There's no better way to herald in the spring than to shower love on some of our favorite women. We sat down with the inimitable Sara Ruffin Costello—decorator, writer, clothing designer, founding Creative Director of Domino Magazine, and all-around inspiration. Sara and Lekha collaborated on limited edition robes for New Orleans boutique hotel The Chloe, and in years past we've taken yoga classes and attended community-wide events at her (now sold) renovated church. In short, we’ve been fans of her design, and inspired by her work, for years. We're so happy to have her in New Orleans, and we can't wait to introduce you to her — if you aren't familiar with her already!
Scroll through for beautiful photos of Sara at home, shot by her husband, Paul Costello.
Can you tell us a little about your background, like where you’re from and what brought you to New Orleans?
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and went to school at Tulane. Post Tulane, I went to Tokyo for a year. After that, I wound up in New York for a really long time, about 18 years, and then landed back in New Orleans. All those places have imbued my design sense. I think the foundation is this traditional Virginia vernacular, with its English and American shapes and furniture; New York brought me an appreciation for American modernism, because it’s the most American of glitzy modern cities; and in Tokyo, a reverence for Japanese modernism and the detail of handmade objects. Finally, New Orleans is full circle back to my Southern roots, but perhaps even deeper — back to my love of trellis, Caribbean style, crossbreeze rooms, jute rugs, being barefoot. It’s funny how the places you live can inform your style so much. But they do.
What did you study at Tulane and what drew you to interior design?
I studied communications and French, and within that communications degree was an emphasis on journalism and writing. My obsession with magazines took me to New York, where my first job was with Martha Stewart, who was one year into launching her magazine. It was epic. That’s where I learned what a flat file was, how to guild an Easter egg — all these things you could only learn on the job. That was my introduction to magazines in general, which is what I did in New York for 18 years, working at Condé Nast and various magazines, until we started Domino. After Domino closed — it was during the great reckoning of print magazines, where they were losing money because they hadn’t figured out how to segue into digital — at this point I realized I love longform, and I really am married to the idea of old school journalism. So that’s when we went to New Orleans and I started writing a lot. I moved away from making magazines to writing for magazines, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and did some books. But all along, I’ve had a toe in design and decorating. I’ve done 1,001 photoshoots, and decorating is sort of like a photoshoot, where you arrange everything in a pleasing way. I would always go to friends’ houses to help them rearrange their furniture or rehang their art. So that’s how the decorating career got off the ground. No formal training! A lot of learning on the job. Where I am now is mostly decorating, with a little writing. Being a magazine editor makes you really project driven. You’re doing lots of things, planning big events or activations for publicity for the magazine, and simultaneously you’re trying to make a magazine with 30 stories to produce every month, so your day is divided up by all these different disciplines. I think that’s why I decided to design some dresses, and we had a church that was a design/event space. I gravitate towards these different disciplines because it’s how I’m used to operating every day.
Yes, we’ve enjoyed some events at your church!
The church was another little project; we bought the church because we needed someplace to work and it became kind of a long-term flip. We had it for 5 years. It was fun! Within that one space, we had a design studio, an event space, we did music, dance, theater, and it had Airbnbs in the back. It was a little bit of a lab for us. But at a certain point, I didn’t want to do it anymore and was ready to move on. We just sold it.
It’s great to see that you’re able to move on from projects when you’re done with them or they no longer inspire you.
I’m always questioning my peripatetic nature, wondering if I should be more committed. But actually, no, because I work best project to project. It’s been a journey for me to find the right way to approach things. For example, with the clothing line, it required a bit more of a commitment, but it was a burst of activity that just had to come out of me. I sold out of everything. And then I realized I only had one in me. I don’t want to be a clothes merchant. In a way, that was kind of a successful failure. You can also spread yourself too thin, if you have your hand in too many things. It’s good to refine and limit how many things you’re doing at the same time. It’s really critical to realign your projects with the balance you require at that point in your life, because it changes all the time. It’s like a little matrix that you have to pay attention to. By now, I’ve had a big New York career already, and put in all those hours, and now I only take one big decorating project at a time, with little small ones. That’s really all I want to manage, so I have time for other things, like writing, or reading, or more free time.
You’re also a busy mom. How old are your kids?
I have a 12 year old, and the other two, who are 22 and 19, should be old enough that they don’t keep me busy, but they do! And in New Orleans, despite it being so laid back, you do have to carve out a lot of time for costumes. I had no idea!
Does the pace of New Orleans help your creativity?
I don’t know that either have anything to do with each other. I think when you get inspired, it happens randomly — in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep, you have an epiphany. But you do need to have time. One of my friends loves summer in New Orleans because she goes out in her yard, has a cocktail, lies in the grass, looks at the clouds, and comes up with ideas. I’ll think of stuff in yoga class. Moreso the problem is execution. I wonder how anyone gets anything done quickly. Anywhere, any time. We all have so many emails to respond to. It’s so hard!
As a decorator, writer, having designed a clothing line, having worked in magazines, how do you create balance?
You take that matrix — do I have employees, do I have kids, am I committed to anything socially, and you figure out how many hours do you have in the day? For example, I love picking up my son from school and making dinner. I love it, so I know I have to subtract a couple things. You also can’t say yes to everything. I need tons of downtime. (But I do like to go hard.) Everyone can get overwhelmed pretty easily, it’s the statement you hear the most often. That just means your matrix needs tweaking. No one is more stressed out than the working mom, truly. It’s a juggling act.
You’ve touched on how living in certain places has inspired you. When you’re working as a decorator, do you feel you have a signature aesthetic or certain elements that are key in your interior spaces?
I do gravitate toward the same things, though it can differ client to client. If there’s such a thing as a maximalist minimalist, then that’s me. I love books, layers, and personal things that make a house a house. I don’t like austere, clinical interiors. I do not like hotel living. To describe it as a certain style, it’s kind of Old World meets modern. I live with a bunch of messy people. So, there’s no sense in us trying to have a completely cleaned up interior. When people come over, I’ve had to stop apologizing for the stuff everywhere. I love “lived in.” I identify with Wes Anderson movies and interiors, Woody Allen movies and interiors. I love when you can tell who lives there. The movie Call Me By Your Name had a profound impact on me, those Italian interiors. I can’t stand up-to-the-minute trendiness, and trying to achieve perfection, which you’re never going to have. I love the notion of an Italian interior that’s built to last, and worn.
Has your process or approach to design changed in recent years?
More and more, travel helps me crystalize new viewpoints. If I don’t travel, I feel a bit stale with my repertoire, my bag of tricks. And not just going to the same places, but even places that don’t inspire you inspire you. You could be in Dallas at a conference and see what not to do. For me, right now, I’m trying to travel as much as possible.
Did you feel like not being able to travel during the pandemic was hard for you, creatively?
No, I just leaned into it. I liked the pandemic for the slow-down. I think it was the great side to that situation. I feel blessed to have been in New Orleans, in a great house, being able to walk outside all I wanted.
Where else would you live if you weren’t in New Orleans?
Great question — I think about it all the time. I’ve always had a fascination with Point Dume in Malibu. Anything that would get me closer to living in nature or by the water. I love the idea of Point Dume, but I don’t love the idea of the PCH every day. Everywhere I go I get kind of obsessed. I just got from Treasure Beach, Jamaica, and I’m ready to go back and spend a month, going deeper. You’re in nature, everyone’s outdoors all the time, and the culture there, I don’t think you could find anywhere cooler. The definition of cool is Jamaica.
Speaking of cool, how would you describe your personal style? (We think it’s pretty cool.) Do you have a particular ethos that you keep in mind when shopping for your wardrobe?
Just like the balance matrix, I’ve only just recently figured this out: dressing appropriately. I was recently buying bathing suits for Jamaica, in fact. I can’t wear this Johanna Ortiz leopard print tassel thing that I would have worn not that long ago. I don’t want to disapprove of people dressing any way they want to dress, but personally I’m having to remind myself, “Ok, you are over 50 girl, let’s move into the elegant phase.” My style is boyish; I like tailored trousers, big loose trousers, t-shirts, khakis, striped button downs. You start to know what you like. I hate skinny jeans on me. And I go to Trish for certain things. Lekha reminds me of the 90s, Carolyn Bisset Kennedy’s style, slip dresses and sneakers. Lekha suits the way we live in New Orleans too. It’s casual but still elegant.
What are you looking forward to in 2023? Do you have any projects or plans on the horizon that you’d like to share?
I’m working on more decorating projects and a writing project. It’s not completely finalized yet, so I can’t talk about it. But I’m excited! It’s more tweaking of the matrix, figuring out how to maximize the joy in the day. My takeaway for 2023 is more fun, zero worry. You’re gonna get it all done. It is what it is. But you will regret not having more fun.
That sounds like the answer to our final question, which is do you have a mantra you live by?
More fun, less worry. There it is! But you do have to actively practice it. There is something to the Jedi mind tricks, because you can talk yourself out of having fun and into worrying. You can slip into that mode. You have to constantly reframe how you’re thinking about something, flip it in your head, rewrite the script all the time. I’m prone to worrying, so it’s something I have to fight.
It sounds like New Orleans is really seeping into your bones! It’s such a joyful place. Where else are you finding joy and inspiration right now?
Currently I’m on a design project that’s kind of fun, so I’m enjoying that.