Alexa Hampton once traded in her Volkswagen Jetta for an upholstered chair. Her husband couldn’t relate. But I could. It made perfect sense that the convenience of a car couldn’t trump that feeling of contentment every time she saw that lovely, perfectly proportioned piece beckoning from her living room. It made her happy.
Years later, it seems she is infinitely content and confident in that choice and in the life and work she thrives on as the head of Mark Hampton LLC, the Manhattan design company founded by her father, one of the industry’s uber icons, the late Mark Hampton. Since she took the helm after his death in 1998, she has clearly made her own mark in the sometimes-rarified world of big name designers. To her credit, and our delight, she lived up to her personal reputation as a smart, funny, tell-it-like-it-is designer of enormous talent and down-to-earth demeanor as guest speaker at the recent Designer Luncheon sponsored by the Nantucket Historical Association in conjunction with its upcoming Antiques & Design Show (August 1 through 4 at the island’s Bartlett Farm).
Referencing her book, Alexa Hampton: The Language of Design (Clarkson Potter, 2010), she makes it all sound so simple. “Interior design is a language you can learn to speak,” she told the audience. Perhaps we can, but after her animated presentation, it was clear that interior design is her native tongue.
There are four elements needed to create a well-designed room, she told us: Contrast, proportion, color, and balance. Never mind that so many without the designer’s gifted eye wonder what is the difference between proportion and balance, and think contrast and color are to be banned if one wants harmony.
Nay, says Hampton, addressing the gathering as if she were our best friend from college and we were about to take the GSATs. She was an encouraging, practical, don’t-take-it-all-too-seriously coach who bolstered our confidence. Learn these principles, speak this language, and you will achieve success. (Or, we figure, we will at least know it when we see it, which should be useful when working with a design professional.)
She explained the language metaphor as if teaching a freshman writing class. Contrast is the verb (it creates action and tension), proportion is the grammar (rules and structures and no dangling participles), color is the adjective (use it judiciously) and, finally, balance underlies it all and is the conclusion to the story.
Hampton’s a new book, Alexa Hampton: Decorating in Detail (Clarkson Potter, 2013) will reveal more of her secrets. In the meantime, we garnered a few pearls from her design cache:
• Big furniture in big spaces is not the answer. Normal size furniture in a larger room will emphasis its grandness.
• “I’ve never seen a table I didn’t want to shove stuff under,” she said, showing photos of elegant antique console and side tables with books or pottery beneath them to fill a leggy void and create a rich vignette.
• Dining rooms are the most difficult spaces to design “because they are all about the table in the middle.” We are guessing an even more perilous space might be the kitchen since she has confessed, “I don’t cook.”
• So she (and her client) can visualize the room, she takes a photo of the space to be decorated and draws her design plans (furniture, curtains, rugs) over it with a Sharpie.
• We found a fun rule of thumb she uses in an online Q+A with Curbed Interviews: “If you’re looking for a dining room chandelier, or any chandelier for that matter,” she said, “take the width of the room you’re working with in feet, double the number and convert it to inches. So in a 15-foot room, you’re looking for a minimum 30-inch-diameter chandelier.”
• In an interview with Architectural Digest, she was asked what were the three essentials for entertaining. Her reply? “A big, deep sofa, good conversation, and an ice maker.” Once again, I relate.