Designer Justine Cushing has lived in her New York apartment since 1970, but it's never needed a huge renovation, just a few refreshes. Here, she gives her secrets to decorating with a timeless style you'll never be sick of.
Barbara King: Your apartment exudes both a confident, zesty energy and an air of real contentment.
Justine Cushing: I've lived here since 1970, and I've always found it a happy, comforting place. I've never felt the urge to redecorate, although I've freshened things up over the years. But I haven't significantly altered the way it looks since I moved in. The general idea — the paint colors, the wallcoverings, the chintz, the furniture arrangement—has remained the same. It's fun to do something new, of course, but I don't see the point in change unless it's to improve things. And I think it's fine the way it is here.
Did it take a leap of faith to paint these walls such an exuberant orange?
No, because I was sort of copying my mother's very design-conscious older sister, whose house was decorated by Jansen. Her living room was painted fluorescent orange, and I thought it was so exotic and compelling. I told my painters that I wanted the color to look like cream of tomato soup. It's glazed, so it glows in the evening with the electric lights, and the contrast of the white floors calls even more attention to the vibrancy of the color. In a way, I wish I had made all of the rooms orange.
Now that would have been a bold and brave move, don't you think?
I believe in sameness, and an all-orange apartment doesn't seem so far-fetched to me. When I was nine years old, we moved to Squaw Valley, California, where my father had built a ski resort. We had a rather modest house, but my father's sister, Lily Cushing, who was a painter, persuaded my parents to do the living room entirely in red—red carpet, red lacquer walls, red lampshades, red antiques, everything was red. It was quite unusual, coming in from the snow. People called it an inferno! I inherited some of those handsome red antiques, and I'm lucky they look good against the orange walls.
So does the art. I'm captivated by those delightful scenic paintings.
They are by my grandfather, Howard Gardiner Cushing, and so are the portraits — the one over the chinoiserie desk is of his wife and muse. He trained in Paris and painted commissioned society portraits. He also painted scenic and fantasy murals, many of them with Oriental motifs, for his house in Newport, Rhode Island. I had details from the murals photographed and blown up, which makes them very dramatic. If you saw the originals, these don't hold a candle to them as far as the richness of colors, but they create a nice atmosphere and they add an Oriental flavor to the rooms, which I've always liked. I particularly like Chinese junks and pagodas. Those small reproduction paintings in the dining room are of junks, and there's a pagoda light fixture hanging over the dining table nearby.
Are the table and black Japanned bench also inherited pieces?
They are. They were already here when I moved in — my mother turned them over to me, along with the Venetian consoles in the living room and the apartment itself. This is a floor-through on the second floor of a four-story brownstone, and she bought it in the mid-1960s when she became single again. It was nice for her because two of my cousins lived on the upper floors. And my Aunt Lily had lived here in the '50s.
Astonishing. You must feel as if you're living in an old family home—you have memories all around you.
Very good memories. And all the photos of relatives make me feel constantly connected. They bolster me, assure me of my place in the world. I even chose the wallpaper in the bedroom because it reminded me of my aunt. She painted lots of nature scenes, wildflowers, lush greenery, that sort of thing. She also painted the reclining figure hanging next to the bed.
Your bed is an elaborate little room within a room. Have you always had that canopy?
Forever. A canopy is really wonderful and inviting — you're ensconced in your own private space, your own small tent. The room looks bigger without it, but when I've taken it down to have it cleaned, I've missed it.
Have you considered living anyplace else?
Not seriously. Jobs come and go, but my apartment has been a constant. When I turn the key in the door and see all my familiar things, I feel so snug, so at home.
This story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of CQ.