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Q&A with Alexa Hampton

Seven questions for interior designer, Alexa Hampton

World-renowned interior designer (and A-List judge!) Alexa Hampton will be signing copies of her newest book, Decorating in Detail (Potter Style, 2013) at the Wakefield Design Center in Stamford this Thursday. We caught up with her to get the scoop on the new book, and what she’s up to now:

Your first book, The Language of Interior Design (Potter Style, 2010), laid out the basic principles of design. What did you want to give to readers with Decorating in Detail?
My first book was more macro, and this is the micro. [The Language of Interior Design] had some super-fancy bits in it. This is less over-the-top fancy, and I think my point was, by and large most of us live in a middle zone, and what do you do to make a place yours when you have common traits with other people. So if you have an English-arm sofa, or you have a sleek, angular chair, what are the things you do to invest an interior with your specific personality? Certainly there are crazy alternatives one can do to be “different” with a capital D, and I sort of eschew that generally speaking. Subtle little detailing can transform something.
Alexa Hampton
Have you always been into the details? Has your style changed over time?
I have always been into the details, but I have definitely gone through my own pendulum swings. Being schooled in design in a very detail-heavy era, I went very clean for a long time. I just couldn’t deal with brush fringe. All the stuff that I associated with age or with a certain look, I got rid of. But now I have come to it more organically and I get it, and it’s also kind of like having a cool drink after a drought.

Are details always purely decorative?
The details do have rational elements—like the reason why you put a tape trim on the end of the skirt on a piece of furniture or on the leading edge of curtains. It’s because it’s the area that gets the most wear, so it’s fortification. But if you can take those things that are helpful in a practical sense and then imbue them with something that is just design-driven, and use them to make a piece special to you, then you’ve covered each base.

Is that what your Wall Street Journal column is about?

It’s hard to express why details are important when they’re taken out of context, but those little grace notes make all the difference. I think the best thing for all designers to do is to learn how to speak about their profession and to explain why things are important or useful—because all anybody wants is an explanation. And I think that’s how my WSJ column came about. Because I just thought, if somewhere were just explaining it, so many mistakes wouldn’t be made.

It’s the “where to” column. As I was thinking about what I cared about in design, it occurred to me that it wasn’t how to it was where to. When you start a project, you don’t realize how many questions you’re going to be confronted with. You know, you think ok, I’m going to have to pick my fabrics and I’m going to have to pick my wall color, and I’m going to pick my curtain design—but then you’ve got air return questions and where do we put the doorknob and how far up off the floor should the wainscot be, and for someone who is not a professional, it can beat them down. And then when people get exhausted with providing answers they just say well do whatever’s standard and then you get a lot of mistakes. The minute it makes sense to me, I won’t forget it, but if it’s some arbitrary rule I will forget it, and I think that’s the same for everybody. So I’m trying to share some of the reasons why we do things.

Tell us about your secret weapon.
My sharpie drawings—They’re very low-tech, but they’re very useful. If I can do a quick sketch to scale on a photograph of a room, then the client can imagine it in the space. If I draw it on a blank piece of paper, I unintentionally resolve a lot of problems that might not be resolvable in the actual site, so it’s also helpful to me. All of these site conditions that are pertinent are right there for me to see. Also, if I sketch something and hand it to a colleague in my office, they all of a sudden know what I’m talking about. “Oh she’s drawn in a Napoleon III chair, that’s what she wants me to look for.” And the workrooms too, see, “oh that’s how long she wants her valance.”

What are the details like in your home?
Well it’s funny you should ask, because I am all of a sudden getting super fancy. I’ve decided to let my freak flag fly, and I’m getting a little more aspirational, in terms of decorating in the way I wish I would live. Now we’re going to have to talk again in five years to find out whether this was a good idea. I’m worried that I’m going to make everything fancy but then still walk around the house in boxer shorts—and if I do will that make it less of a delightful experience or will it actually help me clean up my act? I don’t know. I am a decorator, I long for some of this stuff, and a lot of the fancier things or the far-out things, nobody is going to want to let me do. I’m going to treat my home a little bit like my laboratory.

Is there another book in the works?
I have no idea. Back off! I would like to reissue my father’s books, specifically Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century, with a chapter on my father included, because how could that book be complete without him? But anything beyond that—Momma needs a break.

To meet Alexa in person and get your copy of Decorating in Detail, join us this Thursday, March 6, at 5:30pm, at the Wakefield Design Center at 652 Glenbrook Road in Stamford!