Originally published in Business Digest, March 1998

Design of the Times

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

[Barbara Stratton] Barbara Stratton has put her decorating imprint on many of the condominium developments in Northern Vermont as well as on private homes near and far. She also owns a shop in Waitsfield; collects classic Airstream trailers and MGs; weaves; and designs clothes, graphics and trade show exhibits. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Barbara Stratton says her friend author John Updike used her as a model for at least one of his characters. But the character whose spirit truly embodies this marvelously outrageous woman is that of Auntie Mame (just picture her as a Vermont transplant). This Waitsfield interior designer is a savvy, energetic, self-confident, yet hilariously self-deprecating woman who is fun to talk with and inspirational to be around.

She heads Barbara Stratton Inc., the aegis for her design business -- Barbara Stratton Interiors -- and her tiny shop in Waitsfield village called furniture et cetera, which she claims to have opened in self-defense. "Back when lots of models and condominiums were being built, I'd do a model unit, people would see it and come down to Waitsfield to see me," Stratton says. "I'd be sitting in my dungaree skirt eating cold chicken soup out of a jar, and they were shocked and horrified that I didn't have a shop. So I opened a store."

Stratton and architect Malcolm Appleton, her husband of 18 years, appear to have it all. Besides their primary residence, which they created by renovating an 1881 one-room schoolhouse in Moretown (it was written up in Design Times magazine), they have a home in Santa Fe they've never been in (but hope to retire to someday) and a charming camp in Isle LaMotte they renovated for summer enjoyment. They collect antique Airstream trailers and antique MG sports cars -- including a TF, TC, TA, J1 and a '61 MGA. There may well be other collections Stratton doesn't mention, not because she's secretive, but because she's so ebullient, she's often onto another subject before she's quite finished answering your first question. Don't for an instant assume she's scattered, though. She's smart, focused and knows what she's doing. It is these attributes that have turned more than one client into a close friend.

One of those is Chrysanne O'Neill, director of alumni relations at UVM. They met in 1990 when O'Neill was newly married to Burlington lawyer Jerome O'Neill and the pair couldn't agree on whose couch to keep. "Neither one of us had ever used a decorator," O'Neill says. "But a friend suggested Barbara Stratton, who came in and completely collected the confidence of both Jerry and myself -- very quickly. You have a feeling about decorators' being egotistical, but she was this warm person who immediately made you feel wonderful and great. And the next thing we knew, we were throwing out both couches and buying one from her." O'Neill chuckles as she recalls their subsequent purchase of a new house. "We realized we'd never be able to adjust to Jerry's condo."

O'Neill says she truly appreciates Stratton's taste. "She has a feeling for things that is unique. For example, I loved the old brick in this old house, and she said, 'Paint it,' and she was right! I wanted to save the banister in this old house, and she said, 'Sheetrock it,' and, again, she was exactly right! When Barbara says a color is going to go, it's going to go. She's always right. And we're not pushovers -- not without opinions. She just has this way of sizing things up. But she doesn't strip your personality in the process. Every time I sit in my living room and realize the wonderful ways she very gently directed me toward this, it's a real pleasure. Looking at things I would never in a million years have picked out except for Barbara. She's an amazing woman!"

If you've ever been house- or condo-hunting in the Champlain Valley, you've probably encountered Stratton's work. She did the interior design for such Burlington area projects as Dorset Park, Appletree Point, Lake Forest, City Bluffs, Saxon Hollow, The Gables, Steeplebush, Village at Northshore, Meadow's Edge and Battell Hill in Middlebury. She tells about a New York couple so taken by the work she did at Battell Hill they asked her to duplicate the design for them.

Stratton's projects are not limited to the Champlain Valley or even Vermont. "I do work in Canada, Florida, Venezuela, New York City, all over," she states. Some clients with more than one home hire her to decorate all of them once they've seen her work.

Occasionally, people who hire Stratton don't want anyone to know they've used a decorator. "I try to make it look like they did it," she says. "I work within the limits of their taste. I had a wonderful client with a beautiful house who was so burned by a decorator it took her eight years to get to me. Her house was wonderful, just needed updating, some new fabrics. I walked into her powder room came out and said, 'Oh, my God! What happened to that powder room?' She said, 'I'm so glad you said that. My other decorator did it.' "

Being an interior designer is more than being just "loving hands at home," Stratton says with a laugh. "I can tell you whether a wall is load-bearing, I can design built-ins and can sometimes save a lot of headaches if I get an early look at the floor plan." Some of her favorite jobs are working for developers. "Once they trust you know what you're doing, they give you carte blanche." A really smart developer, she adds, hires her to review his floor plans before he builds. "It's expensive to have another professional look at stuff, but it keeps them from making costly mistakes or having to change it later." One of her clients had an architect who had planned bookcases right up against the windows. "I asked the woman where she was going to stack the drapes she wanted to hang to the floor!"

To be a good professional designer, says Stratton, "you have to get into the head of your clients, learn about their lifestyles, what they expect their homes to say, to know their children. So I am their expensive friend. And I'm very good at what I do. I can't think of any mistakes."

An example of her current work can be seen at The Commons at Williston Village, a condominium project she designed jointly with her husband. Stratton chose to carry through a buttery yellow, blue and white color scheme that beautifully complements the sunny interior and elegant ceiling lines of the floor plan. The yellow walls made the developer nervous until he saw the finished model. "Most developers want white walls. I won't do it," Stratton says. "This one is so pretty, I can't tell you." The Commons was not the first joint project with Appleton. "A lot of his existing clients are clients of mine who have decided to leave the smaller house or condominium or put on an addition, so they have hired Malcolm. It goes full circle. And I say, 'Wait a minute! The people you're working with used to be my clients!' " She laughs.

While Stratton's work is fascinating, more interesting is Stratton herself. Raised in New Haven, Conn., she obtained her first job in 1953, right out of high school. She says she was expected to get a job and get married, so that's what she did. "I'm sort of comfortable with it now," she adds. Olin Matheson, the maker of Winchester rifles, was looking for people to start up a special project to do the tooling to produce two new guns. "I took two days of tests and it turned out I had a great mechanical aptitude," says Stratton with a bit of awe in her voice. "I was 18 years old and nobody had told me I couldn't do this. So they hired me and sent me to school with 29 other people. We had a morning of mechanical drafting and an afternoon of associated mathematics, and I loved it," she enthuses. Those 29 others were all men and the next youngest to Stratton was 35. "There were 29 men and me!" exclaims.

The next five years would find Stratton "pirated away to another industrial place in Hampton" where she worked as an assistant advertising manager for Masters Ltd.; making enamel on copper jewelry in Connecticut; and spending a year in Bermuda, where she and her husband (who was assistant editor of The Bermudian magazine) went to dive on treasure wrecks. "Then I got pregnant and we came home," she says. The next five years were spent in New Haven and Ipswich, Mass., having children -- four in all -- being a homemaker and getting involved in 17th Century Day, a city-wide historical event in Ipswich. "There are more 17th- century houses in Ipswich than anyplace else in New England," says Stratton. "These homes would be open to the public and we all dressed in authentic period costumes and, of course, I learned to do things like throw (or bobbin) lace and demonstrate it. I taught a whole mess of young girls to do it." It was here she also learned to spin, a craft she still enjoys. "I became the official spinster," she says. She also became an expert on 17th century design.

Stratton and her first husband eventually divorced, and she would remarry twice before meeting Appleton. During those years, she had opportunities to travel and mingle with the rich and famous, ran a horse barn for a while ("because I wanted to stay home with my children") and worked, for a time, in Boston as assistant to the president of Lemessieur Associates, a large special engineering company, which nurtured her interest in architecture. She also took on the responsibility of three additional children (belonging to her third husband). "He had a ski house up here in Moretown big enough for all of us, and I became a very creative cook. We usually had seven kids for dinner." Stratton spent summers running an antique shop out of the barn. "I had great customers like Mary Emmerling, a great decorator, and met lots of people."

When her third marriage ended, Stratton took a job with Michael Hertzberg, a consulting engineer in Waitsfield. "Then I met Malcolm Appleton, who is an architect who came into the consulting engineering office," she says. "He was involved with the South Village project in Warren on the mountain -- a condominium project he had designed. I did the first model unit. From there, people who saw the model and bought South Village places asked me to decorate and furnish them." She calls Appleton "a keeper."

Stratton and Appleton share an office in Waitsfield as well as their schoolhouse in Moretown, which they designed together. She begins her day at 4:30 a.m., making calls from home to people she knows are early risers. She does quite a bit of work at home -- layouts, research, etc. "If I go to the shop, everybody who comes in knows me and I don't get a lot done." That's probably no exaggeration. O'Neill tells about attending a craft show in Waitsfield with Stratton. "Walking through someplace like that with Barbara is like being with a celebrity. She kisses every baby, everybody knows her."

But the shop is the place where clients can come to see samples of merchandise. "Because it's little, you have to maybe not buy off the floor -- you have to wait six weeks for your sofa. It's hard for a lot of people -- especially those skiers who come from Hong Kong -- they want it now! But I can afford to give people a better buy because we don't have the overhead of trucks and delivery guys. It's two girls schlepping your sofa," she quips, including Karen Pearson, who's been the store manager for four and a half years. Every now and then, Stratton takes on an design intern. "One is presently at Rhode Island School of Design and got in there, I think, due to her internship with me," she says. "There was one who didn't know whether she wanted to be an architect or designer, so I stuck her in Malcolm's office for a while, and I got her for a while." She chuckles.

Stratton has a lot of expertise to pass along. She's a prize-winning master spinner (on an 1850 spinning wheel), dyer and weaver; she designs sweaters, graphics and trade show exhibits and has designed and created clothing for herself and her family; and she has been a food/gossip columnist for the Valley Reporter. She and Appleton don't have the land for sheep, but her border collie herds a neighbor's 55 sheep and she spins the wool in exchange. "I knitted him a sweater from one of his sheepies," she croons. "It keeps me out of trouble."