‘Gen Patton’ of Designers Hits the Beach

By Renee Peck
from the New Orleans Times-Picayune – July 7th, 2007


Ships passing: They’re an unlikely couple, Chris Madden and Thelma T. Piernas.

The former is that Chris Madden – the New York-based celebrity designer, a former design correspondent for “Oprah”, publisher and of a shelter magazine called Your Good Home, creator of a furnishings line for JCPenney, go-to expert frequently seen on TV and the lecture circuit.

The latter is known to family and friends as Miss Thelma, a 78-year old widow, a lovely and genteel Southern lady who has seldom ventured fat from her tidy brick house in Pass Christian, Miss.  There, she cared for a handicapped son in the remodeled two-bedroom shotgun, which served as the family gathering place of choice for more than half a century – until Hurricane Katrina sent a tidal surge over its roof.

But on a recent day in May, the two women had plenty in common.  They sat side by side on a three-cushion brown khaki sofa chatting happily about favorite furnishings and family connections.  It turns out that one of Pierna’s neighbors – the same women, in fact, who gave her refuge during Hirrcane Camille in 1969 – has a daughter, Weezie Peneguy, who works for Chris Madden Inc.  So when Madden began casting around for a way to help Gulf Coast homeowners after the storm, and idea was born.

Creating Havens: “We’re celebrating our companies 30th year, and I wanted to give something back,” Madden said.  “We have a small staff – eight of us – and Weezie was telling us about Pass Christian, its incredible sense of community and how, out of 2,400 families, there were only 400 habitable homes after the storm.”

Madden’s mind strayed to the company warehouse, filled floor to ceiling with samples from her JCPenney furnishings line.  “I told my husband, Kevin, ‘I think we can do something with this.’”

So they filled an 18-wheeler with as much furniture as they could jam inside, stenciled ‘Katrina Project’ in big letters on the side, and sent it south.  It proved enough to furnish four Pass Christian homes, including Miss Thelma’s.

“I always talk about turning your home into a haven,” Madden said.  “This was such a natural for us.”

She and her staff had chosen the homes they would furnish from letters submitted by storm victims.  They sent the selected homeowners disposable cameras and asked them to take pictures.  Then they built models of each room from foamboard and chose colors, textures, furniture and accessories for each.

“We knew just what pieces would go where,” Madden said.  “We had pictures of all the rooms and measurements and knew the colors of all the walls.  I’m very much like Gen. Patton on a project.”

Ready for its close-up: Miss Thelma had lost everything but who changes of clothing and a cherished picture of her late husband, Lucien.  “Every time they say, ‘ Storm!’ it’s the first thing I put in the suitcase,” she said with a laugh.

The upbeat attitude is typical.  “I haven’t shed a tear,” she said.

“Miss Thelma’s spirit came across in what she wrote to us,” Madden said.  “I could see her here with her son, who is physically challenged, a widow surrounded by her six kids, who are all supportive.  I could just feel the family unity.”

Miss Thelma, who had evacuated to Jackson, Miss., returned home a month or so after the storm.  With the help of her son Joe, who lives across the street she found a crew from Canada to gut the house.

“I sat in the side yard and listened to them throw everything out the front door,” Miss Thelma recalled.  “Every time something broke, I would flinch.”

The house was eventually re-built by a group of Mennonite volunteers.  Meanwhile, Miss Thelma lived in a FEMA trailer parked in the yard.  She found an electrical contractor to re-wire the house, and had a wall pulled out between the kitchen and the front parlor to open up the space.

When everything was finished, “I went to St. Paul’s Church and got a set of chairs they were giving away,” Miss Thelma said. “I had nothing at all, and I needed something in here.”

And that was the extent of the décor until the Project Katrina truck arrived.

Soon, an army of designers-turned-helpers was unloading chairs, tables, sofas, beds, curtains, dishes, candles, bedspreads, towels, rugs and lamps.  Every item was planned, from the cream-colored china in the breakfront to the landscapes on the walls to the straw basket perched on the kitchen counter.

“We’re not just leaving furniture here,” Madden said.  “We wanted to create that haven.  Miss Thelma wanted the sun coming in, so I said no to any big treatments on the windows. She has a big family and didn’t want things too crowded, either.”

“Everything looks bigger,” said Miss Thelma, gazing around the living room. An indoor-outdoor jute rug sits under a glass-topped Embarkation coffee table, brown-and-celadon blue plaid pillows are strewn about the sofa, soft light glows from a chocolate floor lamp.  Lucien’s photo sits prominently on  sofa-side table, near samples of Madden’s new Harvestware, due out this fall.

“My holy trinity of decorating is durability, affordability and style,” Madden said.  “I have all this furniture in my own house.  I like my furniture.”

The look she chose for Miss Thelma, she says, is kick-back-relaxed with overtones of elegance.  Comfortable and understated, by stylish.

Mission accomplished: The house still has a hint of grandmother in it – after all, Miss Thelma has 12 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.  An old-fashioned patchwork quilt made and left by the Mennonites is carefully folded across the foot of her bed, and Madden chose a soft, quaint tea-rose pattern for the bedding.

But any too-staid approach is countered by the dozen ornate pillows propped against the leather headboard and the 800-thread-count sheets under them.

As with any good décor, success lies in the details.  Madden chose an oversized “mule chest” for the bedroom, but decided it looked overly ark in the space.  So she plucked a tea-rose curtain off the shelf and folded it to use as a runner across the chest’s top.

The emphasis on comfortable chic continues throughout the house – in the spa towels in the bath, the embroidered silk bedding and tab-top green curtains (Miss Thelma’s favorite color) in the guest room.  Parsons chairs with rolled backs and Belgian cotton seats are pulled up to an oak tables in the dining area.

“It’s extraordinary how well everything worked,” Madden said, gazing at the stylish results of her months of planning.  “I think we all felt this was a life-changing experience.”

That military gleam enters her eye. “We’ll be back.”