— Essentials —

The Woman Who Loved Unicorns and Other Lessons in Decorating

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It was my friend Patrick who warned me about the dangers of theme decorating. I had regaled him with my dream of a Scheherazade-style dining room: kilim rugs on the floor, ikat runners down the table, camel-shaped teacups, brass candlesticks, giant paisleys painted on the walls, and heaping platters of Basmati rice on the buffet.

The whole scheme made Patrick nervous. He didn’t want to see my dining room jumping the shark. In the upper echelons of the design world, theme decorating is frowned upon. It’s a big fat no-no.

God forbid you decorate an entire house in beach décor when a tasteful trug of seashells will suffice. And even more pox upon you if your house is not situated on an actual beach.

Some decorators even go so far as to forbid themed children’s rooms. My four man-boys, who are out of my hair and off my cellphone plan, spent their formative years in a bedroom festooned from top to bottom with cowboy décor. Yes, they were fixated on six shooters — an unfortunate side effect — but no décor scheme is without its risks.

There does exist, in the annals of design history, certain notorious themed rooms that make all decorators swoon: Gloria Vanderbilt’s Potpourri of Patchwork bedroom shellacked with layers and layers of quilts; Lee Radziwill’s Blaze of Turquerie drawing room; Diana Vreeland’s red chintz living room nicknamed The Garden in Hell; Pauline de Rothschild’s chinoiserie room and Doris Duke’s fabric-tented dining room at Shangri La. Even the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles is essentially a themed room for King Louis XIV who needed something fun to do while waiting for the Huguenots to get the hell out of France.

But for the rest of us, we riffraff and commoners, we should take heed, lest we suffer the fate of my friend Laura.

Her living room is filled with crystal unicorns. She finds them at Renaissance Faires where she moonlights as a stable wench. When she decided to move, her realtor required her to paint over the mural in the dining room. It was of a unicorn with a glittery banner over its head that read, “Keep calm and ride a unicorn.” If only she had collected 17th century Dutch masters.

The lesson here is that theme decorating is bad bad bad until it’s good good good. How do you avoid jumping the shark? Easy. Learn the golden ratio. To save you some heartache, I’ve broken down the formula.

You take the cash outlay of the room’s decor, multiply that figure by the designer’s cache on a scale of 1 to 10, divide that figure by the square footage of the space, and if the total is greater than all the unicorns in the room, then you’ve safely crossed over the threshold of good taste. Now call Architectural Digest and get yourself a cover feature.

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky




  • Glenda February 20, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Mithra, dawn is breaking in Southern California, and I lay sleepy – eyed next to my husband reading this article and trying my hardest not to laugh. Diane Vreeland’s red room always made me cringe.

    • Mithra Ballesteros March 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

      The poor man. I’ll try and tone it down next time, Glenda 🙂

  • Carol ("Mimi") February 20, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Back in the early 90’s, I had a den decorated with a sunflower theme . . . throw pillows, curtains, couch throws, knickknacks — all sunflowers . . . I look back and think “Ewww”.

    • Mithra Ballesteros March 3, 2017 at 9:14 am

      Carol, at least you weren’t “mixing your metaphors” which I did in the 90s. I had a farm theme in my kitchen – wrought iron fixture w/ animals, red cupboards, chambray walls, and then, in a pique of bad taste, I added bird houses mounted on the soffits. “Ewwww” indeed.

  • 1010ParkPlace February 20, 2017 at 11:29 am

    So funny, so true… Reminds me of my early lapses in decorating judgement. I say “early” because now I have perfect taste, don’t you know? NOT!!! xoxox, Brenda

  • Haralee February 20, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    Too funny!! The mistakes we all make and recoup, or hopefully recoup from as we smarten up!

  • Beth February 20, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    I come from a long line of them decorators. My Mom did ducks. My sister does sunflowers. I think it must be like eating chocolate, once you start it’s hard to stop.

  • michelle February 21, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Hahaha…I shudder to think what a decorator would think of my house.

  • Jen Lawrence February 21, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    This is hilarious! Unicorns! I once toured a house where every room had a theme: Paris, The Roaring 20s, Safari. The master bedroom was Egypt theme and included a large framed photo of the Mr. and Mrs. wearing Antony and Cleopatra costumes. Too much!!

    • 1010ParkPlace February 22, 2017 at 8:48 pm

      OMG! How did you keep from breaking out in gales of laughter? xoxox, Brenda

    • Mithra Ballesteros March 6, 2017 at 2:38 pm

      Jen, I have to pass your comment along. Too bizarre! And I bet it would be hard to stop such an addiction. On the other hand, maybe it’s instant. Like you wake up someday and realize, “I’m sick of Paris. It’s time to move to 1970s verge-of-bankruptcy New York City.”

  • Sequinist February 24, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    This is fabulous, Mithra. Like most teenage girls, I had a horse ‘theme’ going on in my decor. Since then, I’ve left all themes behind, but after your unicorn example, I might have to re-evaluate.

    I did do my son’s nursery in a fox theme, but that was more for me than him, as I have a slight fox obsession (not in terms of home decor. There is not a single fox throw pillow, I SWEAR).

    • Mithra Ballesteros March 6, 2017 at 2:28 pm

      A fox theme? Never heard of such deliciousness. Leave it to you to be such an original.

  • Shari Eberts March 6, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    That is so funny! My house’s current theme seems to be “overrun by messy children!”

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