Richard Keith Langham is such a good talker that, even though his apartment is still under renovation, we decided to interview him anyway. We did so in his showroom on East 60th Street, which was also in something of a transition phase, but has nevertheless served as a backdrop to his highly (even stubbornly) traditional style for many years. He seems to be almost single-handedly sustaining Southern charm, something of a bygone age in his manner and conversation that has not been corroded by years of New York living and striving.
You moved from Alabama to New York when you were very young – what were your first impressions of New York?
I came here when I was 20 and finished college here. It just felt natural to me [to be here]. I have ADD (attention deficit disorder), so it’s perfect for me to be here, where you ricochet around town and see and learn and absorb so much. I just always knew since I was a kid that I wanted to be here … just the utopia that New York represented, New York was the final word in everything.
But your childhood was spent in a small town – how was that?
Oh, great. I grew up in a town called Brewton, Alabama, near Mobile, near the coast – Hurricane Alley. There were oil and timber fortunes there and there were some really beautiful houses and genteel people. My favorite person and mentor was Barbara Blount Lovelace [an heiress]. Her house was so beautiful. It inspired me early on. Her father was a railroad magnate. Her brother was Winston Blount, the Postmaster General for Richard Nixon. He built the first launch pad that sent Apollo to the moon. She [Barbara] was my surrogate mother. I was there more than I was in my own house. Her daughter and I are still best friends.
Above (l. to r.): This charming 18th century painting of a spaniel by Mouchette was purchased at Dillingham in San Francisco;
Personal photos and mementos top this richly carved and painted 18th century table.
Left: Tucked in a corner of the showroom one of many different upholstered pieces designed by Langham.
So how did that house affect your design sensibility?
Well, you know, the whole cliché – Southern people really do live in their houses. Even after 25 years here there’s something intangibly different about the way Southern people live in their rooms. Southern ladies just know how to run houses. They all do beautiful flower arrangements, they all have good help. I guess it’s handed down from the plantation era.
Well, they have the time and money to do it.
Yes, exactly. And the help.
Although now, having both those things doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to run a home.
Most often it doesn’t. People my age and younger didn’t really absorb it. And that’s a good thing for my profession. That’s why they hire me. I was weaned, early on in this business, on some of the grand ladies up and down the Avenue here who knew what they wanted. They didn’t depend on us to create. They would tell you what to do and now it’s totally changed. We have to sort of force feed everything … .it’s just a different time. The funniest story in the world is Pat Buckley, who had a double-height staircase and I was leaving the apartment, and she called me and said: ‘Richard … I want the lampshade to be precisely this color!’ And she tossed down the stairwell some pantyhose.
Paintings by Laurence Rassin temporarily rest on the floor of the lower level.
Was that when you were working for Keith Irvine?
Well, that’s where Keith Irvine and my years with him were immeasurable because he introduced me to all these grand ladies. He was so generous about it. Most people wouldn’t let you near them and he pushed me to Jackie Onassis … to Pat Buckley, to Drue Heinz, to Priscilla Goodrich … all of these ladies, which changed my life … well certainly my career, not my life.
How much work did you do for Jackie Onassis?
I did a lot of refurbishing over the years for her. I did the bed she died in, re-dressed it. She had a John Fowler bed, she and Evangeline Bruce and Bunny Mellon all had the same bed. Jackie had never replaced the hangings in 20 years.
Is it true that Jackie Onassis insisted that her toilets flushed with hot water instead of cold?
Nooo! Where did you hear that? You would have been shocked at how rudimentary that apartment was. She didn’t even have a dressing room. For all those clothes! She had an old 1950s bathroom that was never refurbished. She didn’t have a make up table.
She was grand and humble all at once. She loved surprise attacks, because that way nobody gathered … so many mornings at 8:30 my buzzer would ring: [puts on breathy ‘Jackie’ voice] ‘Hi it’s Jackie Onassis. Can I come in and look at some swatches of pink silk?’ And there she’d be. And she’d sit on the floor cross-legged and love it. She’d say ‘I’ll bring tuna fish sandwiches for us,’ and we’d eat tuna fish sandwiches out of brown paper. Sometimes I would pinch myself and say: ‘This can’t be true.’ I really knew her!
A selection of letters and photos sent to Keith from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a cherished friend and client.
Left:Praise from Keith Irvine, a friend and mentor of many years.
Do we not have people like that anymore?
No, we don’t. I hate to sound like a pessimist … we live in the age self-aggrandizement. Everyone has an angle.
Are you comfortable with yourself? Have you changed because of all this?
Do you hear this accent? Do you think I’ve changed anything? [laughs]
It sets you apart a little bit. But people still make fun of me. I went to the make up counter to buy my mother her face cream and I said ‘Do y’all have any … whatever the name was of the face cream … ’ and this woman behind this counter turned to me in this computer-sounding voice said ‘No, Rhett Butler, we’re fresh out of it.’ I said: ‘Madam, I’m fifty years old! And I am about to spend $200 on face cream. How dare you mock me!’
Above: Keith has recently re-discovered the piano and has weekly lessons. The piano was a gift from his mother. Left: Keith making the best-dressed list in 1997/98.
Snapshots of Keith’s godson when he was on a visit to the showroom during a trip to the Big Apple.
You have a beautiful piano up there on the mezzanine floor. Do you play?
I just started taking lessons again. I studied piano for about 12 years when I was young. My mother gave me that piano about four years ago and I’m totally into it. I have somebody come here on Wednesdays, he’s from the Juilliard, and I want to play at Carnegie Hall soon! It’s the only soothing thing I do in my life.
Do you like to read?
Not really. I read menus.
Above (l. to r.): Reflections of the showroom from this stunning, oversized 18th-century mahogany and gilt wood frame with original mercury mirror purchased in London;
An 18th century English landscape painting hangs from the mezzanine balcony.
Right: The deep rose-colored crystal hurricane lamps have been ‘keepers’ and have been used in different contexts, taken from place to place over the years.
Your apartment is under construction, which is why we are shooting you here, but where do you live?
I live in a very ugly apartment on 67th between Madison and Fifth, next to Bob Guccione. They’re auctioning off that mansion for something like $68 million. Strange comings and goings, because I’ve lived in that apartment for almost ten years and I’ve seen some stuff going in and out of that building! Those Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs! He has three people just to take care of those. And a Science Diet truck pulls up once a week with like
ten thousand dollar’s worth of dog food.
What do you do if a client doesn’t have any money but they still want to hire you?
Well ... a million dollars is now what a hundred thousand dollars was when I first started. People say: ‘How much does it cost to do a living room?’ and I go ‘A million dollars.’ A proper big-scale, grand living room begins at a million. It’s crazy, as arrogant as that sounds but it’s true! That’s what it costs! It’s insane! Absolutely insane!
L. to r.:The red door to Keith's showroom;
Part of a collection of quilted coverlets.
How would you describe your own style?
I’m grounded in total English sensibility because of my training with Mark Hampton and Keith Irvine. English rooms are the most comfortable in the world.
They’re also the coldest. Have you ever lived there?
I lived there, in London, for a year and a half with my friend Greg Jordan. We were Huckleberry friends off to the see the world! I’d love to go back. It’s the gentlest city in the world. I love the way the motors in the taxis sound, I love the way your shoes sound on the pavements, I love English people. I love it!
Where else do you like to travel?
I went to Turkey last summer. All my buddies and I went on a boat, one of those gulets. It was the best holiday I’ve ever had in my life. We were there the day that bomb went off in a coffee shop. It worries me at night. I mean why don’t we have them [suicide bombers] here? But let’s not talk about that … I also love New Orleans. I’ve been there several times. I have tons of friends in New Orleans. It’s just the most singular place on earth … it’s … such an enchanting, powerful place, so many layers. It’s spooky and it’s sexy and it’s lively and it’s debauched and it’s beautiful. It is in malaise, still, but you should go.
Left:Hmmm let’s see … which green shall it be?
You love the 18th century for its elegance but is there an era that you would have like to have lived in?
Last week! Um … I’ve never really thought about that. I might have wanted to live in the 1920s in London, at Chatsworth, maybe.