Harlem House Proud: The First African-American Design Showhouse Is Open

“You’re sitting in the Beverly Hills of Harlem. Don’t be afraid,” laughed interior designer Roderick Shade on Wednesday, June 3, from one of the finely turned out rooms of 459 West 141st Street in the Hamilton Heights Landmark Historic District. The 1906 Beaux Arts town house is the site of the first ever African-American interior design show house, which Mr. Shade has organized–the Harlem United Show House, or Hush. Over 20 design teams have participated, conjuring up rooms from the feathery to the minimalist, and proceeds go to the Harlem United Community AIDS Center.

“For us, sponsorship was few and far between,” Mr. Shade said sadly.

None of the big national design-industry suppliers are involved.

“Suffice it to say, lots of us in the show house will reconsider where we shop in the future,” Mr. Shade said.

He has been amused, however, by some of the misconceptions about the house. “We’ve heard everything. One favorite: ‘Oh, great! A hip-hop show house!'”

Not at all.

About a year ago, designers submitted plans for how they would do a room in the house. A committee reviewed the designers’ sketches. Rooms were assigned. Joan Gibbs, an elegant designer whose office is on Fifth Avenue, decorated the entry hall.

“Like Kips Bay, every decorator and designer here is different. You can’t generalize,” said Ms. Gibbs. “I wanted to pay tribute to the great African-American furniture makers and artisans who worked in this country in the early 18th century.” She included an Empire-style bed made by Thomas Day, “a man of color who had the largest furniture factory in North Carolina in the early 1800’s.”

The dining room, by Arcadia Inc., pays tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright. Kyle Taylor, perhaps the youngest interior designer at Hush, calls his master bath on the third floor “the Jewel Box.” Mr. Taylor, whose client list includes Spike Lee and former New York Knickerbocker Charles Smith, as well as the interiors of Sugar Shack, the Harlem nightclub, specializes in historic restoration. He studied architecture at Columbia University and received his master’s in real estate development from Columbia.

“No, no, no. This is not typical of my style,” laughed Wilbert Louis Shaw, the veteran interior designer. His décor in the front parlor is an homage to Josephine Baker. “My work is very straight. Austere. But when I think of Miss Baker, I think of feathers, as she lived most of her life in feathers.”

Mr. Shaw’s room includes pink marabou, banana-colored furniture, Regency chairs covered in white bridal satin, a bust wrapped with a five-foot-high headdress, and curtains trimmed with crystal beads by Kenneth Carter, another of the Hush decorators. Mr. Carter’s talents are displayed in the third-floor study.

Mr. Shade has decorated a guest bedroom with furniture inspired by classic African pieces that look quite modern. The walls of his room are lined with a grass cloth and a marble mosaic cork tile much like the pattern of an African basket.

“When you’re in design school, you’re always the only one. The only African-American sitting there, wondering where the other ones are,” said Mr. Shade. “There’s got to be more than just me, you figure. And, of course, the shelter magazines don’t cover us unless there’s a celebrity attached. We’re not asking why. We’re just saying, ‘Here it is.'”

Mr. Shade studied design in California and has worked as an interior decorator for 15 years. He came to New York City about nine years ago. “Soon after I arrived, I hooked up with a really interesting ‘colored’ design community. I threw out the idea for a show house, and a sort of grass-roots effort evolved,” he said.

It was an uphill battle from there, alas. Mr. Shade, who for eight years decorated for an Upper East Side firm specializing in what he calls “the white-bread look” before opening his own design company, began the search for a show house venue and sponsorship about three years ago. With the renovation of houses in Harlem’s historic areas booming and property values up about 43 percent, Mr. Shade said, there were houses to choose from, but home owners were suspicious. “What kind of show are you going to put on?” he was asked. The owner of 459 West 141st Street made the house available about six months ago.

Originally, show house organizers hoped to realize about $500,000 for the AIDS center, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization that is the largest provider of AIDS services north of 96th Street. That estimate has been scaled back drastically. Even the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club Decorators Show House, the grandest of show houses, earned just $53,000 its first year, back in 1974, according to Crain’s New York Business .

“We’re hoping to make it an annual event, and people want to see how it goes the first year,” Mr. Shade said. Financial support has come from Carver Federal Savings Bank, Home Savings Bank and Willie Kathryn Suggs Licensed Real Estate. Among the companies who have donated products are Home Depot, Kohler, Gracious Home, Einstein-Moomjy and Irreplaceable Artifacts. Otherwise, show house designers rely on donated products from their favorite suppliers to decorate their rooms.

Unlike Kips Bay, where decorators only resist each other–and that’s putting it politely–the camaraderie here was splendid. “There is a black design archive at the Smithsonian Institute, and a number of us have our work there,” Mr. Shaw said. “We share sources. One of the things about people of African descent, whether it’s cooking, fashion or homes, is we’re very innovative. There’s lots of innovation in this house.” By necessity, or by inclination, “tradition is broken,” he said. “Not that we’re uniformed, but we take license with our intentions, and that can be very exciting.”

Is there an Elsie de Wolfe of African-American interior designers, a grand decorator lady or gentleman?

“Well, yes, but you know who they turn out to be in the African-American community? The lady who makes the curtains or slipcovers over the years,” Mr. Shade said. “We can go to school and learn to draw and everything, but it’s the ladies who take the problem out of your hands and say, ‘No, baby, this is how you do it,’ who are so cool. They’re the heroes of African-American style.”

The Harlem United Show House is open to the public for a donation of $20 through July 3 on weekdays from 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. and from noon to 6 P.M. on Saturday and Sunday. If that’s not hip enough, they do have a Web site at http://www.harlemshowhouse.org.

Quiz time!

1. Dear Socks, Dear Buddy is?

a. The autobiography of Bill Blass, to be published this fall.

b. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s next book, of children’s letters to the White House pets.

c. Another film about lowlifes, winner of several awards at the Sundance Film Festival.

2. Yves Saint Laurent is retiring from designing ready-to-wear. Who is expected to be his successor?

a. Randolph Duke.

b. Alber Elbaz.

c. Michael Kors.

3. The swells rushed to the Chinese Porcelain Company on Park Avenue recently. What for?

a. An exhibition of Venetian glass.

b. The marathon John Ruskin reading organized by Veronica Hearst.

c. Nan Kempner giving Moroccan cooking classes there.

Answers: (1) b; (2) b; (3) a.

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