Master Class

Clients: The Paley’s, Brooke Astor, etc.
Decorator: Albert Hadley
Locations: New York, Palm Beach
Spaces: Library, living room

The dean of American decorators is sitting in the crisp, Modernist drawing room of his Upper East Side lair, lamenting the current state of interior design. Clad in his perennial costume of charcoal-gray pants, a black cashmere turtleneck, and big round tortoiseshell specs, he seems a tad despondent.

“So many young decorators today are trying to reinvent the wheel, and the results are sometimes very dubious,” Albert Hadley says in his languid Tennessean drawl as he lights up another Camel. “They’re looking to do things that have never been done before. And quite often it’s done without authority, without knowledge or a background in taste.”

Hadley’s own background is, of course, the stuff of design legend: He put the finishing touches on the Kennedy White House with Sister Parish; spruced up Al Gore’s vice-presidential residence; and brought a clean, refined sense of order to the homes of Brooke Astor, Babe Paley, and Happy Rockefeller.

“But names really are not the point,” he says. “It’s what you can achieve for the simplest person. Glamour is part of it, but glamour is not the essence. Design is about discipline and reality, not about fantasy beyond reality.”

Growing up in Nashville, Hadley acquired a precocious thirst for high style at Saturday matinees. “I had enormous curiosity about my idols,” he recalls. “First, Joan Crawford and Garbo and Hepburn and all the beautiful guys who were their playmates.”

He’s less taken with current popular-culture icons. “Look at the Academy Awards!” he says. “Some of those girls and boys are very pretty, but they’re not stars. They don’t have a presence that anyone would wish to emulate, except the young people today who do emulate them. And it’s sad.”

And what is the net effect of all this on contemporary design? Things that strive for sophistication but somehow look exactly the same. “They’re all doing beige rooms,” he groans. Hadley wishes that young designers would take more time to educate themselves about Versailles and the twenties and “ancient history.” “It’s all about acquiring a richer vocabulary,” he says.

Hadley’s own lean, four-room apartment—with its shimmery hologram-papered ceiling in the living room—is the furthest thing from beige. It reflects a lifestyle familiar to many Manhattanites, at least in the way that the jet-black kitchen with Jungle Red doors seems to function merely as wet bar. “I’m not very domestic,” he says apologetically as he proffers a bowl of unsalted Triscuits. An orchestral version of “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”—rather heavy on the strings—plays in the background.

He’s reluctant to accept compliments for the apartment. “I wanted the walls to float, so they neither touch the floor or the ceiling,” he says, pointing to the swirled, painted concrete walls as we leave the living room. “They’ve never really floated,” he adds wryly.

Young designers today would be startled by the scenario Hadley encountered upon his foray to Manhattan in 1947. Interior decorators were a rare breed, and one of the reigning doyennes was Mrs. Henry Parish II, known as Sister. “It was basically a very ladylike business,” Hadley observes. “Sis always had imagination and style, but it was very proper.” After working at Macmillan, a prestigious firm, Hadley was summoned to the grande dame’s Fifth Avenue apartment. She opened the door, and “those spiteful little Pekinese dogs Sis had came flying at me,” he recalls. “I think she was amused by that.”

They would enjoy a successful partnership until Parish’s death in 1994. One of the first projects they collaborated on was a vast apartment at 740 Park Avenue, for Edgar Bronfman, the chairman of Seagram, and his wife, Ann Loeb. Parish had envisaged a traditional scheme involving yards of chintz that seemed to meet with the clients’ approval. But then the firm received an urgent telegram from the Bronfmans, who were vacationing in Mexico: “Stop all work. We want a floating apartment.”

“Sis said, ‘What in God’s name do they mean by a floating apartment?’ ” Hadley recalls. “And I said, ‘Mrs. Parish, I know exactly. They want it very modern, with open space.’ ” Parish’s reaction, he recalls, was “Ugh.”

A devout Modernist, Hadley was “in heaven” over the Bronfmans’ novel mandate. At his direction, an entire wall of the drawing room was demolished and replaced with glass, and a sweeping travertine staircase was installed. “You cannot make a modern apartment out of a traditional space,” Hadley observes.

In response, Sister Parish went shopping for a collection of important eighteenth-century furniture that somehow worked in the futuristic space. “The chairs became like sculptures, and it was fantastic,” he recalls.

“That was a big turning point in Sis’s thought process,” Hadley says. “It was a challenge. I could never have done what I did without Sis,” he adds. “And she couldn’t have done what she did without me.”

One lesson of such collaborations, Hadley suggests, is that you bring to a project the best of what you know—and let others do the same. “Somebody asked me the other day what I do about pictures,” he says. “I’m not an authority. I’ll hang up something decorative. But I don’t collect art for my clients.”

Nor will he rummage around for tchotchkes. “I hate accessorizing. If people don’t have them, then the tables should be bare.”

He also believes strongly that if you’re in a position to walk away from a client you can’t help, you should. “There’s no point creating anything beautiful for somebody who’s a slob,” he notes. “Housekeeping is part of the art of living. If you don’t have that, forget it.”

Hadley himself is still hard at work at his new office on the Upper East Side. “We’re working on a couple of houses in Palm Beach for friends who’ve decided they want to be there more than they want to be here,” he says.

As a veteran of the interior-design business, he’s disenchanted with many of the changes he’s witnessed. “In the old days, people with money hired a decorator, and they didn’t question the cost,” he says, sounding wistful. “If Sister Parish said ‘Buy this,’ they would buy it. But today, because of magazines and all the advice that’s out there, people know what the game is. And everybody knows they can go on the Internet and get this or that. The whole attitude has changed.”

Which means that young designers have to work even harder to prove their value. “Don’t be timid,” he says. “But also, don’t be lazy. This is no picnic. As beautiful and fanciful as one might wish to be in this business, it really is about real people and real lives and real situations. And it’s a real assignment.” He pauses. “That should fix them.”

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