Following a design star

Alexa Hampton carries forward her celebrated father's gift for decor

January 05, 2003|By Elaine Markoutsas | By Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

At age 27, Alexa Hampton was thrust into the limelight as chief executive officer of one of New York's most prestigious design firms. It was both bitter and sweet.

"Ain't nepotism grand?" was a stinging headline she still remembers four years later.

It was her father's footsteps that she was presumed to fill. Mark Hampton -- the urbane, witty, multitalented decorator to public figures such as George and Barbara Bush, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, cosmetics doyenne Estee Lauder and phi-lanthropist Brooke Astor -- died too early at 58. Everyone loved Mark, and they were eager to embrace his daughter.

"I can't deny that having his last name opened doors," Alexa Hampton says. "But when your father dies of cancer, the thought that [taking over] is excellent and fun is absurd. I would have been much more happy if he were still around."

While she inherited the business, Alexa did have 14 years of on-the-job training with a master who had impeccable taste and a design sensibility she couldn't help but absorb. To round out that apprenticeship, she earned a bachelor's degree in literature and history and did graduate work at her father's alma mater, New York Univer-sity's Institute of Fine Arts.

Now she's making her own mark, adding to the collection of furniture her dad designed for Hickory Chair Co. and launching a fabric line for Kravet Fabrics in her own name.

She has been noticed. In 1999, Alexa was invited to design a room for the prestigious Kips Bay Showhouse in New York. Elle magazine proclaimed her a "leading woman in American design."

Alexa started working for her father during summers when she was barely a teen-ager. Empow-ered by two strong parents, Alexa and sister Kate exude confidence. Duane Hampton, Alexa's mother, has become a successful author, penning The Art of Friendship, based on a collection of her late husband's watercolors.

When Alexa was 12, Kate (now an actress) went to boarding school, and Alexa took over her room.

"I painted it black. I had all these art-deco light fixtures and David Bowie posters," she says.

Alexa may soon consider how she'll handle the task of decorating her own children's rooms. Friends introduced her to Pavlos Papageorgiou, an investment banker and son of Greek ambassador Michel-Akis and Sonia Papageorgiou. They married in Athens two years ago.

The two live in Manhattan in a chic condo laced with classical influences and a Greek leitmotif that reflects her husband's heritage. The style is elegant but not overbearing, appointed with well-chosen pieces that include some beautiful antiques that were her dad's. There also are Alexa's own paintings, such as that of a Parthenon frieze, which hangs over her living room sofa.

She splurged on some things (custom-made mahogany doors, which she designed herself, and a plasma TV, a gift to her husband), but not on others.

"I didn't want to do a cute country kitchen," she says. "Besides, it's too small -- a typical New York cage. The cabinets are white and the floors are terra cotta tile. The doors and drawers have pretty knobs. I feel that hardware is like jewelry. I love gorgeous hinges, doorknobs, beautiful finials on lamps."

Alexa boasts no signature style but has a clear affinity for the classics -- just like her dad, who often was associated with English style.

She also believes that great looks need not be limited to sources that serve only the trade. Alexa likes the offerings at Crate and Barrel and believes that Ikea has great shelving. She loves paging through Garnet Hill catalogs.

Since taking over the business, Alexa has designed a few airplanes and a ship, and currently has jobs in New Orleans and New York. She jokes about how she got into design -- "I think my father whispered to me in my crib, 'You will be a decorator' " -- but she is definitely in her element.

"The coolest thing about designing is moving the person in," Alexa says. "It's exciting to see the look on their faces. They can't believe it's their place."

Practical and pretty

Alexa Hampton is less interested in design rules than practicalities -- as long as it's attractive. Here are some of her tips.

* "Before a move into any house, if you've got junk, don't let it cross the threshold. If you don't really like that table, don't let it through the door. You'll never get rid of it. It's better to leave things blank."

* "Take some time to focus on the architecture. And if there isn't any, consider what to add: crown moldings, baseboards. I designed paneled mahogany doors for my home, and I love what they do."

* "If you're a couple, define your own space. I have my own bathroom and my own closet."

* "Use mirrors to bounce light. I have standing mirrors in my living room."

* "Don't buy a sofa without sitting on it. I've had clients sit in chairs that remind me of Lily Tomlin in the sketch as a little girl in a huge chair."

* "Swing-arm lamps are great for bedrooms and next to sofa beds. I love to read, and with one on each side of the bed, I can do that if Pavlos wants to sleep."

* "What to put on a fireplace mantel? A painting is nice. I love urns, candlesticks -- especially in front of mirrors. You get twice the effect. I don't like [the surface] all junked. A skyline effect is nice -- different shapes at different heights."

-- Elaine Markoutsas

Sources

Mark Hampton Inc.

654 Madison Ave.

New York, NY 10021

212-753-4110

Kravet Fabrics

225 Central Ave. S. Bethpage, NY 11714

888-457-2838 or www.kravet.com

Hickory Chair Co.

P.O. Box 2147

Hickory, NC 28603

800-349-4579 or

www.hickorychair.com

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