Seven years ago, Sara Ruffin Costello and her family did what so many New Yorkers dream of but never dare—they left behind the urban rat race for a slower, sweeter pace of life. For Costello, the founding creative director of Domino magazine, and her photographer husband, Paul, the draw was one of America’s most intriguing cities: New Orleans. At the time, it seemed like a risky move, given their chosen careers, but as Costello reflects, “you don’t get an opportunity to change up your life that often.” Opportunity came in the form of an 1868 Garden District mansion that happened to be on the market when the Costellos were visiting New Orleans, and a realtor friend happened to have the keys. Upon returning to New York, neither could stop musing about the manse. “There wasn’t much hand wringing involved,” Costello says about the decision to buy it. “We were just burnt out and looking for a new adventure, and the stars aligned.” Soon, they were packing up their apartment, finding new schools for their three children, and looking at pale pink paint samples for the exterior of their new home.
Cut to the present, with grand rooms decorated in an eclectic, bohemian style that Costello calls “undecorated” (standouts include a showgirl’s feather headdress adorning the living room’s marble mantle, a ping-pong table in the dining room, and books stacked casually against the walls). The art-filled house—and Costello’s exquisite taste—have been swooned over in numerous print publications, among them Elle Décor and The New York Times. But it wasn’t until a bachelor friend in New York hired her to decorate his townhouse in the West Village, that the editor officially turned designer. “Major learning curve,” she says of the project, which includes a wine cave, a foosball room and an all-marble bathroom, from tub to floors to fireplace. “But we had a blast. I was hooked.”
This mid-career recast was part of a Southern “blossoming of creativity” that also yielded a line of breezily sexy Sara Ruffin Costello dresses—perfect for porch lounging or garden strolling, or perhaps lunching at the Corsair, the hotel she is currently designing. Scheduled to open in Fall 2019 in New Orleans’ underserved uptown neighborhood, the rambling Victorian property with a pool will have a vibe Costello describes as “Pretty Baby, updated,” with Creole flourishes and zen detailing. A hotel is not unlike doing a large house, she says, “if that house had a restaurant and a bar. Commercial design involves the same set of principles as residential, just scaled up: How will people live and work in the space? How will it bring joy and inspiration?”
To help give her projects a “story” or a sense of history, Costello frequents auction houses and the online antiques mecca 1stdibs, but she grants that West Elm and Crate and Barrel have their place, too. And for those whose budgets might tilt toward the latter but who still yearn for the sophistication and imagination a trained eye can bring, Costello has begun offering quick DIY design services Would love a quote on how she came up with this business model since it sets her apart from others…this is the most interesting part so any way to flesh out would be great. It’s a concept that has been percolating since her magazine days (she also co-edited Domino: The Book of Decorating), when she offered “decorator-for-a-day” services at a school auction, but it didn’t totally gel until she had found her own voice and vision. The way it works, clients submit photographs of one room at a time, and receive digital mood boards within about a week with Costello’s first picks, plus sources for buying and back-up options. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” she says of this simple service that can nevertheless have a huge impact. “No matter the budget, you are working with the basic elements of improving your day to day life, and that is super rewarding when you get it right.”