A crowd of design aficionados had just left the shop Malachite on Magazine Street after meeting designer Melissa Rufty and her business partner, Adrienne Casbarian. The group, visiting for the Southern Style Now festival, left with a new appreciation of what New Orleans has to offer in the realm of design, Rufty said.
“I think it was a real eye-opener for so many people who came to town for the festival,” she said. “There were people from all over, and I’m not sure that they knew until they came and saw for themselves just how diverse our design resources are — or how sophisticated.”
Originally from South Carolina, Rufty is a much sought-after designer who moved to New Orleans in the 1980s to attend Tulane University. Her first career was in advertising and marketing, a pursuit she believes helped lay the groundwork for her design business by providing her with opportunities to devise solutions to tricky problems and to work on a team with other creative professionals.
After the first of her three daughters was born about 20 years ago, Rufty left advertising. But she soon became restless and in need of a creative outlet.
“I was volunteering a lot and was on the decorating committee for so many fundraisers that I can’t count them. That deepened my interest in design, although I had always been interested in it,” Rufty said.
“I thought I had the skills to make a design business work. Some of it has to do with being able to keep to a production schedule, which I did a lot of in advertising. So over time, that’s what I transitioned into and started out working from home.”
Today, the offices of Melissa Rufty Design Studio are upstairs above the Magazine Street shop. Light from large windows floods the space, which features a conference table for examining swatches of fabric and chips of paint. Samples are contained in a bank of white canvas bins fitted into a grid against an interior wall.
“I need my office space to be all white so it can serve as a blank canvas for displaying design materials,” Rufty explained.
Rufty is one of a handful of local designers who was invited to transform a room at the Southern Style Now/Traditional Home Showhouse at 7618 St. Charles Avenue (open Wednesdays to Sundays, through June 12, southernstylenow.com).
“I had never done a showhouse before and didn’t know what to expect. My space is the entry hall, so I wanted it to feel welcoming and enveloping,” she said. Rufty established the feel of the space by using hand-marbleized silk (dyed by hand in small batches by Paige Cleveland) to cover the walls.
“Ric Fisher did an amazing job installing it. He had to feather the pieces of silk where they joined one another so you wouldn’t see a seam. When I saw the air conditioning vent that he had covered with silk, I was astonished.”
Rufty says that having a great team makes all the difference in design.
“I work with amazing people who take so much pride in the work they do. You have to be able to count on them to have your back,” she said. “That’s one thing I love about this city — we have such a wealth of artisans and craftsmen.”
Rusty says she finds herself at a loss for words when she is asked to describe her “style.”
“I think it’s because I don’t have a single style and certainly not one that I impose on my clients. The goal is for the rooms I work on to look as though I was never there. I want the spaces to reflect the people who live there, not me,” she said. “It’s up to me to help my clients express the best version of themselves.”
That said, a review of images of Rufty’s projects reveals that many of the interiors she has worked on feature lacquered walls, some have built-in banquettes for seating and antiques mingle comfortably with contemporary pieces in others. Saturated color — whether paint or upholstery — yields a jewel-box effect in some rooms. Silks, velvets and linen appear frequently along with modest fabrics. An oil painting may hang above a Lucite table in compositions that Rufty describes as “current” rather than contemporary or modern. Most of the rooms rely on personal belongings of the owner — family antiques, silver — to complete the tableau.
“I avoid trends as much as possible,” Rufty said. “I want my designs to have staying power. You shouldn’t have to redecorate every 10 years.”
When Malachite opened four years ago, it was intended to fill a niche that Rufty feels is important to exceptional design.
“Our shop is the place where people come to find that last 10 to 20 percent that makes a design work,” she said.
“I think in general that most designs can go one way or another up to a certain point. It’s that last bit — a pillow, an old chest, an oil painting — that pulls it all together. The last bit brings out the beauty and personality of everything else. Without it, it looks like it all just landed there. But with it, the interior has soul.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com.