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At Home: Get a natural, relaxed look with linen

CorrespondentJanuary 24, 2014 

It happens every January. Once the glitz, glam, glitter and gluttony of the holidays are over, I crave simplicity and long to surround myself with natural neutrals.

So last week when a sea tide of photos featuring undyed natural linens in a beautifully simple home flowed into my inbox, it was an oasis for my over-stimulated eyes.

I had forgotten how much I loved linen, but Richard Ostell, a respected fashion and home designer, reminded me. The shots were from his home in Westchester County, N.Y. Rough woven linens graced his tables, windows and bed like a pure sigh of relief.

I got him on the phone.

“I’m calling to talk about our mutual love of linen,” I said, breaking Rule No. 1 in journalism: Never show your bias.

“I’m not a fan of superfluous detail,” he said, in a British accent that oozed refinement. “I’d much rather have something plain. Linen is honest, simple, humble, durable and has an element of having been touched by human hands.”

The former creative director for Liz Claiborne, Ostell now has his own furniture and product design company. His work, whether in fashion or furnishings, reflects style that doesn’t scream. His home whispers, “I am here to comfort, not impress.” It’s a mantra more homes should adopt.

“Linen is this great-looking fabric, so why don’t we use it more?” I ask.

“I’m puzzled by that, as well,” he said. “Possibly because it’s naturally rumpled look gave it a reputation for being too casual. It got pigeonholed, but it can be very sophisticated. I think a lot of people don’t understand what they can do with it.”

“I think it’s the ironing,” I say. “All that pressing and starching. Who has time?”

“I never iron linen,” he says.


“It defeats the point of it. The rumpled look is part of its beauty. I love it right when it comes out of the dryer fluffy. I don’t think people should think it looks messy. It should be left as it is.

“Appreciate the fabric’s natural state,” he continues. “Linen wrinkles. Pressed linen looks worse when it wrinkles. You don’t want your linen to be pristine and pressed and perfect.”

I let this sink in: I can get a better look with less effort. I hang up, in love with linen even more than before.

Besides permission to let my linen be rumpled, here are some other insights Ostell shared on how to live more beautifully with linen.

Best places: Ostell’s duvet cover is a natural linen color, undyed and unbleached, and his linen sheets and pillowcases are white. He uses heavy linen for drapes and upholstery, including slipcovers, and lighter-weight linen for tablecloths and napkins. “You can overdo it, but most people don’t use linen enough.”

Keep it natural: Though he’s drawn to undyed linen, colored linen is OK, he says, if the color is achieved through a natural dye. The only linen color he’s opposed to is black. “It doesn’t fade well.”

Always at home: Pure natural linen mixes well with wood, metal, other fabrics and all decor styles, from contemporary to rustic. It has a place in every style of home, and keeps interiors from looking too cold, he says.

The class factor: Cotton and linen come from cotton and flax, respectively. Hundreds of years ago, linen was valued over cotton for its stamina, sheen and feel, but as cotton became cheaper to mass produce, linen became considered a high-maintenance (when starched and ironed) symbol of class and status. Cotton is still usually less expensive. Cotton linen is a blend, and costs less than 100 percent linen. But fabric connoisseurs prefer pure linen, which gives a more uneven thread.

A test for best: When choosing, look for Irish or Belgian linen, the world’s best linens, Ostell suggests. Linen from China is often not as good, wrinkles more easily and is thin.

Resist ironing: When you buy linen in the store, it is starched, pressed and finished very highly, he said. “When you wash and dry it, it won’t look that way anymore. And that’s good. Leave it.”

Life, like linen, is better relaxed.

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