Homes

A chat with top designer Markham Roberts

by Catherine Mallette

These bold blue walls in a New York townhouse are covered with a rich cotton velvet. They’re a stunning backdrop for a great piece of art and multiple fabrics in harmonious shades of blue. A neutral rug with a complementary yet complex pattern pulls the components together perfectly.
These bold blue walls in a New York townhouse are covered with a rich cotton velvet. They’re a stunning backdrop for a great piece of art and multiple fabrics in harmonious shades of blue. A neutral rug with a complementary yet complex pattern pulls the components together perfectly.

Markham Roberts has all the credentials of a top American decorator.

He trained with Mark Hampton. His work has been featured by top editors — Dominique Browning, Margaret Russell, Newell Turner and so many more — in top publications, including Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, House & Garden, Southern Accents and Town & Country. He has been named to Architectural Digest’s elite AD100 list celebrating the world’s preeminent architects and designers. He even has a monograph devoted to his work: a big, beautiful book full of inspiring ideas.

His Great Big, Beautiful Book Decorating: The Way I See It, published in 2014, is a big, beautiful coffee-table book stuffed with inspiring ideas and more than 350 photographs. The book showcases how Roberts mixes contemporary and traditional styles, focusing on layered patterns and color. His rooms are one-of-a-kind creations that combine furniture from various periods, custom works and fine art. The book’s unique flow takes readers through Roberts’ design process: The first chapters cover the basics — floor plans, background, scheme, furniture, collecting, art and custom designs. Next, Roberts shows relationships between indoors and outdoors, taking a look at architecture and garden elements. The final chapters show his personal style in his own homes, including an 1876 Hudson Valley estate and a Victorian sea captain’s cottage in Washington state. Principal photography by Nelson Hancock. The Vendome Press, 260 pages. $60.

But he also has something you don’t always find in those at the top of the trade: a sense of humor. His book, Decorating: The Way I See It, not only is filled with gorgeously inspiring interiors but is also genuinely fun to read. Need proof? Some excerpts:

“There are really no steadfast rules [for decorating], though I might sometimes present a basic guideline such as ‘Don’t buy anything hideous.’ 

“No matter how hard you try to steer the crowd, people always gravitate toward the kitchen or the bar, unless it’s a fully staffed house with a butler who greets guests at the door with a drink. Few people live that way anymore, though, and thankfully, for me (whose butler seems to have gone missing somewhere permanently), entertaining is now much less formal.”

His book, like the rooms he decorates, exude a sense of warmth and openness, and his thoughts on great design are accompanied by passionate feelings about comfort, individual personality and even sharing your home with your favorite, furry, four-legged friends.

Roberts is the featured speaker for this year’s 23rd annual Design Inspirations luncheon, a fundraiser supported by the Fort Worth alumnae of Kappa Kappa Gamma and Pi Beta Phi, on March 3 at Ridglea Country Club in Fort Worth. He took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about his unique aesthetic, his inspirations and why Anne Bass’ New York living room was one of his early influences.

Readers learn a lot about you personally in your book. In the acknowledgments you thank your sister, Tina, for “putting up with me all those years when I was just a little decorating tyrant.” Could you tell us more about that?

I guess I was always interested in decorating, though I didn’t really recognize it until I actually started doing it professionally. I always appreciated beautiful houses, though, and I distinctly remember loving the experience, when I turned 10, of meeting with my mother’s decorator to choose my room scheme. I had a very chic room in brown, ivory and navy as a little boy.

 

In the book, you talk about Anne Bass’ New York living room, created by Mark Hampton, who gave you your first job. What inspired you about that space?

The New York living room Mark Hampton did for his client, Anne Bass, remains one of my favorite rooms I’ve ever seen. The incredible combination of modern and antique furniture from differing periods and styles, spectacular art and the pared-down architectural detailing is as modern and cool today as it was when it was done I think in the late ’80s. The room is the epitome of urban chic and reflects the superb taste of both the decorator and the client, which always makes the most successful rooms.

 

Although you create beautiful, luxurious spaces, you also say, “There is nothing sadder than a big, beautiful room that is rarely, if ever, used.” You also note that if a room was too intimidating and filled with expensive fabrics, “I might as well have put velvet ropes across chairs and hired a guard to monitor guests’ activity.” How should a room feel?

Whether a formal entertaining space or a private study, I like rooms that are comfortable and inviting and that reflect the lives of the clients who inhabit them. Big, showy rooms are only great if they have warmth, depth and character — I guess much like showy people.

 

Your book has an interesting flow to it — starting with the floor plan, then moving on to walls and floors, and more. You’ve said this is also the way you approach a project. Could you elaborate?

Well-decorated houses or rooms are the result of a complex process of layering. From the background architecture and the scheme of colors and fabrics, through to the furniture and art and accessories, they all work together to make up the equally important look and feel of a room.

 

In the chapter about your own homes, you show an Oriental rug that you picked up for $500 at a Connecticut antiques fair when you were 23. Can you talk about buying things because you love them and not necessarily because you know exactly where they will go?

I never had any trepidation about buying something just because I wasn’t sure where I was going to use it. I always found a place or kept it in storage knowing I would later. If you love something, it will most likely work in one way or another. That said, be careful buying something enormous if it might not fit through your apartment door. There are limitations of reason — you just have to use your head.

 

You say that your house in Clinton Corners is an ongoing project. You’ve been slowly restoring it bit by bit, and you didn’t start with any preconceived notions about how to decorate it — you just started by filling it with things you love. Many people are intimidated by design because we feel like we have to have everything done at once and make it all perfect. What’s your philosophy for making your own homes, well, home?

The quick decorating makeover is an invention for television. It is not the way to go about getting something that is lasting or truly reflective of our personalities or of our dreams for our houses. A quick fix is also very likely not the best quality. I tell clients it is OK to take things slowly sometimes — maybe wait on ordering something until the other things in the room come in and we can see them together.

Meet The Designer: Design Inspirations 2016 Markham Roberts is the guest speaker for the 23rd annual Design Inspirations event, a fundraiser supported by the Fort Worth alumnae of Kappa Kappa Gamma and Pi Beta Phi. More than 60 local designers, businesses and individuals will decorate tables for this annual event, which includes both a preview dinner party and the luncheon at which Roberts will give his presentation. The event, held at Ridglea Country Club, 3700 Bernie Anderson Ave., Fort Worth, will once again benefit Gill Children’s Services Inc. and Child Study Center. Tickets: Preview party: 7-9 p.m. March 2, $100. Luncheon: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. March 3, $125. To purchase: www.design inspirationsfw.com; info@design inspirationsfw.com.

Personally, I’d rather wait to get something I ultimately want, than to settle on something which isn’t quite right for me. I once went without a dining table for two years until I found the perfect one. Lots of people decorate in phases, and that’s a great way to make sure you really know what you want before spending a bunch of money.

And anyone who obsessively thinks their house has to be absolutely perfect at all times is probably too focused on it.

 

The Decor 8

Decorating genius Markham Roberts gamely answers our eight quick-fire questions on his personal style:

1Current favorite “white” paint color for a neutral wall:

Benjamin Moore “Ivory White”

 

2Favorite custom piece of furniture that you’ve designed and why:

An upholstered armchair my office calls the MCCE chair (Most Comfortable Chair Ever), which I have in my apartment in front of the TV

 

3Most challenging piece of artwork/furniture/etc. that a client has asked you to work with:

A reclining lounger that had a drink cup holder — the only time I ever really said no

 

4Bedside table?

On top: my book, a plate to hold my bottle of water, my alarm clock, and a very good angle-poise lamp for reading. The table is python-covered with a drawer and shelves below to hold all the other things that don’t sit on top.

5Favorite home design chain store for interesting, inexpensive pieces:

DWR

 

6Worst decorating mistake you’ve made (and how you fixed it):

I wanted to paint the walls of an old friend/client’s dining room a beautiful citrine lacquer, which turned out looking like the urine sample of someone who lives near a toxic waste dump. I had to beg and bribe the painter to stay all night and lacquer it white, which turned out to be the perfect backdrop for everything else in the room.

 

7Dream decorating project:

A beautiful house in Texas!

 

8Where you’d like to be in 10 years:

Where I am now, but working a little less hard and traveling more

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