Ellen Hamilton

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We—well Sian mainly—grilled Ellen Hamilton about being a member of the first generation of liberated working women, and we wanted to know why the “anti-feminist” choice of being a decorator? The interesting outcome of her answer was to realize that the fields once relegated to women (nutrition, early childhood development, fashion and design) are now among the biggest businesses in the world, and she has done very nicely thank you. And for once we got a straight answer to the question “How would you describe your own taste?” – “A little bit messy.”

[Sian] I want to talk about what we talked about on the phone, which is we were born in the same year ..

We’re in the ’55 club.

Well, that was the kind of the first time that women considered going out into the workforce, with their floppy ties and their suits…

No pants, no computers. But yes … delay having your children, advance having your career … er [my answers] may ramble a bit …

In the master bedroom-loft, linen drapes overlook the downstairs living room. The apartment is a corner brownstone and is flooded with light from three directions as well as from skylights. The views are over neighboring brownstone rooftops towards lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. At the foot of the four poster bed: a colorful group of throw pillows top a wicker settee (from Great Aunt Anna’s Millinery shop, Philadelphia, circa 1922). Moroccan rug from Kea, Brooklyn, a favorite source of Ellen’s. Amish quilt from Lancaster, PA was a baby gift.
L. to r.: Stacked vintage suitcases from Thailand below a coat-rack filled with Ellen’s purses and a sewing basket. The rattan suitcases were the luggage workhorses of pre-War Thailand.; Bedside reading in a bookcase from Rome.
Swimming in Brooklyn. A minor cult; Peter poses at two of New York City’s public ‘country clubs.’
A sunburst mirror hangs above a cherry chest in a corner of the bedroom. Family photos of favorite trips – to Sicily and Cambodia – and fresh flowers (always!) atop a chest of drawers.
L. to r.: A sweet watercolor of the coastline along Australia’s Great Ocean Road. Peter, Ellen’s husband is from Melbourne.; Family photos and reading glasses are arranged upon a corner cabinet in the bedroom. Cameo-sized baby photos of Ellen and Peter’s children.
Looking toward the staircase and one of two skylights that let light into Ellen’s loft bedroom. Ellen says that stars and moonlight make for a restful night.
The downstairs living room from the bedroom balcony.
A bold mix of patterns and colors in the sitting room. Ellen found the bookcases at Housing Works’ ‘Design on a Dime.’
Clockwise from above: More books and design magazines; Family photos. They’re everywhere, and they range from Victorian studio portraits to Polaroids. Peter collects 19th century landscape photographs of India and the ‘ports of call’; Desktop necessities.
In the sitting room: Hermès boxes stand in front of an Indian brass elephant lamp.

Don’t worry, we cut them. It’s just there aren’t that many women your age in your field who have had to earn a living. Most have a wealthy husband or a trust fund … and they don’t have children.

And I would footnote that and say to choose to stay in New York City, which is a hard choice given the economics of New York. It was choice that we made because we’re both [Ellen and her husband] committed urbanists.

What does that entail?

I think that you have to be willing to live with a certain amount of contentiousness and discomfort. You have to be resourceful. You learn to make the best of the city park system. You learn to make the best of the public school system. It’s an act of will and a choice.

Family photos fill the staircase landing.
L. to r.: The watercolors of an Ohio River bridge Wheeling VW plant are by Ellen’s uncle Seward Van Campen. They hang above a basket from Thailand that was used for the rice harvest.; A pair of 1930s photos of an Australian botanical garden hangs above a bronze statue of a Greek God from uncle Seward. Good for holding the keys.
Views of the family kitchen. Plates with Quranic inscriptions are from Uncle Seward’s travels in Syria and Turkey. Palm from Palm Sunday liturgy at Downtown Brooklyn’s Oratory of St Boniface.

[Sian] Well speaking of choices, since I did consider myself a career person, I would never have chosen to be a decorator—that was “anti-feminist”.

There’s little twist to that. I went to Drexel University, which had a College of Home Economics. It was home economics, nutrition and early childhood development and at the time, fashion design and sewing. Somewhere around 1940 to 1950 it began to encompass interior design. It was women’s education college. And it was only women. Interestingly enough, although you could easily see it as being anti-feminist, it was founded at that time when America was becoming an industrial nation. They were trying to find usefulness for women.

You mentioned those three main subjects – home economics, nutrition and early childhood development – those are now areas of vast interest and make for lucrative businesses. It was relegated to women at the time, but those things have turned out to be crucial.

You might nursing to it. But you come full circle as to why did I choose decorating. I didn’t have any notion that I was going to do anything other than work and so I kind of thought that just working was enough. I didn’t feel I needed to choose a ‘male’ profession.

L. to r.: A bright red end table by Tom Dickson stands in front of a floor lamp from Anthropologie. The chair is from Donghia and the sofa fabric is from Les Indiennes. The curtain fabric is from Osborne and Little.; An oversized Victorian dresser from Philadelphia belonged to Ellen’s great grandfather, ‘Baron’ Jim Dougherty, a publican, boxing promoter (including Jack Dempsey) and county boss. A bronze garden angel peeps around the corner.
Reflections of the living room in the Victorian mirror. The mahogany table is Australian. Peter’s mother bought the balloon-backed chairs at auction in the 1930s. These delicate pieces are said to have come from a convent parlor, and they sometimes snap under the weight of male dinner guests.
Chartreuse silk curtains soften the light-filled corner living room. Osborne and Little.
A collection of patterned textile pillows fills the living room sofa. Lava Rock table from Cati Lagot. Emus on Western Plains by Richard Weatherly.
A painting of nasturtiums by Australian artist Andrew Taylor hangs above a horse hair-covered parlor chair from Peter’s mother.
A Gowanus Canal landscape by Diana Horowitz.
Ellen and Peter’s comfortable living room overflows with books, colorful textiles and the occasional piece of inherited furniture. Their son James recently graduated from the Cooper Union, and several of his architectural models sit above the bookcase. The carved bookends are Italian. The painting is of a Philadelphia steel mill, an auction purchase that recognizes a career spent in the steel business by Ellen’s father, John Zimmerman.

L. to r.: Portrait by John Woodrow Kelly. Bookshelves from Ikea. The clamp lamps are from Tango Lighting and the lampshades from Le Bon Marché.; Another tower of books topped by a bronze from Uncle Seward’s collection.
Ellen’s Uncle Harry was a furniture designer and he created this sideboard for the J.B. Van Sciver Furniture Company in Philadelphia. The round mirror was a family basement find.
A lamp from Anthropologie stands on a green ceramic and iron table in a corner of the living room. The chair is from Donghia.
The center table is a perfect spot to display yet more books, an African stool from James Stephenson, an emu egg from Union Square market stall, and an Indian temple bell.
Reflections of the living room and a vase of fresh sunflowers. Brass candle sconces are from C & C Milano.

What do you like about decorating?

I remember feeling really frustrated—my brother is a doctor—and I remember saying to him, “Carl, my work is vain and silly and stupid and I’m dealing with people whose concerns are trivial. I can’t stand it. You’re a doctor, at least you change people’s lives. You make them better.” And he said, “No, you’re completely wrong. They have no ability to do what you do and they come home and you make their house beautiful and you make them happy. You give them something they couldn’t even envisage. It has real social value. I deal with sick people and dying people. You get to deal with beautiful things.”

Do you like the same things about it now that you liked then?

I do. I think that the one thing that was a surprise to me was that I have particular poor mercantile instincts and I didn’t really understand, ever, until I had my own business, how having a good head for business helps you be a good decorator. I was way too passionately involved … somebody who is looking at the bottom line and driven by the bottom line is never going to allow themselves to indulge in eight shades of red … I mean even my clients would say “You know, Ellen … they all look the same to me. Just pick one.”

L. to r.: A silkscreen of the Taj Mahal from Anthropologie hangs above a cozy loveseat in Grace’s bedroom.; Grace’s own creation.
Saffron-colored paint and curtains are made of Indian fabric from Roller Rabbit. They create a lively contrast in daughter Grace’s room.
L. to r.: A crowded but tightly organized bookcase.; Rattan storage baskets are stacked behind Grace’s turquoise rain boots.
Grace’s art collection. Ellen and Peter buy original works as gifts to mark important events. The miniature landscape by Diana Horowitz was pained from an artists’ space in the World trade Center.
In a corner of Grace’s bedroom: an inlaid desk and silver chair made in India were purchased from John Robshaw.
L. to r.: A favorite jean jacket hangs outside the closet door.; Hanging above Grace’s purse collection is the official letter sent by the Motion Picture Academy to Peter’s niece, the actress Rachel Griffiths, announcing her Academy Award nomination for her role in Hilary and Jackie.

The other thing I wanted to bring up is when you have a family and you’re putting a major percentage to the overall household budget, you don’t have money to furnish your apartment in the way you furnish other people’s apartments.

What is that British expression about “hunting with horses and running with the hounds”? You want to be really careful of that. Mark Hampton had a lot of great expressions but one of my favorite ones is: “The only difference between us and the help is that we get our knees under the table.” Ultimately, we’re the help.

Don’t you get jealous?

No! Never! I get to make it happen.

L. to r.: Peter at work. He is publisher of the industry e-newsletter, DocumentaryTelevision.com. The desk is from the old State Savings Bank of Victoria.; A Moroccan rug from Kea Carpets and Kilims covers the office floor. The Suzani is from Layla, Brooklyn.
The walls of Peter’s office are chock-a-block with favorite art, maps, photos and memorabilia. The black and white drawings are from James Hamilton’s thesis presentation, Cooper Union AR’10.
Marilyn Pollock painted the oil of Ellen’s great uncle Eddie, a National League umpire and scout. The microscope was purchased by Peter’s father, Dr Jim Hamilton, when he enrolled in medical school in Melbourne.

How would you describe your own taste?

I guess a little bit Bohemian, a little bit messy. I don’t like things that are perfect. My first passion is textiles. You can change your house a lot around textiles.

But clients don’t want you to give them a messy look. That’s why they bring you in!

[Laughs] No, they don’t. I think you have to have a lot of confidence in the decorative arts to live messy. When people hire a designer it’s because they’re not confident and I really feel passionate about empowering them. My happiest moment is when clients start buying things on their own.

When you’re not working what do you like to do?

I don’t do anything but work – or I’m with my family.

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