Through an educated eye


"The dean of American decorating" is a phrase that follows Albert Hadley around wherever he goes.

Eighty-six and dapper, he's been a pillar of the New York design world since 1949, when he joined the faculty of the Parsons School of Design. But "dean" isn't just a tribute to his age.

It's a salute to his supremely educated eye, something Adam Lewis explores in the coffee-table book, Albert Hadley: The Story of America's Preeminent Interior Designer (Rizzoli, $65).

Hadley believes decorators should know their French salons, their Greek pavilions, their American farmhouses -- inside and out.

"Just because a scheme's wacky and off-the-wall, some of the young designers think it is FUN, in big letters," he says. "When in fact their very determination to be zany renders the results lifeless. What's missing is restraint and knowledge. What's missing is the Zen of seeing."

Seeing, he feels, is different from looking. Looking is emotional, whereas seeing is an intellectual process that involves making sure absolutely everything in a room is essential to its point of view.

That pillow your mother gave you? That lamp you lugged home from Paris? Seeing involves putting aside your tangled emotional connections to objects. It involves studying how shapes and colors work together -- and then editing out anything that is visually superfluous.

The process isn't easy, but Hadley's mastery of it is what makes his rooms dazzle. He somehow always manages to walk the line between traditional and modern, between minimal and maximal.

Look at his work from any time period -- from 1948 when he was a student at Parsons, from 1964 when he joined forces with the legendary decorator Sister Parish to form Parish-Hadley Inc., from 2000 when he formed his current firm, Albert Hadley Inc. His rooms stand up shockingly well.

Here are some of his secrets to creating timeless magic:

Get the architecture right. Hadley began his career at McMillen Inc., which in the 1950s was the most prestigious decorating firm in America. There he learned to be fearless about moving doorways, even 3 inches, and creating symmetry and proportion. When you construct a room with good bones, the decorating falls into place naturally.

Sketch out your plan. Devoted to drawing, Hadley makes sketches the way other people make lists. He tut-tuts when people tell him they can't draw a picture of what they want in a room.

"That's nonsense," he says. "You can put something down." He feels you'll be better off if you do, because sketching lets you "get rid of bad ideas, examine possibilities and deal with space, proportion, line, shape and light."

Don't overlight. Hadley feels that glitzy or obvious lighting is the sign of a beginner. Seasoned decorators know to have just enough light so that a room "feels happy," he explains.

Mix it up. These are just some of the tables Hadley used in a Chicago apartment: a Louis XIII oak center table, a lacquered Chinese-style coffee table, a Moroccan table inlaid with mother of pearl, plus the unexpected pairing of a chrome and glass table and a table draped in yellow silk.

Be modern. That means being open to new ways to create color and texture. Parish-Hadley was the first firm to bring humble quilts, rag rugs and baskets into high-end interiors. Today Hadley still combines a firm knowledge of design history with ideas that look to the future.

Be willing to throw out your plans. Hadley learned this lesson when he watched Sister Parish in action at a home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. He'd made elaborate floor plans and she tossed them aside and began shifting tables and lamps, moving chairs from room to room.

"Arrange the furniture where it is most comfortable and will look the best," she told him.

Hadley likes to talk about "the chic of suitability." Read Adam Lewis' biography and you'll see the suitability not just of Hadley's interiors, but of the practice of referring to him as "the dean of American decorating."

If Hadley were British, he'd be a sir. But for someone who prides himself on understatement, dean is a much more suitable term.

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