Mark Hampton on Decorating, Episode 1

Mark Hampton on Decorating, Episode 1
Here's a rough transcript:

Hey friends. Welcome to the Daniel House Book Club Podcast. Together we are exploring the 8 books every interiors lover should have read according to Architectural Digest. I’m your host, Peter Spalding, the chief creative officer of Daniel House Club. If you’re an interior designer and you’re not a club member, you should be. We have free, pro and pro+ memberships which offer 30, 40 and 50% respectively off over 100 vendors you already know and love. Just the other day, one of our members placed an order with a $100,000.00 retail value across 22 vendors. She paid just $50,000.00, and instead of having to communicate with 22 sales reps and login to as many websites to track her orders and deliveries, we handle all those painful logistics for her. As a designer myself, I know how challenging it can be to stand in front of a client and promise everything will go wonderfully when there are so many elements of the work that lie beyond your control, like manufacturers schedules and the reliability of nationwide freightlines. That’s why we aim to be your ally at every turn. When things arrive damaged, we work with you to ensure your clients receive exactly what they anticipated. So if you’re tired of tracking packages and hunting down the very best price, head on over to and become a member today.

Okay, if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ll notice I took an unannounced two-week hiatus. That’s because I traveled to High Point, North Carolina for the semi-annual furniture market. It was great to see familiar faces out and about, and even more fun to meet new people who will help us deliver more lines to all of you. This quarter, we are excited to begin offering Thayer Coggin and Theodore Alexander quotes to all our members, among other exciting new additions. So, I apologize for leaving you hanging, but I think you’ll be pleased with the result. 

You may remember a couple months back, every episode was focused on color as we read through Josef Albers Interaction of Color together. Buckle up, because here comes another color conversation, although I think this one’s a lot more specifically tailored to interior design. We’re in our first of six weeks discussing the designer Mark Hampton’s book, Mark Hampton on Decorating. 

Mark Hampton’s was not a name I learned in my education, which focused on architectural history, but it should have been, because he was a true scholar who seemed to have an insatiable appetite for learning about a very wide range of historical work. Sadly, Hampton passed away in 1998 at the age of 58, but he still managed to have an enormous impact on the world of residential interiors in the final years of the 20th century. In fact, when I finally did encounter his work for the first time, it took me a while to get excited about it. You know that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep is explaining to Anne Hathaway the enormous amount of artistic effort and achievement that went into delivering her belt or whatever to the bargain barrel where she likely found it. Well that’s the sort of top down influence Mark Hampton seems to have had over the interiors of my childhood. So rendered in the finishes so prevalent early in life, I was turned off, but when you look at his work for longer than…5 seconds, you realize how incredibly studied it. But not so studied as to over-power the people for whom it was made. The suburban house he may have influenced was wall-to-wall wall patterns, often with very little architecture. Hampton loved Chintz, it is true, but there was so much more there. In all likelihood, you are familiar with his equally well-known and talented daughter, Alexa Hampton, who has carried on his firm. 

This is a handbook, just like The Decoration of House and The House in Good Taste, but with a very different flavor. Both those books read like declarations, but Hampton invites his readers to dream with him. He doesn’t start with the plan of a house, or a description of individual rooms or a formula for proportions. He begins with color and the impact different hues have on spaces. We find ourselves transported to the places he’s talking about, trying to conjure picture after picture as he spews important references from history. 

Hampton starts with what he calls, “The incomparable red,” and a phrase which is one of the few here that I find absolutely untrue; “everyone loves red.” What I have observed is that everyone has a feeling about red, which tracks with what he says next; that it is perhaps that color with the most connotations. It can be nostalgic, as we recall our red Radio Flyer wagons, or it can remind us of a dozen airport lounge and hotel lobby carpets. It can make us think of church or religious ceremony or the polar opposite, a brothel. Even as I say these potent connotations ring true, a part of me wonders if they are more salient for a generation older than me. I wonder if some of this is falling away to the point where red is just not a color that surfaces in the imaginations of millennials and younger generations like it did for Hampton. We didn’t all have Radio Flyers, by the 90’s, even United Airlines Red Carpet Club, now just called United Club, didn’t even have red carpet. Those who went to church often did so in a gymnasium-like setting where the sermon was given by a pastor wearing sneakers and jeans. The brothel connotation rings true, but I think that one may be because so few among has been to a brothel with red flocked damask walls as we see cartoonishly portrayed in film. Presumably for most, this was never a regular experience. Maybe I’m very naive. 

My favorite nugget Hampton offers in the whole opening section on color is this: “red is not a good color for the atmosphere of morning.” Humans are too fragile when the first wake and the quality of morning light is too delicate to work with red. But, red is the very best nighttime color. It looks wonderful with deep shadows of the hot setting sun and offers a perfect background for the easy play we find ourselves ready for by the end of a long day. I’ve not quoted exactly, but what I love here is that Hampton is telling us a house needs to accommodate the full range of emotions and experiences a human will face on any given day. And, that the light quality a particular room receives will have a major impact on what colors will work well. I’m in the initial stages of hunting for a new house, which means right now that I’m just looking at a lot of pictures online and to the developers and realtors out there, endless white rooms illuminated by the blue light of 3000 kelvin overhead LEDs is far from the end-all-be-all. Each room looks like a sterile garage incapable of hosting any of the activities I’d imagine. Hampton communicates that context is everything. 

So, I’ve suggested that the connotations of red may be less salient for younger generations, but I don’t think this really accounts for its decline in popularity since Hampton wrote. Actually, I think his assertion was so well received that vigorous red dining rooms and restaurants became so ubiquitous by the end of the 20th century that new homeowners would like to have any color but red. Especially, because as the first major DIY phase of the 21st century was in full swing, the preferred red was a deep burgundy which Hampton tells us is very difficult to achieve in opaque paint. Instead, several layers of transparent glaze are required to make a luminous burgundy room. So, we all grew up in badly painted ugly red rooms and think, “never again.” 

Yellow and peach aren’t very popular colors today either, possibly for the same reason,  but Hampton excitedly writes of their return and their great versatility. 


My parents renovated their house five years after this book came out and their living room was a soft buttery yellow, used as a neutral similar to how he explains the 20th century decorator Eleanor McMillan used it in her own New York living room with great success. 


It wouldn’t be a podcast about interior design if we didn’t reference Nancy Lancaster’s yellow room. Hampton uses this as another way yellow works well. He calls this room “the essence of yellow.” It’s cheerful on both sunny and gray days and creates a wonderful backdrop for all sorts of new and somewhat faded and decaying things. Finally, he said Billy Baldwin, whose work was alway crisp and clean opted for a more saturated hue with matching curtains and upholstery. The only markedly non - yellow things were the highly polished black and brown floor and the black ink drawing by Matisse. Especially this last application was less pervasive in 80’s and 90’s design and I think does feel abit fresher than the others. 

I’ve mentioned a hundred times my own living room is bright yellow with espresso brown trim and I love it. I’m eager to know if you’re experimenting with either of these colors in your own work. 


Peach, he tells us, has an equal range, and works in almost any setting, especially bedrooms and bathrooms. 

At every turn, Hampton is referencing great rooms from history as exemplar of the color schemes he’s suggesting. I assume most of you have seen the so-called garden from hell he references in the red section. This is a famous room designed by Billy Baldwin for 1960s Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Photos convey an overwhelmingly red environment - almost like red velvet cake. But Hampton points out, it’s actually far from all red. Two walls are white and two are of black, green and red cotton. I think the point here is that red plays very well with other colors and other versions of itself…many different shades of red hang successfully together in the same room.

While I’m back on red, I should mention, in stark contrast from The Decoration of Houses and The House in Good Taste, Hampton says red makes an excellent color for entry halls. One reason he gives for this is just what we experience in the garden from hell; it works well with other colors and provides a strong center from which other palettes can radiate. He also says that if you’re a person who does not like to sit surrounded by intense color, painting it in a space you pass through will contrast nicely with your softer rooms. Finally and I think most challenging to common perception, he says dark rooms, which entry halls very often are, actually feel more lively painted dark colors than light. If you paint a naturally dark room a light color, it tends to just feel gray all the time, but if you paint it a vibrant color it feels warm and inviting. 

Moving on, anyone who knows me knows green is my favorite color.  After realizing, just last year, that most of what I own is olive drab, I have been trying to curb my enthusiasm. But, Hampton indicates green as one of the most versatile colors and I whole-heartedly agree, so now I’m torn. I think this is why I buy so much olive drab clothing to begin with. The only thing it looks bad with is, maybe kelly green. Anyway, the section on green is where Hampton switches into high gear referencing tens of rooms by great designers from earlier in the 20th century. If this episode feels a little jumbled, it’s because I actually crashed my computer toggling back and forth between so many wonderful green rooms and lost all of my research. If red, yellow and peach had a range, these green rooms feel nothing like one another at all. 

The mid century decorator Dorothy Draper loved dark green walls. Hers was a green with a lot of blue in it and Hampton says we can credit her for making people comfortable with green. He talks about rooms in which everything is varied shades of green and how in this kind of scheme objects of very little decorative value can gain interest purely by the fact of being green. 

Here he introduces a room by designer George Stacey, with whose work I was totally unfamiliar except that his palette I have observed in great movies from the 1960s. He likens this palette to cooking, saying Stacey’s ingredients are coarse yellow, rich brown, tomato red, and a strong green. Of his main ingredients, the green is the one that cannot be left out without spoiling the flavor. Check his work out – I am sure you will fall in love. Then he talks about a room by William Pahlmann, another great whose name I hadn’t heard, but whose interiors felt familiar from 40s and 50s film. He describes a room that in which everything that could be a color, including the carpet, was Wedgewood green. 

Then, Hampton introduces Givenchy’s Paris living room, which feels totally different. It’s light, with white paneled walls with gilded frames, and  filled with deep green upholstery and green curtains.  This airy room, he says, is entered through a small, green velvet-lined vestibule, offering a wonderful oscillation between light and dark. 

Apart from learning about the work of so many, the practical thing I learned here is that tight palettes make a huge impact, as all the rooms he mentioned have green appearing on far more than just the walls. Also, I found it affirming that he said a few times that blue and white porcelain looks great on green walls, because I think blue and green is one of the nicest and most underrated color combinations. 

I’m sort of interested to know for sure why green is separated from the section called “What Deep Colors Do.” I assume it's because of range of greens that are not dark, although the same could be said of plenty of the colors mentioned here. But is blue or brown as versatile as green? I think probably the answer is no - It’s hard to think of a blue room that is really, really warm or a brown one that feels cold, but there are plenty of green rooms in both categories. 

Anyway, Hampton tells us there are many kinds of dark rooms; rich, cozy dark; sleek, dramatic dark; and cool, quiet dark to name a few. 

He points out that dark colored rooms done in bad taste can feel too dramatic, or they can feel very gloomy if left incomplete, devoid of plenty of warm lamps and personal objects. 

But the opportunity for greatness far outweighs these concerns. As he already indicated at the entry hall, contrary to what people tend to think, dark colors actually make small rooms look bigger. This is true because the shadows make it difficult for our eyes to discern exactly where the space ends. Hampton says this is most successful in libraries, studies and small hallways. 

Dark rooms also create a quiet mood that is very pleasant, and unlike light rooms, they offer a background that works equally for a very tidy space and one filled with clutter. In light rooms, unless all the clutter is of uniform color, it tends to stand out as a mess. 

Finally, and not to be underestimated as a great perk, dark rooms look cleaner. I think my own tendency toward dark rooms is because when I was learning to draw and show spatial dimension on paper, I found it easiest to start with a dark sheet of paper, or a totally charcoal covered page and add light pigment or erase charcoal to sort of dig the space out. There is always a cinematic feel to spaces with darkness at the edges. 

Hampton says dark colors are particularly good for t.v. screening rooms, and here you might even paint the ceiling as dark as the walls. 

He talks about how the early 20th century British architect Edwin Lutyens, whose inventive use the classical language of architecture has known few equals, loved to shiny black walls for their ability to emphasize architectural details. 

He ends the section on dark rooms with this very important warning, particularly pertaining to people with a flat out aversion to dark rooms, but really clearly for all of us: “One of the most important things to remember about taste is that while we are striving to refine it, we should try at the same time to broaden our viewpoint. Greater appreciation can only enhance our lives, and that enhancement is the point of decoration after all.”

Finally, we come to the section called, “The Quality of White.” This is dedicated to describe the success of rooms done in all white. I’m very envious of people who can achieve this very stylish look. I wouldn’t be able to curate myself enough I don’t think. I’d have to ditch all my olive green things or else stand out like a sore thumb. Or at least that’s my thinking process. But again, Hampton shares a huge number of great historical rooms with us and describes just how diverse the moods achievable with a no-color palette really are. Syrie Maugham’s very ahead-of-its-time 1920’s London apartment with its big white sofas, and ultra-modern mirror and chrome screen was a stark and exciting departure from the soot-covered streets of the city. 

A parchment clad Parisian room by Jean-Michael Frank was perhaps more influential and even more sophisticated. Then there was Albert Hadley’s own barn room in Maine, which was totally relaxed and capable of containing furnishings from really diverse eras simply because it was almost all white. 

This “pale luxury” he adds, has the  effect of framing views very nicely and inviting the colors of the garden beyond in. Not unlike dark walls, white also pronounces architectural details and provides a bold backdrop for art collections. I think it should be made clear that the interiors he’s talking about are filled with a range of whites in a huge variety of textures that keep everything interesting, rather than anemic like the realtor / developer rooms we see all too often these days.

This concludes our look at Mark Hampton’s chapter on color. Join me next week for a look at “Elements.” 

What Deep Colors Do

The Quality of White

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