A Chat with Alexa Hampton
Although she considers her late father, Mark Hampton, the most talented designer in history, Alexa Hampton, now 43, is no shrinking violet hiding behind his legacy. Since taking over his eponymous firm after his early death in 1998, she perennially tops the list of 100 Best Designers by notables such as Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Elle Decor and New York Magazine.
By Shelley M. Black
Homefront caught up with Ms. Hampton en route to Nashville’s 25th annual Antique and Garden Show, where she had been invited to moderate a lecture by the legendary actress Diane Keaton.
Articulate, knowledgeable and passionate, the spunky mother of three shoots straight from the hip as she gives us her take on everything from ’70s nostalgia to her dream project and the importance of discussing design around the dinner table.
Q. Is running Mark Hampton LLC your passion or your living?
Alexa: Both! Clearly I love it, but if you start thinking about just exploring and indulging in a passion, it can get a bit soft and fuzzy.
You can’t be too loosey-goosey and irresponsible at work … you have to be professional. The best I can do for my clients is to not swan in like I am not a serious-minded person. It is my job, and what I create for them is as important to me as it is to them.
Q. What are you excited about that you are working on this year?
Alexa: I just finished my own New York apartment and found it incredibly exhilarating … A lot of it was good and some of it was bad. What was interesting for me was to have the total experience myself, as I am generally on the other side of the process running the show.
I am already very sympathetic to our clients and I understand the hell they can go through. There are many trades involved and there can be some domino effect when plans run behind schedule, and it takes a lot of logistical planning to make the whole process work.
Naturally, I forgot that entirely when the job was my own. So, being the client was a good reminder for me. Even though you know things intellectually, you can still get wildly frustrated and it can cause irrational behaviour (at least it did with me).
Now, I am reminded that I need to be even more mindful and patient when I’m dealing with a frustrated homeowner. A redesign project can be disruptive, it can be uncomfortable, it can be expensive and very annoying at times, and it is happening in one’s home, which is supposed to be a safe haven.
Q. In your first book, you told us about the basic rules of interior design—contrast, proportion, colour and balance. Are these the rules you follow in your everyday design life?
Alexa: It’s not a ‘decorate by numbers’ affair and I don’t have a checklist that I go through, but I do tend to stick to these simple principles.
It is a loose framework and sometimes you want harmony and sometimes you want purposeful asymmetry … or even discord. It is good to know the rules, though, and it is good to break the rules sometimes, as well.
Q. Do you feel that your designs have evolved over the years?
Alexa: Yes, thankfully in lots of practical ways … I’ve gone from being a young ’un watching and learning from my father, to suddenly having to take over the firm, to becoming a mother of three, and now I’m grappling with the challenges of middle age.
I’ve grown through the relationships I enjoy with my clients—in many cases their personal tastes have rubbed off on me. I also enjoy the contact with fellow professionals; I learn so much from them. The passing of time has had some fun side effects for me as well. I used to shy away from designing kitchens, for example, and now I am at a stage in my life where I love to do kitchens. I think my experience has made me a more well-rounded person.
Q. Do your clients still see some hints of your well-known—I’d say iconic—father in your work?
Alexa: I think so. But from me, I hope they get a more playful experience. He was a whole lot more dignified even though he could be quite a lot of fun. Early on I decided that, rather than lamenting my lack of a dignified, proper personality, I would be happy that I am more playful, more casual.
To me, my father was the most talented designer in the history of design. I hope some of his style and legacy have stayed with me.
Q. You said recently “I’m a Euro wannabe, and I’m a product of my generation. My father’s nostalgia for the ’40s is replaced by my nostalgia for the ’70s.” What do you mean?
Alexa: He was more of an anglophile and I am more of a francophile … but I’d say we both just loved good taste and beauty wherever we could find it.
I will be endlessly in love with the things I grew up with in the ’70s. My father met David Hicks while attending the London School of Economics and ended up as his assistant and later his first American associate.
So, when I was born in the ’70s, our house was decorated with Hicks carpets and Lucite chairs and Saarinen tulip tables and metallics. That’s still nostalgically romantic for me, whereas that era was just more of a pit stop for my father. Frances Elkins and David Adler and Syrie Maugham and the other great ’40s and even ’50s designers were nostalgic for him because he had a different starting point. I’d describe my generation as groovier than his.
Q. You design fabrics with Kravet and have your own line with Hickory Chair Co., carpets and lighting—do you have any new collaborations coming up?
Alexa: I have so many things in the works. There is a soon-to-be-launched accessory line for Maitland-Smith and some really exciting pieces for Hickory Chair. I design mantels for Chesney’s and some really cool ones are being introduced this spring. And I’m thrilled that my own artwork is now being sold through Mecox Gardens.
What do I want to do that I’m not doing? Tableware, wallpaper, outdoor furniture, plumbing fixtures … How much time have you got—I could go on endlessly!
Q. What is your dream project?
Alexa: I have a very active design fantasy life. I would love to design a great big hotel from start to finish, or one of those West Coast palaces. I think they need me.
Q. Other than your father, who are the greatest influences on your design today?
Alexa: That is a truly evil question. Living: I adore François Catroux, Bunny Williams, Miles Redd and Markham Roberts. Dead: That’s a long and unwieldy list, but it certainly includes Frances Elkins and Madeleine Castaing and Elsie de Wolfe and Emilio Terry and Renzo Mongiardino. There’s also David Hicks, Albert Hadley, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta.
Q. What do you value most in your own home?
Alexa: My family. The cheese in the fridge, too.
Q. How has your childhood influenced your own parenting style?
Alexa: I scream at my kids every bit as much as my parents did at me. I let my kids watch movies, but not TV and no computer games beyond Stack the Countries. And we talk about history and we discuss design.
Recently my twin sons were with me at an antique store, and after looking around, Markos turned to the store’s owner and said: ‘Sir, I just love your store. When I grow up, I am going to shop here!’ ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself, ‘that is quite something for a soccer-obsessed eight-year-old boy. He really gets that design is an absolutely valid part of life and that it is in no way contrary to his sports-loving soul.’ Naturally, I agree with him.
Q. What do you consider to be the height of good taste today?
Alexa: You might be surprised to know that’s not what I’m after. I’d rather be known for going for the ‘height of chic’ or be in a room that displays great style.
Interiors should be unique and personal, and bring joy. They should be keyed to the person inhabiting the space. So if you can have that—and maybe avoid mohair, short padded valences, double self welts and round area rugs—you’re already half of the way there.
Shelley Black’s career has spanned a unique range of editorial and corporate roles with Flare, Maclean’s and BMO Financial Group. She enjoys writing about all forms of design, travel and food.
Photos: Scott Frances, Steve Freihon, Jean Bourbon