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Home Design Pioneer Comes to Area

Home design expert Mary Gilliatt gives a talk and signs books in Annandale.

Mary Gilliatt is a pioneer in the home decorating world, an accidental career that has spanned more than 40 years and includes 38 books.

“I didn’t mean to be an interior designer,” Gilliatt said. “I was the winner of a Vogue decorating contest in England in 1956, and they put me on Homes and Gardens.”

“Once I got put on that topic, I got really interested in it," she said. "It was a pioneering time in the world, the [Vietnam] war was just over and people were starting to put money into design and there was a lot of designing going on in the ‘60s."

Her first book was published in 1967 was recently revisited in the Telegraph Magazine in her native England. “It still stands up well,” she said.

Gilliatt will discuss interior design and sign copies of her newest books, “Mary Gilliatt’s Dictionary of Architecture" and “Interior Design and Home Comforts with Style," on Thursday, Oct. 14, from 6:30-8 p.m., in the Ernst Community Cultural Center on the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

“Any books for sale will be advanced copies,” Gilliatt said. The books will be officially released in a few weeks.

“She’s been called the first lady of design made simple,” said Lee Wiggins, Gilliatt’s publicist. “She’s well known in the industry and a member of the board of the New York School of Interior Design.”

Wiggins said that her office has already received a number of inquiries requesting copies of the dictionary.

“We’ve received more requests for this book than ever before, with 94 people requesting copies,” Wiggins said. “She considers this her best book and there’s nothing like it out there now.”

GILLIATT WAS also the first person to have a design show on PBS in the 1980s, Wiggins said.

“Mary is the Julia Child of design,” said Sandra Hambley, regional director for Décor & You, an interior design firm sponsoring the book signing. “We’re really excited about bringing her here. She’s worked on several celebrities’ homes, including Katie Couric,” she said.

Gilliatt works with Décor and You and was responsible for devising its training modules, Hambley said.

“What’s made Mary so popular is her focus on the clients,” Hambley said. “She’s always very excited about getting people involved in the design process for their homes. What makes her different is she believes that beautiful décor and comfortable space should be available to people who make it a priority in their home or office, regardless of price.”

“Mary Gilliatt’s Dictionary of Architecture” is 480 pages of terms used in the industry that even professionals have a tough time defining, Hambley said.

“A lot of people don’t realize that you can get into interior decorating without a degree in interior design,” she said. “This book is a great resource for people who want to do their own design.”

With the current popularity of home design and renovation shows, such as Trading Spaces on TLC or Monster House on The Discovery Channel, people are showing a growing interest in remodeling or redressing their homes.

“These shows make it look so easy to do, and they suck you in that people get so frustrated. No one has the time to make things all appear like on TV, in two days and on a tight budget,” Hambley said.

Gilliatt said this trend is worrisome to her.

“It’s unrealistic. I’m afraid those shows do a lot of harm with people’s expectations of time and money. It’s very rare to be able to do something in two days with that sort of budget,” she said. “They’ve created an enormous amount of interest and they’re very entertaining, but they’re also very misleading,” she said.

HER GREATEST piece of advice to someone looking to redo, say, his or her bedroom at home, is to prioritize and make sure there is a clear idea of what the person wants.

“Be sure what you want to do and don’t rush into it until there’s a plan for the project,” she said. “People tend to spend too much of their budget on one item and then they don’t have enough for the rest of the project.”

“Remember that any project can be done in stages, but it’s important to get the framework set and started,” Gilliatt said.

“I want to give people as much confidence as possible to try to make things simple,” she said. “I was never trained in home design, so when writing the books I had to be able to explain it so it was understandable. This dictionary started as a handbook, but hopefully it will help people be able to get what they want by being able to discuss things like flooring” when starting on a design project, she said.

She’s very much looking forward to the book signing in Annandale on Thursday. “I usually like to combine a book signing with a talk,” she said. “I like to give something back to my readers and answer their questions.”