Classic, young traditional, American design. These are the words that come to mind when describing Markham Roberts work. His eye for color, elegant small printed fabrics and the best suited antiques to his projects make him a designer that bridges old world and modern day aspects. He got his start working for the venerable Mark Hampton,where he learned how to buy with a well trained eye and make a room interesting. His sense of scale and proportion makes the rooms he decorates instant classics-- in ten years they will still look fresh. After having lunch with Markham and his partner, James Sansum, I knew I had to figure out a way to get his genius across and that pictures would not be enough to tell the whole story. Luckily, he opened up in great detail about his design process, and I am so happy to be able to share it here.
The house I grew up in made me love all those truly American houses built in the 20’s. Ours was a brick Tudor, but it had a sort of French influenced hall with stone floors and a pretty metal banister. I can remember my sister and I being able to stick our heads through it to spy on my parents when they were having parties and we were supposed to be asleep. There was a Georgian style paneled library too, so like all those American houses of the period, it was a complete mixture of different periods and styles, which is something I’ve always loved.
A very little me in my grandmother’s house. There’s a period Georgian wing chair covered in a colorful Samarkand print which she had had quilted for the chair. There’s also an old American rocking chair (ubiquitous in 60’s traditional décor probably due to the DuPonts’ influence) covered in a great little Indian woven texture. It was early exposure to taking something exotic and using it on something traditional. The library had great bleached pine paneling and flag stone floors, which are elements I use all the time.
Me with my father and sister on the porch of our cottage in Michigan. It was a crazy old wood house with old fashioned porches – completely casual with all types of furniture – some made of tree limbs mixed with painted pieces and quirky old fashioned turned pieces and wicker. That house totally influenced that side of my decorating for country houses where you can mix anything for a very easy and comfortable feel.
Here’s a picture of my grandmother on a chic porch she had in Indianapolis. She was my all time favorite person, and I loved spending time at her house. That porch had really chic wrought iron furniture with big blue cushions piped in grey, painted brick walls and a slate floor. It looked over an interesting modern garden she had which had no grass, but rather beds of ivy and pachysandra with pretty tall pines and sycamores. It was an interesting mixture to have a traditional white washed brick house with pretty bay windows surrounded by this simple modern garden – the only ornament for the garden were lead grey urns planted with boxwood or other evergreens.
This is the study in my apartment where James and choppy and I spend most of our time. This room has all the things I love - my books, my desk (a big flat surface for Dominos pizza), a comfortable daybed, and most of all the TV.
I love this beautifully paneled library. It's something you rarely see any more and it's such a shame that most new construction today favors hideous new mahogany libraries with bad detailing. The architecture of this paneling is so simple and perfect, and the golden soft finish of the wood is mellow, old, layered and pretty much perfect in its imperfection.
When I went to meet with my client about working on this room, half the walls were pink and the other half were mirrored. my client confessed she had never really liked the room. so we decided to take a totally different approach and to add the tall bookcases, the mantel and the teal silk wall upholstery to return the room to the beautiful prewar feel that had previously been taken away. I loved being able to work with a totally clean slate and to design every last detail. It is now a very cozy room and my client loves it.
I did this NY apartment awhile ago for a good friend who had small kids. She and her husband had both grown up in fancy apartments and wanted a younger more modern look. so I got to design and make a lot of cool furniture for them, got to play with dragging and tinting plaster on to the walls to make this layered subtle wall finish. It ended up being a nice backdrop to all the modern furniture. i always thought it looked very sophisticated and cool.
This is the living room of an old carriage house I redid in Southampton, LI. It is a favorite room of mine. I love that you can see the old stable planks on the walls, which I painted a crisp white to offset all the greens in the scheme.
This is choppy-Benet our treasured poodle. I feel like a real pageant mother pushing her into every photo shoot I do. I like this strangely shaped entry hall of this old house for all its imperfect charm.
I did this hall for young friends of mine as a backdrop to some of the serious antiques the client had from her family. I wanted it to feel young and fun. Since this entry gallery has no windows, I chose the bright rug and the bold stripes.
This is an entry hall of a very grand penthouse apartment here in NY. It was the first project i did when I opened my own firm. The fantastic Kent- style carved and gilt console was the very first thing I found for this client, and when it wouldn't fit into the apartment through the back, it had to be walked up 14 flights of stairs.I 've never been so nervous in my life, nor so relieved as when it made it through and i was able to see how beautiful it was in the room.
For this big fancy house in Locust Valley, the client had the Georgian dining table, and I wanted to make sure the room didn't feel stuffy or "old lady", so we lacquered the walls this bright, electric green and made these comfortable chairs to downplay the traditional formality of the table.
Taken for a Christmas dinner story, this room was styled for it. So normally the pretty wire chandelier does not hold greenery like this - just felt i had to put that out there...
This is the perfectly square dining room of a Colonial style house in Greenwich, CT. I love the pattern of the upholstered walls and the totally romantic feel in this room by candle light.
Who did you work for to learn the trade?
I moved to New York after school and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I took a part time job at Sotheby’s working in client services. It was not a rigorous job, but it was very interesting to get to see how the auction houses work and to be exposed to that volume of furniture and decorative arts. My first real job was working for Mark Hampton, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. He was incredibly talented as we all know, but he was also super generous and fun as a boss and mentor. He could be very tough, but he was never unfair to me, and I learned so much from him and from being able to work on so many great projects.
What is your signature look?
Seriously, if I hear one more decorator describe his or her style as “eclectic” or “traditional with a twist”...I like to think that I don’t have a signature look or easily definable style. I try very hard to approach each job individually – keeping in mind what I want to do and making it work with what each client wants. I hope the result is that people don’t look at a project and automatically know that it had been done by me. My goal is not to imprint too much of myself on my clients’ houses.
Where did you learn to be so fearless with color?
Using different colors together in schemes and seeing how they work in combination is very interesting and can really make a room go one way or another. I studied art history in school, and looking at the colors in paintings has always been inspiring, whether you’re looking at an Ingres or a Rothko.
What is your favorite color to lacquer a room?
A high gloss lacquer is as beautiful in white or bright poison green as it is in a more traditional color like red or brown. I am drawn to lacquered walls like a giant decorating Moth to a flame - lI ove them all, however everyone should keep in mind that a color like mauve should be avoided.
What advice can you give on mixing patterns and geometrics?
My advice is to stick with what looks good – ha, ha. No really, there aren’t any set rules about mixing stuff, so don’t be afraid to try things together. Do trust your instincts though. If you’re unsure about things working together well, then they probably won’t.
You create exceptional, inviting dining rooms. Is it the round table the room so cozy or the patterned walls?
Round tables are great – even in large sizes they create a very intimate experience and seem so much more relaxed. The most important thing to think about for a dining room is to make it comfortable. Chairs are key – avoid creaky old ones, which stick you in the back.
What other designer and or architect living or not do you most admire?
There are a lot of designers working today whose work I admire. To name them for you however would be like voting for another candidate if I were running for student council president. Dead ones I can certainly share. Mark Hampton comes first, and other favorite decorators and architects: David Hicks, Stephane Boudin, Henri Samuel, Nancy Lancaster, Harrie Lindeberg, Van Day Truex, Billy Baldwin, Elsie de Wolfe, John Volk, Samuel Marx, Jean-Michel Frank, Sir Edwin Lutyens, and though Albert Hadley is alive and well and still working, I am going to include him with Sister Parish.
What is your favorite go to fabric house or fabric?
There’s no one favorite, but here are a few shout outs: I love Pierre Frey’s timeless Braquenie prints, Carlton V’s bright cotton tickings, Chelsea Editions faded embroideries, Quadrille’s modern prints, and Holland and Sherry’s handsome suiting materials.
What material do you love?
I probably use cotton velvets more than any other material. They’re luxurious and durable, and they work in all climates.
What is your favorite antique you own and reproduction collection you constantly use as a resource?
It’s an early 19th Century French mahogany and brass Cartonniere with beautiful red leather compartments. It is so handsome and it totally appeals to my sense of order. I keep it full of photographs, letters, papers, adoring fan mail etc. And I often use pieces from John Rosselli, Bungalow 5, Oscar de la Renta’s line at Century, and Robert Leighton’s British Khaki. They’re all great sources.
What is your favorite project?
This is an impossible question to answer diplomatically, so I’m going to choose my own house in the country, which is truthfully my favorite house. It’s an old Second Empire style house built in the Centennial, which I have been restoring for a few years now. The outside looks a bit like an abandoned crack den at this point, but I have finished a lot of the work on the inside.
I find it so exhausting always rushing everything for clients who are always in such a hurry to get everything done. One of the best things about my house is that I can move at whatever pace I want. I have no one else’s expectations to meet (other than my boyfriend James and our dog Choppy, whom I probably should have mentioned first…). Actually James is very patient and easy going, and having had his expertise in helping us find beautiful things for the house has been great. Choppy is quite impatient and demanding, so I’m grateful she can’t talk. It’s going to take me many more years to finish the house as I have far reaching plans for what I want to do to it and to the garden, but I absolutely love it and am so happy to go every weekend.
What trade or retail store inspires you most?
My boyfriend James’ gallery is one of the best resources I know. He carries all sorts of interesting furniture, art and decorative accessories, and it has been totally helpful for me as a decorator to be able to offer things from him to my clients. I love this type of shop where I know I am seeing pieces, which have been selected and edited by someone who has a chic eye. So many shops just cram stuff in and apparently have no focus or evidence of taste. It can be completely uninspiring and often a bit depressing. Where alternatively it’s a great pleasure being able to go into a shop like James’, knowing you’ll get to see beautiful and interesting things. Some of my other favorite shops, which I think share that interesting feel of someone’s particular eye, are Cove Landing on the upper East side, Gallery BAC and Da Vera in SOHO, and Alan Moss in the East Village.
What old and new books are in your library?
New is Jacques Grange’s book. Old is the great Jansen/Decoration book or the Horst Interiors book.
What country house in England and America do you most love?
I’m going to start with a very grand French House – the Chateau d’Anet. It is a masterpiece of the French Renaissance with it’s beautiful Chapel by Philibert de l’Orme, complete with a marble inlaid floor in a totally cool Spiro Graph pattern. It was built for Diane de Poitiers who was the mistress and confidant/advisor to Henri II. She was a great beauty and avid hunter and saw herself as an incarnation of the goddess of the hunt of the same name. So all over the gardens and especially on the frontispiece of the Chateau there are allegorical references to the moon and the hunt. The coolest ones being life size recumbent stags flanking the portal to the Chateau. Jean Cocteau used the Chateau and gardens for his great film rendition of Beauty and the Beast – a perfect visual fantasy of 1940’s glamour in black and white. My favorite English house was Nancy Lancaster’s Ditchley Park. It shows perfectly that very grand furniture and architecture can be inviting and comfortable, which is something a lot of people miss. Everything about the house in the pictures of it when the Trees lived there is just perfect and totally inspiring to me. The other thing that house shows, because of Nancy Lancaster, is the perfect arrangement of furniture down to every last urn or potted tree in the garden or on one of the terraces. For an American house, I am always excited to see any house of Oscar and Annette de la Renta’s published. They really have great taste and beautiful things. Their houses show one how completely thought out a house or property can be – taking decorating to far more than just curtains and paint colors etc. Every table and every piece on those tables is something beautiful and interesting to look at, and this is something that really makes a room or a house come to life. Clients very often hit the spending wall, so I always explain at the outset when discussing budget, just how far their money will go and just what they will get for it.
If you were not designing, what would you do?
I’d be a telemarketer.
What city besides NYC do you visit to inspire you?
I really love London. I love to walk everywhere, and just looking around at all the buildings and greenery puts me in a good mood – even on a grey day. And there is so much to see in and around London.