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Mark Hampton: How A Boy From A Small Indiana Town Became America's Best-Known Decorator

05/18/2010 07:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Talk about being born for the job! When Mark Hampton was wearing shoes, his feet were exactly 12 inches long --- he could pace off a room without a tape measure.

In every traditional way, though, you look at his background and wonder how he became the most celebrated American decorator of the 1980s and 1990s. He was born and raised in Indiana. His father was the local undertaker. In boyhood summers, he swam in a creek. As a teenager, he rode a tractor and helped with the harvest. And then, after college, he went to law school before switching to art history.

This is not, you think, someone who will grow up to create beautiful yet comfortable homes for President and Mrs. George H.W. Bush (including the White House, Blair House, the residence of the Vice President, Camp David and more), Brooke Astor, Carter and Susan Burden, Anne Bass and a gaggle of Fifth Avenue gazillionaires.

And yet.... there were signs.

When he was six years old, he told one of his mother's friends, "Jean, that dress doesn't do a thing for you."

When he was twelve, he refinished the shutters of his bedroom window.

And then he set about learning everything about everything.

I met Mark and Duane Hampton and their delightful and ubiquitous daughters in the early '80s. For the first few years, I kept my mouth shut and just listened as, over dinner, Mark talked about everything but decorating. One night, prompted to speak by some self-destructive impulse that years of therapy had apparently not cured, I ventured an opinion about a certain painting by the German artist Max Beckmann. This was, I thought, way outside Mark's expertise. Well, didn't I get schooled that night....

Mark's intellectual range was a circle, ever widening. ''I have absolutely no interest in a trademark style,'' he explained. ''Some would say, 'He has no style, no look.' Well, I don't get it. That isn't what I set out to do. I just set out to be a decorator, to do a good job and have fun. I've wondered with envy at people who like one thing and work at it and it becomes their realm. Those people who can say, 'I love Winterthur but I hate Lyndhurst,' people who have these enormous, refined senses of hate. I love Winterthur, Lyndhurst, Greek Revival and French houses. Of course, I daydream constantly about English houses, and those shingle-style American houses..."

Okay, so he didn't have a style. Of course he had some preferences --- English-tinged rooms, with chintz-covered chairs and some swag in the curtains, obelisks and urns on tables --- but he had a Midwestern resistance to gaudy showplaces that looked as if they only lacked price tags. Hanging a set of plates on a wall was about more than aesthetics: "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."

Mark Hampton died --- he was just 58 --- in 1998. Because he was smart in every area of his life, he'd had the good sense to marry a natural American beauty who writes extravagantly well. And now Duane Hampton has produced Mark Hampton: An American Decorator, a combination biography, analysis and catalog of his work that is thick as a college yearbook and ravishing as the flowers in the dining room of the Carlyle Hotel.

You can be dazzled by these pictures and conclude, "Beautiful, yes, but every client is so rich, every room is so big --- there's not a single idea here that I can use." And you'd be right. This isn't a do-it-yourself-guide to making champagne rooms on a beer budget. It's something else: a high-wire act, about balancing money and taste but caring less about either than about comfort.

Mark Hampton's first great gift was friendship, and that was the entrance to his creativity. His clients were rich and celebrated, but many of them were also fraught --- these are rich people, often short on gratitude, often hard to please and proud of it. Mark Hampton befriended them, and amused them, and calmed them down. And then he satisfied them, just not quite in the way they anticipated --- he gave them rooms in which they could drop some of their cares.

"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. "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."

In fact, they are not. Which is why this book isn't really about decorating --- it's about art. Indeed, it is art.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com ]