Fairfax & Sammons

Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons live in a little house in the Village that once belonged to Armand Hammer, the flamboyant (and highly controversial) industrialist and art collector. There can’t be a house anywhere that has had two such contrasting sets of owners. Where Hammer’s taste ran to leopard prints and gaudiness, theirs is an essay in calm, restraint, and the harmony of a circle, the motif upon which the interior renovation was based. They are one of those rare things, a married couple that works together, each having carved out their respective roles.

Fairfax and Sammons' West Village townhouse.
Anne, in addition to being a very good architect, seems to also have a talent for diplomacy, managing people and situations before anything can escalate into trouble. Richard is passionate about the traditional architecture that has made their name and, in addition to his day-to-day work, teaches (including a stint at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture) and curates exhibitions on classical architecture. They obviously work pretty much all the time and have an extraordinarily star-studded clientele, but they were hosting their ten-year old nephew for the summer (they do not have children themselves), an experience that had re-shaped their world, if only temporarily.

Who did you say had been living here all these years?

Richard: Armand Hammer. This was his little pad in the village. He loved jazz and there was a famous jazz joint on the corner here … what was it called?

Anne: High Society. There was a big bed right in front of the fireplace and in his memoir he talks about how the Swinging Sixties had nothing on the Swinging Twenties. So I guess he got a lot of action. And then when he got married, his wife made it a real house.

Richard: Ish. It always looked terrible. This side looked like Heidi had decorated it. And he had considerably bad taste. We called this the ‘Tyrolean Loveshack’, over here. And that was ‘Mayfair in Manhattan’ on the other side.
A corner of the living room with an English drafting table covered by an oriental carpet in front of the limestone mantel, designed by Richard Sammons.  The plaster bust of Diana is an original by George Kelly, a contemporary of Anne and Richard’s.
Above: Furniture grouping in the living room, silk velvet sofa and custom made silk-covered slipper chairs, all upholstered furnishings and curtains are designed by Marina Killery. The rug is from Beauvais Carpet.

Left: The corner of the living room with an original George Kelly plaster bust of Diana.
Another view of the living room. The lantern hanging in the foreground is from Lars Bolander.
A glimpse through the curtains of the “Black Pearl”  bar from the dining room. The bar’s 19th century Hawaiiana theme is an homage to Anne Fairfax’s upbringing in Honolulu.
Anne pointing out a detail in their monograph, American Houses, the Architecture of Fairfax & Sammons.
It’s a minefield, the question of good and bad taste. I was interested in something on your website where you said that proportion is a specific design tool but many architects only have a vague, intuitive notion of it.

Richard: Every part has a mathematical or a geometric part to everything else … that’s not taught in school anywhere. I taught the only university course offered for it. I started teaching the proportion course at Pratt, and then at the Prince of Wales’s Institute.

Why is it not taught? Is it too boring?

Anne: They don’t know enough about it.

Richard: You’d be surprised … there was sort of a vein, and it comes from the romantic genius kind of thing, that any real information is somehow going to pollute the native genius … that you’re going to squash out a budding Frank Lloyd Wright who was going to spring from nowhere. Of course Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t spring from nowhere anyway.

He had a fairly somewhat Beaux Arts education … what proportion really does, it’s nothing to do with necessarily beauty or pace or anything like that, but it sets up an expectation, which is then reinforced and that gives an orderly appearance to the whole. A building is put together with all kinds of very violent and diverse pieces … they have to come together and seem as if they are one whole thing.
A view towards the kitchen from the living room.
View of the kitchen, designed by Richard Sammons. The counters are of unfinished mahoghany, kept in good condition with applications of mineral oil. The cotton roman shades cover the windows, the only part of the kitchen that was retained when Fairfax & Sammons renovated it. The George III bachelor’s chest is flanked by two regency chairs which have their original paint.
View of the  family dining area, adjacent to the kitchen. The plates are views of the architecture of  The University of Virginia lawn, each one featuring a separate pavilion. Notice the small black and white television, tucked into the corner, recycled from the street.
The informal family dining room, complete with one of Anne and Richard’s calico cat, Sister Parrish. The Dutch tiles in the fireplace slip are a tribute to the origins of New Amsterdam and the plates on the wall are Chinese export.  Richard’s proportional device is propped against the overmantle.
Dog toys.
The sunny kitchen reflected in the arched mirrors over the family dining room fire place.
The small entry has a Moravian star light fixture, reflected in the high gloss Pompeian red walls.
Powder room with strawberry motif wallpaper, American Empire mahoghany mirror.
Some of the houses featured on your website are just so huge. Why do people need houses that are that big?

Richard: We don’t really understand because actually we live in a little house. There’s a certain phenomenon. First of all there’s just the guy who wants the big house because … you know.

Anne: Pride of ownership. It’s just pride of ownership.

But what does that mean?

Anne: We had a client actually say [‘pride of ownership’] to us. It’s just the ability to look at the grounds … maybe it’s the Beverly Hillbilly’s syndrome. It’s being driven up not by the women but by the men.

Richard: It’s always by the men.

Anne: The women have to manage these houses that are like hotels, sometimes even larger.
Photos of family and friends.
A group of comfy nightgowns hang from the door of upstairs bathroom.
Stacks of books in an upstairs niche.
The master bedroom with its antique canopy bed from Virginia, covered with fabric from Chelsea Editions.
It used to be that in previous centuries when the wealthy built these enormous houses, there wasn’t that much outside, there weren’t restaurants in the same way, or the array of other entertainments that now exist. Everything took place in their little kingdoms. But now you don’t need that.

Anne: You know what’s motivating these people? It’s really bizarre: children. They want to be able to keep their children at home, under their supervision as long as possible … so the women are saying ‘I want a hang out place for my teenagers so they won’t go to somebody else’s house.’

Richard: There is that, and there is another thing, another syndrome. If you’re really famous and you’re really wealthy, you just can’t go to the movie theater and watch a movie, you can’t go to a restaurant necessarily. So it is a refuge and a little kingdom. And they run like little hotels because what they do is invite other people who can’t go anywhere.

Anne: They might even be afraid that their children may be kidnapped.

Richard: We deal with that level but we also deal with very humble things. If you look through our book [The Architecture of Fairfax and Sammons], you’ll actually see that most of the houses are relatively small.
Anne and Richard’s other calico cat, Elsie de Wolfe, beneath the 18th century Dutch chandelier.
Sister Parrish, sizing up JH, only to eventually give in.
Yeah, I was looking at one in Bedford, actually it is Steve Brill’s house, and what struck me about it was that although it was timbered and made with old stone, and

therefore was very English-looking, I could tell it was American. What is that?

Richard: That’s a very interesting thing. That is a phenomenon that, actually I want to write an article on it, because I don’t care how perfect you think you’re doing a revival style, it looks American. It has to do with very subtle clues about your house relating to the grounds, European houses don’t have bushes in front of the house for one thing … if it’s a Continental style, those are the most glaringly not what they are. We share our building practices with the Dutch and the English … we have sash windows, they have casement windows … all these clues. How big is the baseboard? Do they have baseboards? Because Italian houses don’t …
View of the mezzanine, with English regency saber leg side chairs.  Notice the rope that hold the chandelier in place for lowering raising to light the candles.
Bird’s eye views of the living room from the second story mezzanine.
Birch logs in copper firewood bucket.
One of the mis-matched Queen Anne dining room chairs.
A watercolor sketch of Anne’s grandmother’s farmhouse in Virginia.
A view of the terrace, adjacent to the living room, flush board siding with quoins and cornice.  The large frame is waiting for its mirror.
What about people looking at your work and then saying that it’s not original, that it’s like reproduction furniture?

Richard: I like reproduction furniture if it’s well done. Originality is about as unimportant as it gets. You know what they say about Frank Lloyd Wright, it was about disguising your sources.

Yeah, stealing well. So what do you do when you switch off from architecture?

Anne: Travel. We’re going to Rumania this year.

Richard: We also like to sail.

So, architects can be quite bossy and sailing people are very bossy … who is the most bossy?

[They laugh]

Richard: I think I should probably be more bossy.

— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch

* Ann Fairfax and Richard Sammons are no longer a marital partnership.