From the very start of my interview with Duane Hampton, widow of renowned decorator Mark Hampton, I felt like I was chatting with an old girl friend. She’s a witty, charming woman with a keen sense of humor who sees life for what it is and makes it work.
After the early death of her husband in 1998 she was left holding the (beautifully decorated) fort at the age of 55. As she herself says: “You have to figure out a new life for yourself—and it’s not all terrible.” While their youngest daughter, Alexa Hampton, continued to head the family design firm, Duane returned to her earlier career as a writer. Her latest book, Mark Hampton, An American Decorator, is released this week by Rizzoli. It is, as one might expect, a tribute to a man of many talents: a famous decorator, loyal friend, devoted father and a marriage to wife who was his equal partner on every stage.
I think this is one of the most wonderful apartments I’ve perhaps ever been in!
Oh that is so lovely of you …
I was going to ask you after Mark died, did you feel like changing everything and then as soon as I walked in here, I thought, of course you didn’t want to change anything, this is the most extraordinary apartment – why would you want to change anything?
I didn’t really want to change a lot. Again every day I think, how much longer will this upholstery hold up? I had a straw rug in my bedroom that I got rid of because I was getting splinters.
Since it is so ‘preserved’, and this is the place you lived for many decades with your husband, how do you think that affects you? Is it a comfort to you?
Well, that’s interesting. Part of me thinks it is a comfort. Part of me thinks why would I change something that ain’t broke? Because I love what I’m living in and I had a lot of input too. I really haven’t changed too much because I like it.
You’re in an unusual situation of having a husband who had amazing taste and you really worked as a partnership together.
I certainly didn’t work as a partner in his business. I was a partner because we went out and the fun we had … certainly in the case of our apartment, I was the client. But he would always, and this was one of his talents, bow to the client’s wishes. He wouldn’t want to make something that he thought was going to be great unless the client was involved. So that’s why so many of his jobs look different from each other.
Mark had an unbelievable influence and he did adapt to different taste, but each project he took over was so extraordinary…
Well, of course there were lots of un-extraordinary ones.
I mean he had very, very famous clients.
He had a lot of famous clients and a lot of not-famous clients, and he loved working with most of them.
From what I understand from the little I have read, he was a very likeable person.
Yes, he was. Did you see my first book? It’s called Mark Hampton The Art of Friendship. It was about the watercolors he did for friends and family. He often said, I can’t believe that I’m famous for doing this job I like and working with people I love.
I don’t meet that many couples where the husband is a designer and I was thinking about how part of your world is very social, and even though you weren’t his business partner, that social element merged with the business.
Yes … it was the ‘nice young Hamptons’ … ‘let’s have those nice young Hamptons!’ – ’til we weren’t ‘the nice young Hamptons’! [laughs]
Did you like doing that or did you find it was an obligation?
Yes, I did. I didn’t have a nanny. I raised my two girls on my own with the considerable help of babysitters – and Mark, who was a great father. But it was nice at the end of the day to go out and think about something other than schools or whatever stage they were in. I met a lot of interesting people.
Did that stop when he died?
[sighs] To an extent, of course. But my really good friends were wonderful about including me. And as we got older people weren’t doing that man-woman balance thing at the table … but I still think, how many widows do you want in the room? You just have to figure out a new life—and it’s not all terrible … I haven’t been able to bring myself to entertain much here because it was always such a joint effort.
No, I think it’s fine not to sit around in a black dress for the rest of your life.
Except if you live in New York!
You’d better have a stylish black dress! What was he like as a person during his illness?
He was very brave and he lived his life. He kept on keeping on … he lost his hair [due to chemo] and wore a baseball cap, which amused everybody because it was so unlike him.
Did you talk about death with him?
Oh my God, yes. We went to [look at] a cemetery where a couple of friends of had been laid to rest—Mark’s father was an undertaker … we knew the end was not going to be good—suddenly it’s you. But I’ve had my children around me and now I have grandchildren. I just love having grandchildren.
Do you get lonely?
Um … sometimes I do but I never know when to expect it. I get lonely with the fact that I can’t share things with Mark. He had such a great sense of humor and he would always make me laugh—when he wasn’t making me want to strangle him.
Do you feel a responsibility to carry on his legacy?
I hate the word ‘legacy’. He would hate it too. I think legacy is one of those terms that people use to gussy up the sadness of death – and I guess if Mark has a decorating legacy, it’s his daughter Alexa. She really is his legacy.
So tell me what your life’s like now?
I just finished a book—did you know?! I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I don’t have to go in there and pound away on it.
Speaking of books, you look like you’re a really big reader…
Yes, I have this big stack in my room … The Gate at the Stairs [by Lorrie Moore] is one that I’m into but not finished yet. And I get involved in television shows like Damages and Glee …
Oh you like Glee?!
I love Glee!! It’s my secret vice.
• Sian Ballen • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch