You may call Anna Beth Chao AB, ABC, or Anna Beth, but never Anna. Unless, according to AB, you are her mother. She is a witty writer, insanely talented decorator, and interior stylist with a refreshing editing prowess. Before I run out of effusive synonyms for amazing, I’ll tell you one of my favorite things about Anna Beth. If you saw her on the street, you would probably think that she looks like a super stylish teenager. You would be shocked to learn that she is not, but she has a daughter who is! Which is exactly why I reached out to her. We’ve seen how some of us are living with kids – what about those of us living with teenagers? I just know you’ll enjoy this tour!
Q: Who lives in this fabulous home?
A: Well, let’s see. There’s me, and my husband Vince, and our daughter Madeleine. We also have a dog, Hank, who is very, very bad, and a cat, Spike, who is not.
I am a former corporate communications writer (I’m sorry, I see that you just fell asleep) turned interior decorator, stylist, and blogger. In fact, my one-year anniversary of leaving that corporate job is in just a few days, so yay to that! It’s been quite an adventure. My husband Vince Chao is also self-employed. He does something something with some things in China. There is possibly manufacturing involved. (I like to tell people that he exports potato chips and imports fake mustaches.) And finally, there is Madeleine, our only child, who is sixteen and a junior in high school. I’ll say one more thing about that, and then you will understand why I have to be medicated some days: she drives. A car.
Q: How did this house become yours?
A: Our house is located in a part of our small Louisiana town called the Garden District — historical, beautiful, quiet, tree-lined, super-close to Mad’s school — and it’s a place I have always, always wanted to live. So when we began looking for a house to buy in 2003, I knew exactly where to go. The house we ended up with was actually not even on the market at the time, but I just knew it was THE ONE, and I somehow inveigled the owners into selling it.
The house was built in 1945 and, while charming, was badly in need of several updates. So we saved and saved and made lots of notebook drawings and charts and spreadsheets and had some fights, and finally updated the kitchen. After that, I was hooked on renovation, and we’ve tackled at least one room a year since.
We are currently on our VERY LAST ROOM, the master bath. It’s currently nothing but a sub-floor and studs. After that’s done I guess we will just have to pack up and move.
Q: You’re an interior stylist, and it shows. Your editing ability is insane. What are your top three tips to making your home look uncluttered and well-designed but still completely livable?
A: The first and most important tip I would give is: less is more, y’all. Just take it all out. If you have eighteen thousand tchotchkes on your bookshelves, your bookshelves are going to look terrible and be hell to dust. If your desk is a tangle of cheap plywood and cords in the middle of your living room, I am going to have to ask you to remove it. The ceramic light-up Statue of Liberty that your in-laws brought you from New York that you secretly hate? I am sorry, but you cannot have that anymore. Oh my gosh, isn’t it crazy that it just got LOST somehow? You’re devastated. I’m just saying, the cleaner and clearer a room is, the better it’s going to look.
Tip Two: Use beautiful but hard-wearing materials: leather, jute, cowhide, cotton canvas, velvet, hardwood, wool, etc. The most beaten-up items in my house, by far, are the ones in Madeleine’s room, but that jute rug and pine IKEA desk just keep on ticking. My sofa’s white cotton duck slipcover was made in 1981. It doesn’t have a working zipper on the back anymore, but it still looks pretty good after years of washing and bleaching.
Tip three is a tie between a) don’t underestimate the power of paint, and b) don’t buy an item just to fill a space. The paint thing is self-explanatory — everything looks better with a fresh coat, right? The other one is more difficult to carry out, but listen: why are you spending $300 on bedside tables when the ones you actually want cost $600? Save the $300 and then save some more and buy the ones you REALLY want and love. In fact, don’t buy anything unless you love it. That is how you get a beautiful, well-designed, impeccably-collected house. And I know what I’m talking about, because I have been using twelve-dollar IKEA stools as bedside tables for the past forever.
Q: You have a teenager, and a cute one at that! How has her style evolved and mixed in with your own? Have you guided her or has it just been organic?
A: Those of you with older kids will be laughing at this one. Madeleine has gone through multiple phases of style, from preppy to emo to vintage to hipster to neo-grunge-post-modern-Japanese (I made that one up). I don’t know who she is from day to day, sometimes. And she definitely has her own ideas when it comes to design.
But overall, she’s got pretty good taste, she understands the importance of line and scale, and she can style a vignette like a tiny little Jonathan Adler. I don’t know if she gets it from growing up with me, or if it is just hereditary (my mother is an exquisite but ruthless editor, herself). I’m really enjoying watching her style develop into its own amazing Madeleine-ness, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Q: Were there any rough patches where she wanted to express herself differently? How did you handle it?
A: There are rough patches raising any girl, but the worst I can remember is when Madeleine was in junior high, and she and her friends had, oh, just a TINY BIT of an eyeliner problem. If you had done a study that year of the sentence I said the most, the winner would have been “TAKE OFF THAT EYELINER RIGHT NOW YOU ARE GOING TO SCHOOL NOT A RAVE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.”
And just when I thought things couldn’t possibly change or get any better, they did. And then she was in high school and went on dates and got a drivers’ license and is going to be a senior next year and I don’t want to talk about it.
Q: Favorite room in the house — yours and your guests — and what makes it so?
A: The screened-in porch and kitchen, hands down. They’re the best, most comfortable places to congregate, and they are where the food and drinks are. And we do a lot of eating and drinking down here. Sometimes people have guitars, and there are sing-a-longs. Sometimes a person pretends she is Gladys Knight and enlists others to act as her Pips. I do not know that person.
Q: Will you share your learned, tried and true secrets to living with kids – and specifically a teenager — with style?
A: Just chill. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s so easy to get all mad about the small stuff — and it doesn’t MATTER in the long run, so let it go. And you can do that with a teenager! They don’t need you to feed, bathe, clothe, or help them, nor do they want you to. So don’t get all aggro if their rooms aren’t totally clean at all times — teenagers throw clothes around and have a lot of Styrofoam cups. Give them a bunch of chores on the weekend, one of which is cleaning their dumb horrible bedroom with the forty Sonic drinks in it. On the other hand, don’t be letting your baby out of the house with a flask and hot-pants. It’s all about balance.
Oh, and keep a lot of food in the house. The grosser the snacks, the better (I’m looking at you, Totino’s Frozen Pizza.).
Q: Your Dewit Design Camp sounds amazing! Tell us all about it. What will camp attendees learn?
A: Yes! I am so excited about this. The term “Dewit” comes from my friends making fun of me for the very Southern way I say “Do it” — something I say a lot, because I am kind of bossy about the correct way to do things.
Through my blog, I hear from so many people who are into interior design and want to hire a decorator, but don’t necessarily have the desire/disposable income for that kind of commitment. So, Dewit Design Camp is a weekend design boot camp-type situation, where along with the basics of design, campers will learn how to make inspiration boards and layouts — and learn about all the paint colors and furniture and lighting and window treatments that go into those things — and then drop all that knowledge onto their own homes. It’s their chance to DEWIT!
Camp will also cover things like using and re-purposing existing items, common mistakes, budgeting, regular styling, floral styling, and shooting interiors. So, you know, EVERYTHING. This thing is going to be so much fun, and I cannot wait for the first one (which is in New Orleans the second weekend of May and there are only five spots left, I am just telling you). Also, there will be adorable swag. And lunch. And probably cupcakes.
Q: I loved what you did with Heather Armstrong’s house. She has two young girls; how did they influence the outcome of the living room and guest bedroom?
Since the living room was to be a more formal, grown-up space, we didn’t really consider the girls and their needs when we were decorating. We were careful not to use sharp objects as accessories, obviously, but this room wasn’t really for them.
Now, the guest bedroom is a different story— both girls really love the room, and it’s cozy and fun and much less adult — and I think of it as being not only a place for visitors, but also a place for the older one to escape the little sister chaos and hide out with a good book.
Q: What’s on your wish list to add to your home tomorrow?
A: A new bed and bedside tables. Vince Chao and I haven’t had a proper bed or tables since we got married in 1999. And that is just real sad, but it’s very much a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. So, De La Espada, if you’re reading this…CALL ME.
Q: Finish the sentence: I wish I had known…
A: …that all shades of white aren’t the same. That oil paint really does take that long to dry. That one original beats ten knock-offs. That burr coffee grinders are superior to all other grinders. That mayonnaise is just totally necessary on a shrimp po-boy. That only children are spoiled just a little bit. That long-distance running sometimes makes your toenails fall off.
Thank you so much, AB! I can’t wait to hear all the rave reviews from your Design Camp; it’s sure to be a hit! Send our thank yous to Madeleine, as well, for opening up her room to us and being such a gorgeous model.
I think AB’s right. One original does beat ten knock-offs. And about less being more. And about just chilling. And about how a messy room doesn’t matter in the long run. Before you know it, they’ve got drivers’ licenses and dates. For those of you living with young kids, how do you feel about someday living with teenagers? Oh! I think I need a tissue!