Interview: Designer Alexa Hampton

The daughter of design icon Mark Hampton, ?Alexa Hampton has grown her father’s namesake firm into an international powerhouse. She’s also found time to write two books and launch several product lines, including fabric and trims for Kravet, furniture for Hickory Chair and lighting for Visual Comfort. We sat down with this busy designer for an inside glimpse into the high stakes world of New York design.

House & Home: What is your design philosophy?
Alexa Hampton:
My job is to get the best version of whoever I’m working for. So, it’s not my hope to impose what my apartment might look like for them. I want to help them get the right look for where they’re living. Which is great because I can live vicariously in every possible way. It’s like being a cook and tasting while you’re cooking, because each time you’re doing it, it’s going to be a little bit different. Clients don’t want to live in the same house as the one I did before. Even though I can be incredibly fancy in terms of the projects I take on, I don’t want that to sacrifice comfort or utility.

H&H: How do those influences show up in your work?
I ordered a bunch of wastepaper baskets for my apartment bathrooms. It makes me crazy because you get a nice wastepaper basket, then you put a bag in it and now it looks hideous. So I had plexiglass liners made for all of these wastepaper baskets with cutouts for your hand so you can pull it out and disinfect it.

I’ve got this practical sensibility, and I think a lot of designers do as well. But I think we’ve gotten into a rut professionally where people think that because we are a creative field, we divorce creativity from practicality or accountability or rationality. I was so sick and tired of walking  potential clients through properties that had been built by a spec builder where the sconces were 7 feet off the floor. Which meant that the light bulb was 7 and a half feet off the floor, which is clearly over your head. And who wants to look up and see a light bulb? I don’t. And that’s not going to let me read or walk. That’s nowhere near my eyes and last time I checked, I need light for my eyes!

H&H: What do you think is the most important part of a room?
I have a canned line for that. It’s canned only because I’ve used it, it’s no less sincere for having been used, but the most important thing in a room is the people. It may sound like a Pollyanna response, but it has practical applications. So if you look sallow and ugly in a colour that you’ve painted the walls, that’s a problem. If you can’t read by the lamplight. If you are uncomfortable in your chair. If you carpet is unmaintainable. If the person that is inhabiting the room cannot inhabit the room, I’d say that’s a pretty important factor. I will often be in a lobby designed by men — poor things, I hate to disparage them so — where there will be huge grout lines, which means I have to walk on tiptoes because I’m wearing high heels. Hello! It’s all about experience.

H&H: What should people keep in mind when decorating hardworking spaces?
Do you care if you countertops have a patina? Do you care if your wood floors need re-staining? Or, do you care how your knees feel over a period of time if this is a place where you’re standing a lot? Those are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself.

H&H: What are some of your own home’s favourite design moments?
I’m bedroom heavy and public room poor. But I hope that will change, one of these days. I love my living room and my bedroom because they’re both my best attempts at being a grown up and of having beauty around me. I love my bedroom, it’s very grand, it’s very serene, I’m surrounded by books I love and artworks I love, so that’s a big deal. I enjoy acoustics, I enjoy thinking about rooms not just their aesthetic sensibility but the acoustic experience as well as lighting experience. I think that if you have a kitchen that is open to a dining room, I always like to have doors that enable you to close it off because there are certain kinds of task lighting in kitchens that will blow out your idea of that romantic dinner party.

H&H: What’s the last thing you saw that made you go, ‘I wish I’d done that!’
Gosh, any beautiful room. I’m on the board of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art and we had a meeting and on the walls were beautiful drawings, sketches and watercolours… these students were just so talented. You know it just makes you aspire, I don’t begrudge.

H&H: Is there a formula for putting together a colour palette?
No… but, this is what I do just for fabrics. I put the fabric on the colour copier and I make a coloured Xerox. Or I shrink the pattern down. And then, on the furniture plan where each piece of furniture has been drawn into scale, I cut and paste the shape of the chair or the sofa or whatever, down to little squares of pillows and we glue it to the furniture plan so we can see how it’s distributing. Sometimes you’ll realize if you’re too heavy with pattern, and I need to disperse it better.

H&H: Is there one go-to sofa silhouette that you would say works in most spaces?
I think the Bridgewater sofa and the Lawson arm sofa are two workhorses. The Bridgewater sofa has a saddle arm that curves, some people call it an English Arm, so it cups your neck as you lie on the sofa. And the Lawson arm sofa is square, so it’s very sleek.

H&H: Do you have a go-to retail brand, or do you prefer custom pieces?
I don’t require custom at all. I like retail as long as it’s not too recognizable, but I certainly don’t think everything needs to be pedigreed. I use Circa Lighting, my lighting line with Visual Comfort. They’re a constant resource. I love Christopher Spitzmiller lamps, Williams-Sonoma throws. I love throws, period. They’re cosy and they break up the big expanses of sofa.

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