs (her favorite is the bulldog) and the stylish but comfy couches suggest that this is a room that’s used—and loved.
Madden wasn’t hunting for a new home. “We loved our home in Rye,” she says. “After 22 years there, we had our mortgage-burning party. Why would we want to move?” But one Sunday, reading the New York Times, she came across a real estate ad featuring the home, then called “Clos Normand” by its owners.
“With the flowers in bloom, it certainly evokes that feeling,” says Madden, a gardening fan, of the three-acre property. The ad intrigued the designer, who told her son, “Nick, this is the only house I could ever imagine leaving this one for.” Without a street address, the two spent the afternoon cruising the nearby streets in search of the residence featured in the one-inch ad—to no avail.
Eventually, Madden persuaded a broker friend to take her to see the property—and it was love at first sight. “On our closing date, I was with Mayor Bloomberg, speaking to 500 policewomen about how to turn their own homes into havens,” Madden recalls. “It was a crazy day, but you’ve just got to roll with it.”
Madden’s just-roll-with-it philosophy serves her well. The timing for At Home’s launch—which cements her meteoric rise—is auspicious. Sometimes called “the next Martha,” Madden is anything but. More focused than the domestic goddess, she prefers to hone her expertise more narrowly on home, rather than spread herself as thin as phyllo pastry sheets on cooking or other interests.
Yet with her recent endeavors—a highly promoted line at a mass retailer, celebrity connections, a TV show focusing on house as home, and now an eponymous glossy magazine sharing her philosophy and showcasing her designs—the comparisons aren’t surprising. Fortune magazine touted Madden’s signature style as “like Martha’s, only lower maintenance.” Despite Martha Stewart’s release in March from a five-month jail term for obstructing an investigation and her full-steam-ahead race to recapture the title of queen of the castle, the more approachable Madden is moving quietly to a top slot.
“I have always respected Martha’s trailblazing career for women entrepreneurs, but I have followed my own path, focusing on decorating and design, rather than entertaining and gardening,” she says.
While Chris Madden may be everywhere now, her celebrity status has been long in the making.
“I started sewing at home, designing clothes and dresses,” she says. That translated into a love of textiles, something she still gets the opportunity to indulge through her JCPenney collection.
Madden’s formal design education began with a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology and, to build on her education, she traveled extensively—to Asia, South America, and Europe. “I backpacked through Europe, which was very common in the early ’70s,” she explains. Later, while at Sports Illustrated, she saved her pennies for four years for her European “grand tour.” She returned to the States and to her career at a number of book publishing houses, including Random House, G.P. Putnam and Sons, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where she served as director of publicity.
After a decade in publishing, Madden started her own public-relations firm, Chris Madden Associates, and published her first book, Interior Visions (1987), an insider’s view of America’s top designer showcase houses, which instantly became a bestseller.
“Chris is one of those rare people who is, at the same time, both creative and also a great manager and motivator,” says her husband of 30 years, Kevin Madden (who, during his 16 years at CondÃ© Nast, served as publisher of Self, House and Garden, and Bon Appetit). The couple has worked together for the past 10 years, he as chairman of Chris Madden Inc. “It’s the common wisdom that working with one’s spouse can sometimes be â€˜problematic,’ but we really thrive on it,” he says. “Fortunately, we both love what we’re doing and that makes it very satisfying.”
Recently, Madden was named spokesperson for the Furnish a Future program run by the Partnership for the Homeless, New York City’s only free furniture bank for formerly homeless families and individuals. In her new role with the nonprofit group, Madden hopes to increase awareness of homelessness and to assist the furniture bank in raising funds and collecting home furnishings to expand services.
“If families don’t have the basics such as tables and chairs or lamps, things we take for granted, when they go from shelters to their first apartments, one out of every three families is homeless again by year’s end,” she says. “Helping them create a home that they want to be in, that’s functional, is so important. That’s how I feel about my home—and I want to be able to share that.”
The concept of home as a safety net—a comfort zone rather than a don’t-sit-
on-the-white-couch showcase—was in-grained early on. “Growing up, our house was comfortable and warm. There were nine children in my house, but it still had a sense of style and felt personal, with each room having something to touch the five senses,” Madden recalls. “It’s where I learned to believe in the perfection of imperfection.”
As the second oldest and the oldest female of nine children in Rockville Centre, Long Island, Madden was the child who trailed behind her mother—whom she describes as “a creative housewife,” who cut the kids’ hair and sewed their clothes—on decorating trips, advising her on which fabrics to select. Her dad, a sales executive, left those decisions up to his wife.
Madden is the first one to admit that her mother’s design style had plenty of influence. Like the home she grew up in, which was filled with pictures of Madden and her siblings, the Madden homestead is filled with photos of her sons, Nick, 20, a junior at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, and Patrick, 24, who is starting graduate school at American University in Washington, DC, this fall.
Madden’s personal touch weaves its way into her Port Chester office as well.
“Chris is always taking photographs,” says Barbara Marks, executive vice president of marketing for Chris Madden Inc., who began her 20-year relationship with Madden at Random House, when she served as publicity director for Madden’s books. The two became fast friends and talked for years about working together as Chris went out on her own. The JCPenney deal was the opportunity to put this plan into action. “She fills the office with her photographs and mementos of personal achievements, such as framed notes and articles,” Marks says. “She’s creating our company history—showing where we’ve been and where we’re going in the future.”
Whether it involves a collection (such as the framed restaurant menus, amassed over the years and hung in the golden breakfast nook) or a hint of what lies beyond (the glass bowl in the foyer filled with doggie biscuits suggesting that her Westies—Lola, Teddy, and Winnie—are not far behind), Madden designs homes that show like a scrapbook of the owner’s interests.
The designer gets her inspiration by looking to three decorating lifestyles—“Adventurous,” “Romantic,” and “Serene”—that she has developed over three decades. “I think we all have a design sense that is predominantly one of these three types,” she says. Yet, all three aesthetics come into play in an individual’s life and can figure into the design of his or her home. Consider how a lacy romantic bedroom filled with candles and an adventurous print chaise in a sitting room can coexist stylishly under the same roof.
Much of that inspiration comes out in Madden’s JCPenney line, which includes furniture, bedding, bath, window treatments, rugs, lamps, wall art, and decorative accessories, and which has grown to 2,000 pieces, from leopard-print area rugs to pesto-green bath rugs. That collection also includes the stunning dining table of solid Asian hardwoods with plantation-grown mahogany that Madden has in her own dining room. The space still boasts its original stonework and woodwork. The table and chairs, which Madden had slipcovered, provide a rich contrast to the light floor tile and whitewashed wood. The table seats 10, and friends and family are frequent guests around it, enjoying the fruits of Madden’s culinary labor. Doubling as a library, the room also boasts what Madden calls “bibliotechs”—beautiful, glass-doored bookshelves—which feature clever, touch-hinge lighting. French doors open to a flower-filled patio and garden.
And on a warm summer day, that’s where you’ll find her. She and Kevin will turn on the fountain, turn up the music—whether that’s classical, Brazilian, reggae, blues, or Steve Tyrell—and read the newspaper or a novel. Indeed, the ability to enjoy a private outdoor sanctuary in such proximity to the city was a big draw to Westchester for the Maddens.
Creating a private place is important to Madden, and her own personal refuge is a prime example. A cozy area off the master bedroom, this room—and a sitting room beyond—was created by putting up two walls in the “bowling alley” of a bedroom to create some smaller, more intimate spaces. Sometimes called her “yoga room” because “yoga is sacred” to Madden, who has practiced the discipline for 30 years, Madden’s own haven is a place to meditate or write letters. As with all rooms in the house, she’s personalized hers, in this case, with a green basket brimming with writing implements, a wooden cross that once belonged to her father, and a tiny Singer sewing machine she had used in the past to make doll clothes.
In the master bedroom beyond, the high ceiling with wood beams creates an Old World ambiance. The focus of the cream-colored bedroom is the metal post bed (part of her collection) dressed with matelasse bedding. An oversized black-and-white toile duchesse brise creates a comfortable reading spot lit by lamps, also of her collection, that gives a hint of Madden’s worldly travels. “Global design definitely has an influence in my house,” she says. “Whether you’re a world traveler or an armchair traveler, it gives you a connection to everybody else.”
Madden is both, finding inspiration in her voyages (the most recent being a relaxing holiday in St. Thomas, which resulted in finds for her shell collection) or in the books that take her to far-flung destinations. Indeed, the Maddens are avid mystery readers, as testified by the custom bookshelves overflowing with the who-done-its and comfortable couches in Kevin’s private study.
Her own project room, up a winding staircase covered in leopard-print carpeting, is where the designer works on textile projects, a harkening back to a first love honed at FIT. A computer, a slipcovered Princess chair before a sewing machine, a built-in bench for strategy sessions—all serve as tools for various ventures.
“When I was raising my family, I felt that I had so much to do,” says Madden. “I have a wonderful husband and great sons, but, like so many mothers of young families, I was the one who did the nurturing rather than taking care of myself.”
Finding a space for quiet meditation was especially important to her when her younger sister, Patty, died a decade ago. “When my younger sister passed away, I realized that I had no time or private space to mourn her. Carving out that space is an incentive for women to take the time they need for themselves.”
Yet ask Madden which room is her favorite and she will tell you that, when the “boys” come home after time away, it’s the golden-glazed kitchen, where “we’ll all gather with the dogs and talk.” The warm Shaker cabinets, built-in banquette in deep rose and gold hues (complete with a designated spot for the pups) and hanging copper pots make the space perfect for intimate conversation. (A seasoned cook, Madden has written two cookbooks.)
Not far beyond is the media room, done up with Chris Madden fabrics in taupe, chocolate, and rose. As an addition to the house, the room was too modern for the designer’s taste, so she enhanced the walls with stucco and added an arch to continue the flow through the rest of the home.
“I love it here,” she declares. “The accessibility to New York is fabulous, and I’m there once or twice a week, going to dinner, enjoying friends, or meeting with my publisher. In Westchester you really feel the change in seasons, and there’s a wealth of talent—local artists, merchants, writers—here.”
For a woman who’s going places, she’s not moving anywhere.
Dana Asher is a freelance writer from New Rochelle who recently became editor of Westchester Magazine’s Home & Garden.