Remembering Mark Hampton

Crisp but comfortable traditionalism,” read the obituary for Mark Hampton in The New York Times . “Crisp, American traditionalism,” said the pastor at the funeral service at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. “Crisp, comfortable traditionalism,” declared Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian, the third of nine speakers who remembered the interior designer, writer, and illustrator who died on July 23 after battling cancer.

But defining the Mark Hampton “look” isn’t entirely possible. That was his design. “I have absolutely no interest in a trademark style,” he often said in interviews.

Hampton’s pleasure–his mission–was providing the backdrops for real, if exquisitely privileged, lives. His clients included Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and George and Barbara Bush in the White House, Brooke Astor, Anne Bass and at least half of Fifth Avenue, the better half of course. An erudite scholar and writer, he wrote a column for House & Garden in the mid-1980’s and published two books about interior decorating. In one of his House & Garden essays, titled “The Clients I Love,” he described the joy he found in anticipating a family’s ongoing needs.

“I felt very much at home, and as I hung a set of plates that Karen had found which were decorated with bows and flowers, the bows resembling those on the little girl’s bedroom wallpaper, I took great pains to put the nails in a dark part of the pattern of the paper because I thought (hoped) that in a few years I would probably be taking the plates down and hanging posters of Bruce Springsteen or whomever and I wanted to be sure the nail holes from a previous era would go unnoticed. These jobs are never finished, and the future has lots of lovely surprises in store.”

For Steve and Courtney Ross, Hampton created an art deco aerie in the early 1980’s before it was the chic period revival of the moment. For Anne Bass, and Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg, he designed perfectly proportioned rooms as a setting for wonderful furniture and art.

On the warm morning of July 27, Hampton was remembered by friends and family. They told the story of a talented, artistic young man who transcended the confines of a small town in Indiana and found his career passion in New York City. They grieved the passing of a beloved husband, father, and friend. Mostly, they mourned what Mark Hampton stood for; he was the last of the 20th-century American gentlemen.

“He was a liker, not a hater,” said Robert Macdonald, a publisher of golf books and a friend of Hampton.

“For 26 years, I have lived in the beauty Mark created,” said Susan Burden, a psychologist and widow of Carter Burden, one of Mr. Hampton’s best friends and clients.

“We knew Mark was imbued with a sense of style,” recalled his sister, Rachel Hampton Blank, “when, at age 6, he interrupted one of our mother’s bridge parties at home in Indiana and said to one of our mother’s guests, ‘Jean, that dress doesn’t do a thing for you.'”

Mark Hampton’s daughters, Kate, an actress, and Alexa, an interior decorator, remembered their father for his kindness and consideration, growing up. Teresa Heinz, widow of Senator Charles Heinz, and Mr. Hampton’s sister-in-law Paula Perlini spoke of his intense capacity for friendship, his memory for historic and personal detail, his education and knowledge, about the joys of traveling with him.

His roommate at the University of Michigan Law School, Charles Eisendrath, recalled arriving at the dormitory to find their room decorated with rhododendron in cups, obelisks, “little boxes with nothing in any one of them, and fussy prints of 18th-century material … ‘Hi, I’m Mark Hampton,’ said this fellow with a sunflower smile. ‘I travel heavy.'”

Mark Hampton left law school and got a degree in art history at the University of Michigan’s School of Fine Arts. In 1967, he became an interior designer. His first important position was as the New York representative of David Hicks, the late British interior designer.

As the stories were told, prompting tears or laughter, the celebration of Mark Hampton became a celebration of all people who have brought their dreams to New York, believing New York City was Oz for the creative, the only possible destination for their cultural salvation. Mark Hampton’s career, his erudition and knowledge, was payback, said Mr. Macdonald, “for his purgatory as a youth in Indiana not as an athlete. He came into his own by coming east.”

Success, and a sense of gratitude, gave Mark Hampton soul. “We all know that interior decoration is seen by many as a frivolous career full of ruffles and flourishes and preposterous fashion statements,” he wrote in the introduction to Mark Hampton on Decorating , published in 1989. “Yet to transform the bleak and the barren into welcoming places where one can live seems to me an important and worthwhile goal in life. Sometimes the transformation can stun the eye, sometimes simply gladden it, but these are not frivolous pursuits.”

When the funeral ended, the mourners returned to Park Avenue. A noonday sun cut shadows in summer black clothes.

Mark Hampton was buried in Sag Harbor the next morning, July 28. He preferred the cemetery in Sag Harbor to that of Southampton, where he and his family spent weekends, because it was prettier, frankly.

The first week in August, Duane Hampton, the designer’s widow, will return from Southampton to decide what’s next. One possibility involves a talent search for a star decorator to head the firm of some 15 staff members, à la the world of fashion, where John Galliano goes to Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen to Givenchy. Perhaps, young Alexa Hampton, who had been working with her father, will take charge of the firm. One way or another, she will continue decorating and the firm will complete its various jobs at hand.

“Mark’s influence on the younger generation of decorators will always be felt,” said his former protégé Alan Tanksley, an interior designer who has his own company in Manhattan. “He had a great reverence, on one hand, for order and propriety, but he always knew when it was time to be irreverent and break the rules.”

Remembering Mark Hampton