Last spring Charlotte Moss, the interior designer, author and New York society figure, opened a namesake home furnishings shop on a prime Upper East Side block, just off Madison Avenue. Occupying an entire town house and set up to resemble a grand private residence, it has been a hit among Manhattan’s well-heeled, a place where swan of the moment Lauren Davis registered for her recent wedding to Andrés Santo Domingo and where a set of four hand towels goes for a cool $525. But Moss’s adventure in retail hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. A few months ago, she says, she made some “tough decisions” and fired at least two employees who she felt weren’t up to snuff. “I have very little tolerance for people who are lazy,” says the fluffily coiffed 57-year-old, who speaks with the soft drawl of her native Virginia but delivers her words at a rat-a-tat-tat New York pace. “There are people who are get-it-done people, and there’s no bitching or moaning about it. Then there are people who think they are doing you a favor, and I can’t handle that. If you’re going to stand out, you gotta do something, and it’s called work, W-O-R-K!”
Over the past decade, Moss has done just that, building a name for herself as the Martha Stewart for the upper crust. She has written five books on decorating, with a sixth, A Flair for Living, set to be published by Assouline in the spring. She has eponymous collections of luxury china, fabric and linens; she’s developing carpets for Stark and a line of fragrances for Agraria; and, in addition to the five-story shop, she still runs her 22-year-old interior decorating business, working on multimillion-dollar homes from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to East Hampton. Along with her husband, financier Barry Friedberg, she’s also a major supporter of the Parrish Art Museum, UNICEF, Operation Smile and the New York City Ballet, of which Friedberg is chairman of the board. In April Moss will cochair the ballet’s spring gala, a high-water mark in Upper East Side social circles.
A detail of Moss’s home
At the couple’s home, a 1920s brownstone filled with 18th-century French furniture, chinoiserie and floral prints, Moss is known for hosting elegant dinner parties, which often culminate in her guests gathering around the cozy fireplace in her backyard garden. She’s also a pro at assembling what her friend Deeda Blair describes as a “modern salon.” Last year Blair and fashion designer Ralph Rucci attended an evening chez Moss that was inspired by Pauline de Rothschild. First, they heard a lecture by design expert Mitchell Owen on the life and style of the legendary tastemaker; then they sat down to tables decorated in the Rothschild manner, with Indian-style printed tablecloths and multiple flower arrangements.
“Charlotte is a real dynamo,” says Nina Griscom. “There are a lot of people in this town who are big talkers, but she’s a doer. You give her a project, and she runs with it. How does she do it all?”
“I don’t need a lot of sleep,” Moss says as if in answer to that question. “Five hours is good for me, and more than six is too much.”
Nowhere is Moss’s industriousness—or her insistence on good help—more apparent than at her home. Upon arrival, one is greeted by her uniformed housekeeper and her house manager, a fair-haired young man who scutters through the rooms, lighting scented candles and refreshing fragrance diffusers. Coffee is immediately served, accompanied by monogrammed linen napkins that have been ironed to a potato-chip crispness. “There’s just no excuse for bad housekeeping,” she declares. “Cleanliness is something that doesn’t cost anything. It’s about self-respect.”
The couple’s two other homes, in East Hampton and Aspen, are apparently kept to the same standard. “We sold our old house in Aspen, and I have a team out there right now, moving us into a new house,” she says. “I’ve completely delegated the installation to my staff. It makes them nervous, doing this for the boss,” she says, chuckling a little. “But I think it’s critical for their growth.”
Sitting in an upholstered chair in the corner of her book-lined study, which is crammed with photographs of her “favorite broads” like Elsie de Wolfe, Coco Chanel and Babe Paley, Moss exudes the air of one raised with such finery. But in fact she grew up in modest circumstances, the eldest of five children. The family lived in a Richmond subdivision that Moss describes as “straight out of Leave It to Beaver.” Her father was an Army colonel, and her mother stayed home with the kids. Her grandmother, who sold china at the local department store, often brought young Charlotte to work, an experience that Moss believes primed her for a career in retail.
A detail of Moss’s home
Though interior design was always a passion, she majored in English at Virginia Commonwealth University because, she says cheerfully, “I didn’t draw, and I still can’t draw.” After marrying her college boyfriend, she lived for a time in Los Angeles, but after five years, the marriage broke up, and she moved with a girlfriend to Manhattan. She got a job as a secretary at the investment firm A.G. Becker and eventually worked her way up to vice president in the tax department. “This was the early Eighties. There weren’t many women in investment banking,” she says. “I was using baskets for my in-boxes, and one day somebody told me I had to take them out because they looked too fluffy.”
A.G. Becker is where Moss met Friedberg, who was one of the firm’s senior executives. After living together for three years, they married in 1985, and by that point, Moss had extricated herself from the banking business. The previous year, when the firm was bought by Merrill Lynch, she strategized her exit, writing a business plan and spending her bonus on an antiques buying trip to England. Although she had no formal training in interior design, Moss had read every book on Billy Baldwin and David Hicks that she could get a hold of. She also had connections: Among her first clients were Susan and Michael Bloomberg, who hired her to redo the bedrooms of their daughters, Emma and Georgina. “I had the luck of timing,” says Moss. “The country was booming economically, and the English style was on fire.”
It was also a time when decorating was a newly voguish profession for society wives, and she still gets huffy thinking about the people who labeled her “some investment banker’s wife who quit her ‘real’ job.” Says Moss, “You know, I can’t tell you how many people think that if you’re a blond decorator on the Upper East Side, your IQ is less than average and you just make pretty pillows and curtains. I still have people say things to me like, ‘Does your business make money?’ That’s ignorance.”
These days anyone who knows Moss well is aware that she’s not only smart as a whip, but also dead serious about her bottom line. “She has the business shrewdness of a Wall Street person but has managed to preserve the perfect manners of a Southern belle,” says antiques dealer Louis Bofferding. “This has opened every door.”
That’s not to say that there haven’t been a few hiccups along the way. In 2001 she and David Easton, another of New York’s most highly sought-after society decorators, merged their businesses, an unusual move for a pair of big names. The partnership lasted only two years and, insiders say, ended acrimoniously. “We just had different philosophies,” Moss says today.
Rucci, a close friend of Moss’s, describes her as “enormously warm and kind, with an unerring eye.” Nevertheless, he notes, “she doesn’t want to waste any time” with anyone who has crossed her. “She does not make a scene or fly off the handle. She conducts herself like a lady.” But once Moss writes you off, he says, “you’re out.”
“I am strong-willed,” Moss admits. For instance, when it comes to her design clients, she says, “I am not a waffler. I am decisive. And I believe I have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure somebody isn’t throwing money away.” And if a client persists in pushing a bad idea, says Moss, she’s not afraid to walk away. “There are some marriages that work, and others that don’t,” she says. “In my view, sayonara.”