The Making of an Icon

The “Dean of American Design,” Albert Hadley sets the stage for the annual “Rooms With a View” fundraiser in Southport

Albert Hadley

When the Rev. Laura Whitmore of the Southport Congregational Church called Albert Hadley a few months ago to tell him he was being honored at this month’s “Rooms with a View,” he said, “I don’t know why anyone would want to do that.” “I remember thinking, ‘that’s because you don’t know you like we know you,’” Whitmore recalled.

Few interior designers are as beloved or universally admired as Albert Hadley. For more than 50 years, first as a partner at the legendary firm Parish-Hadley, and now as the principal designer and owner of Albert Hadley Inc., the 89-year-old has created beautiful homes for an elite clientele—politicians and philanthropists, movie stars and television celebrities, diplomats and socialites. Known for his contemporary, streamlined approach, Hadley’s design philosophy is firmly rooted in the belief that all good design begins with scale and proportion. His most oft-quoted mantra: “Never more, never less.”

In the forward to Albert Hadley: The Story of America’s Preeminent Interior Designer, by Adam Lewis, his good friend Annette de la Renta said, “He instinctively knows what’s important and eschews the pompous. Where lesser talents seem always to want to add, Albert subtracts.”

Born in Nashville in November of 1920, Hadley arrived in New York in 1947 to study and teach at the Parsons School of Design. After a stint at Macmillan, he joined Sister Parish in 1962, just in time to help put the finishing touches on the Kennedy White House. Their diverse approaches seemed an unlikely union. Yet, they collaborated beautifully for more than 30 years, until Parish’s death in 1994. Five years later, the indefatigable Hadley closed the doors of Parish-Hadley and embarked on the next phase of his career by launching Albert Hadley Inc. in early 2000.

Today, he divides his time between his home in Manhattan and a home in Southport. A devoted member of the Southport Congregational Church for more than 20 years, Hadley came up with the idea for the “Rooms with a View” fundraising event in 1995. “We were meeting to discuss ways to raise money for the mission fund,” Whitmore recalled.

“We wanted to do something fun and beautiful but still meaningful to the community and Mr. Hadley said ‘let’s stage these little vignettes.’”

For a long time, Hadley did one of the rooms, using bits and pieces he found at the church’s thrift shop. “Now he is content to let others do the hands-on work and he oversees the event as the honorary chairman,” says Whitmore. This year, the event’s 16th anniversary, promises to be the most spectacular to date. The committee came up with a short-list of 14 names for the theme, ”The Dean’s List,” an illustrious group that has one thing in common: they all got their start working for Albert Hadley.

“We called the first 12 and each said yes immediately,” said Whitmore. “We never had to go any further.” As for Hadley, when asked how he felt about the theme, he answered in a characteristically modest fashion. “It’s embarrassing,” he said from his office in New York. “But it’s for a good cause, so it’s okay.”

The Dean’s List

We asked the 12 designers from this year’s “Rooms with a View” to reflect on some career-defining moments with Albert Hadley.

Bunny Williams

The prolific designer calls her tastes “unabashedly eclectic.” She strives to create interesting combinations and juxtapositions—a talent she honed during her 22-year career at Parish-Hadley. This month, Williams unveils a new upholstery line for her signature BeeLine Home and next month sees the arrival of a new book, Scrapbook for Living.

Is there a particular project from that time that stands out in your mind? “I loved working with Albert on a penthouse apartment in Charlotte, N.C. He designed it from scratch. Working on a space from the conceptual architectural phase to the installation of all the furnishings was a thrilling, educational experience.”

The most valuable lesson? “Always stay attuned to what is new—never be boring, but always focus on good design and scale.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “Albert was a wonderful teacher. He always asked us what we thought about a project. We submitted schemes and he edited them. He critiqued our floor plans. Each project was like a class and he encouraged us to be creative.”

When you think of him, what springs to mind? “A gentle, creative genius who is part Peter Pan.”

Thom Filicia

Known for his star turns on the Style Network, as well as his decorating flair, Thom Filicia’s start at Parish-Hadley, from 1992 to 1993, was far from glamorous. “I was a jack-of-all-trades,” he recalls of his days spent drafting, organizing samples and shopping for fabric. “I was so excited to be working for such an incredible design firm that just happened to be my first choice.”

Is there a memorable project that stands out in your mind? “When Albert was working on his own apartment he was exploring the use of an unexpected wall finish that had an incredible luster and sparkle to it. I remember thinking, ‘Albert is always pushing the boundaries as a designer’.”

The most valuable lesson? “However exciting or mundane my particular task was that day, there was always an atmosphere of learning and exploration under his watchful eye.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “He was incredibly approachable. Although he was ‘Albert Hadley,’ you could talk to him about design, life, and just about anything. His approachability is a rare attribute, one that I strive to emulate.”

When you think of him, what springs to mind? “A man who is kind, civilized, witty, nostalgic, and let’s not forget, wildly talented.”

David Easton

David Easton had just returned from a year studying architecture in France when he met Albert Hadley at a lunch at David Whitcomb’s country house in Hudson, New York. Hadley offered him a job on the spot. He spent just a year and a half at Parish-Hadley, before launching his own firm in 1972. A neo-classicist at heart, in recent years, Easton’s work has taken on a more contemporary, streamlined aesthetic. Over his 30-year career he has received numerous awards and honors for his work; in 1992 he was named to the Interior Design Hall of Fame. His newest book, Timeless Elegance, The Houses of David Easton, is available next month.

What is the most valuable lesson you learned from Mr. Hadley? “He had a unique understanding of the way people actually lived. He was the first to treat furniture like sculpture in a room. It wasn’t just about a fireplace with three sofas around it. Furniture was scattered around so people could talk to one another, so they could converse and be in groups.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “He taught me about the sensibility of comfort.”

When you think of him, is there a phrase or design idea that springs to mind? “Edit. Years ago you could look at work by some designers and it was all about more—more pattern, more curtains, more weight. Albert eschewed that and always has. He is a modernist at heart.”

David Kleinberg

As a young designer, David Kleinberg’s trip to Buckhingham Palace with Albert Hadley and Sister Parish was “a singular experience.” He joined the firm in 1981, and remained until 1997, when he left to found his own company. A dedicated Francophile, he is best known for his restrained, contemplative aesthetic. “I don’t like a lot of clutter, and often find that one object speaks volumes and makes the room a success,” he has said.

What is one of your fondest memories of working at Parish-Hadley? “During my time at Parish-Hadley, there was a surfeit of talent. It was the best possible design think tank that I can imagine.”

The most valuable lesson? “Draw it in elevation and start your design process at the front door.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “Without Albert none of us would know a thing, pure and simple. He gave me confidence in my choices. What better way to find your own point of view?”

Libby Cameron

The onetime assistant to both Hadley and Sister Parish spent 13 years at Parish-Hadley, from 1982 to 1995. Best known for her love of color and eclectic style, she has worked on high-end residential properties throughout the country. She co-founded Sister Parish Design with Mrs. Parish’s granddaughter, Susan Crater; in 2002 she was chosen to design the main stair hall at Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in Lenox, Mass.

Is there a particular project from your time at Parish-Hadley that stands out in your mind? “When I first began I helped Albert with the restoration of Gracie Mansion. It was very interesting and a challenge. It was difficult dealing with a committee—there were too many chefs, so to speak. Albert was very patient.”

A valuable lesson? “Albert always emphasized the importance of details, of symmetry, of balance and proportion. I always think of him when I am working on furniture plans—on the balance in a room in the use of furniture as well as the balance of materials.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “Albert taught me to realize that the past is just as important as the future. The strong colors—the reds and deep browns he uses—have influenced me a great deal.”

When you think of him now, is there a phrase or quote that springs to mind? “‘Keep it fresh, keep it exciting, keep it young, make it feel timeless. I strive to do that today.’”

Thomas Jayne

Thomas Jayne’s design style draws upon his background in architecture, art history and decorative arts. His tenure at Parish-Hadley was brief, from 1986-1987, but instructive. Along with private commissions he has consulted on the preservation and decoration of interiors at Winterthur and the Shelburne Museum in Burlington, VT.

What is the most important thing you learned from Mr. Hadley? “Have conviction for your designs and present them with authority.”

Is there a specific lesson that you draw upon in your work today? “Always be looking ahead to what is new without forsaking what is admirable about the present.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “The most supportive thing he did was to give me confidence to go out on my own. It gave me the impetus to develop my own independent style.”

When you think of him, what springs to mind? “Red. It’s a color he uses so deftly. As anyone who uses red knows, it’s not easy to get the right shade and amount in a room.”

Brian Murphy

Working at Parish-Hadley was “quite an education,” says the New York City-based designer, who remembers “incredible homes, with incredible art.” He began his career at Parish-Hadley in 1987 and did his first “Rooms with a View” vignette in 1996. He started his own firm in 2000.

Is there a particular project from your time at Parish-Hadley that stands out in your mind? “We did the Vice President’s residence for the Gores. The house was in terrible condition and we made it into a real family home. It was a very exciting time to be in Washington, D.C.”

A valuable lesson? “The importance of scale and proportion. First you get the room right and then the furniture. And to always behave like a gentleman.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “Albert lives and breathes design and loves to share with his young acolytes. Plane and car trips to see clients were always spent discussing the history of great design as well as brainstorming sessions for current projects. And don’t get me started on going to his home for cocktails!”

When you think of him, is there a phrase or quote that springs to mind? “That’s easy. I think of him throwing his arms up and saying in that unmistakable voice, ‘terrific!’”

Pamela Banker

Pamela Banker describes her decorating style simply: “Not too tricky or too trendy. I don’t want people to look back and say, ‘Oh, that was done in the ‘80s.’” The native New Yorker joined Parish-Hadley in 1995 and remained with the firm until it closed. She launched Pamela Banker Associates in 2001. She is presently working on projects in New York and Palm Beach.

What is the most important thing you learned from Mr. Hadley? “The importance of scale and suitability, and adding a little surprise.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “By giving me confidence to proceed.”

When you think of him, what springs to mind? “He was always curious, always interested in a new idea. He was, and is, always on the cutting edge.”

Nicholas Pentecost

Nicholas Pentecost may be one of the only bankers-turned-designers to be groomed by Albert Hadley. After a brief career in the financial industry, Pentecost jumped at the opportunity to join Parish-Hadley in 1975. He never looked back. He remained at Parish-Hadley for 10 years, leaving in 1985 to go out on his own.

Is there a particular project that stands out in your mind? “We worked on several very nice projects—every one was interesting and each was different. He has an imagination that won’t stop. Unlike many decorators who have a distinct style or point of view, Albert was able to shift gears on a moment’s notice.”

What is the most valuable lesson you learned? “You have to approach each job differently. Albert always tried to get below the surface and give something more. He kept a bulletin board in his office that he pinned things on that he liked or that interested him. The client would come in and comment on something and that gave Albert the clue he needed to start.”

Is there a particular quote or design idea that comes to mind when you think of him? “A beige room is not necessarily a colorless room.”

Michael Whaley

Michael Whaley learned both the artistic and the practical from Albert Hadley. By the time he arrived at the firm in 1985, Whaley had spent a year in France developing his passion for 18th-century design. Of his years at Parish-Hadley he recalls, “It was a tremendous time for decorators. We were treated with tremendous respect, and we, in turn, were producing extraordinary work.”

What is a valuable lesson you learned from Mr. Hadley? “Always carry a tape measure.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “Parish-Hadley was invited to participate in a Billy Baldwin retrospective and Mr. Hadley asked me to assist him in the creation of his vignette. While we were working on our scheme, he was always asking what I thought. I was amazed. Here was this highly established, iconic designer who was interested in my ideas. It helped me became secure in the knowledge that I had something unique to offer.”

When you think of him, what springs to mind? “Mr. Hadley is so talented and innovative but he is not seeking the spotlight. For him, it’s not about celebrity, it is about design.”

Susanne Earls Carr

Susanne Earls Carr was working for a New York design firm when she first met Albert Hadley at a luncheon at the Plaza hotel. A few months later, he asked how she might feel about joining his firm. “Albert taught me the true value of a classically-trained background,” she said. Today, Carr’s style embodies a “lightness of spirit” that reflects the best principles of architecture and cultured design.

What is the most valuable lesson Mr. Hadley taught you? “Be discerning. Never stop learning. Don’t settle. Find a fresh approach. Avoid clutter, contrivance, dreariness, ostentation or pretension.”

How did he most help you develop your own unique style? “I do not consider that I have, or even that Albert has, a unique style. It’s about creating a background that compliments the client while achieving their needs. He held weekly meetings about new clients to introduce talented artisans, and he encouraged us to use lunch time to visit exhibitions and galleries.”

Good advice: I was working on a project with Sister Parish and he said, “don’t let her put too much in a room.”

Brian J. McCarthy

Brian McCarthy remembers Albert Hadley as the “most innate and clever editor I’ve ever met.” McCarthy joined Parish-Hadley in 1983, the year he graduated from the Pratt Institute of Design. He moved quickly up the ranks, from assistant to decorator, and by 1989, he had been named a full partner. McCarthy left in 1991 to start his own firm, Brian J. McCarthy, Inc.

Is there a particular project from your time at Parish-Hadley that stands out in your mind? “Working with Enid Haupt, the sister of Walter Annenberg. She was curious about everything. She had a passion for gardens and flowers unlike anyone I had ever met.”

What is the most important thing you learned from Mr. Hadley? “In addition to his incredible design sensibility, Albert knows exactly when to put down the pencil and stop. As an artist, he doesn’t quit until the canvas is perfectly composed, balance and resolved. He is also the only person I know who has ever referred to the elevations in a room and the importance of the skyline. It’s something I think about every day and am always sharing with my clients and my staff.”

When you think of him, is there a phrase or quote that springs to mind? “Kiddo, give them what they never knew they wanted!

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