The way New York designer Markham Roberts sees the world is large, bold, colorful and highly personalized, a sensitivity he attributes to the most influential person in his life — his late grandmother Harriet Greathouse Cain.
In her houses in Indianapolis, a city where he grew up, as well as her vacation homes, he observed how to live comfortably and entertain, rather than be surrounded by staid stage sets for show. “I learned so much from the joy of being in those houses, whether I recognized it or it was subconscious,” he says.
After majoring in art history and architecture at Brown University, Roberts settled in New York and through family friends was introduced to the late designer Mark Hampton, who gave him his first job. “It was a great place to learn. We all worked very hard,” he says.
Six years later he opened his own eponymous firm and slowly developed his own way of working. His designs reflect his belief that clients’ needs and possessions provide vital cues, while it’s his fine lens and editing that make the vision clear. We talked to Roberts about his decorating views and recently published book, “Decorating The Way I See It” (Vendome Press, 2015). Following are his edited comments:
Q: How do your influences inform your designs today?
A: I learned to approach every job individually. The past gives us the foundation for being creative, but we need to do things our own way. Movies with interesting houses have been an influence, as well as museums and travel. Films like Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and how it relates to English painting in the 18th century, houses in “L.A. Confidential,” and all the Merchant Ivory films interest me on many levels.
Q: Can you share how your style evolved?
A: I learned that nobody is interested in working with someone inflexible; it won’t get you very far, especially when you’re young and starting out. I learned the importance of approaching each job individually and listening very carefully to my clients, as well as observing how they dress, decorated their homes, what they’ve collected, and what their interests are. Some come to me with binders filled with pictures they love; others simply say, "I want my bedroom to be blue." But overall I’ve been pretty spoiled in having clients who speak up, aren’t wishy-washy.
Q: The forward to your book mentions your “inexhaustible imagination and disciplined approach.” Can you explain?
A: I was always naturally inclined to order as a child, and I later went to military boarding school so I learned discipline in addition. And what it did for me in a positive way was to help me make life easier for my clients - I’ll generally think about having enough light to read or whether someone needs an outlet inside their medicine cabinet. It’s not just about pretty fabrics.
Q: You organized the book in the same way you work — after the floor plan, you move on to wall and floor treatments, colors, pattern, then furnishings and accessories. Why does this work?
A: The background — walls and flooring — come first to set the framework, and then you layer in everything else until the rooms reflect the inhabitants. I never like houses I see in magazines where they don’t look like anyone lives there.
Q: People speak about picking pieces and arranging rooms for a timeless effect since decorating can be expensive and time consuming. Your rooms don’t look dated, yet you use lots of fabric and wallpapers that could date them.
A: I think design trends can date rooms, so I try not to follow them. If a client really wants something that I think will be datable or trendy, I will try to think of a less obvious way of using it. For example, a client will often have something that belonged to their family and has real meaning, and if it’s an older piece of furniture that doesn’t work in their new environment, we can use it in a new way so it will take on a different character and feel new. I might put an old fashioned table with a modern mirror above it or a new chair next to it.
Q: Most of the homes and apartments in the book are large, even grand in size and scale. So many want to go smaller these days; any tips?
A: Though I have a big house in the country our apartment in the city is a one bedroom. New Yorkers are much attuned to maximizing space, and even in big homes there may be small rooms where you just want to cozily take a nap or watch TV. I often think about a boat mentality when trying to fit a lot into a smaller space.
Q: What are your tips for young homeowners who want to find an original style of their own?
A: I encourage them to go and look at everything they can with their eyes really open. Go to junk shops, flea markets, antique malls and stores, and bring home things from a trip that remind them of happy times and what they like to look at. Pedigree doesn’t matter.