As a designer Markham Roberts explains in his inspirational new book, Decorating notes, “There are thousands of moving parts that need to be cohesively connected for a successful outcome.” In his first book addressed the basics of design (although I could hardly classify anything in its interior as basic), and now contains all those aspects that help make his work so memorable – from draining the client’s deepest desires to the practicality of challenges and solutions, crucial layering and finishing a touch of something unexpected.
For all these reasons, Markham’s rooms stay with you, not only for their beauty and comfort, but also for the outstanding symbiosis of the client, the place and the originality. One such project has its own chapter entirely – the remarkable home on Nantucket that you may have seen when it was published in Architectural Digest. The chapter entitled Destinies is not only insightful but also anecdotal and full of humor (be sure to check out Markham’s Travel Needs in the introduction). Knowing Markham and meeting his “smart, funny and naughty” client here in Nantucket, I’m glad I can share more about this very special island home, including some unpublished photos and behind-the-scenes information!
Q: As you say in the introduction to your new book, landscaping is a complex job and process and I can’t think of anything much more complex than decorating a large house from scratch on this small and often inaccessible island 30 km from the sea. How many years and trips did this project cover?
MR: It was about a year and a half of work – on the fast road and I spent a lot of time there for the installation, which had to be done in many stages, given all the different suppliers and the huge amount of what needed to come into the house. I remember when I first visited that place when I boarded, and it was January of the year when they had ice waves on the beach. I don’t think I’ve ever been colder than that day in a house that was an open construction site.
Q: Although the client has given you the freedom of government to design all of this, have you been given any guidance to at least begin the process?
MR: I knew it had to be a house for both the client and her extended family. We had to make it comfortable for everyone, logical and practical for different needs, and we had to deal with both the light and its seasonal changes, because the house is used more than just for the summer. We made summer blankets and summer and winter curtains and pillows to give the house a different feel when the light changes as the days get shorter. This was extremely important to the client, but other than that, it didn’t direct much. I think she wanted to see what I could think of for her, and we were, thankfully, of similar taste, so we were able to work quickly.
Q: It seems to me that this project was an act of complex acrobatics – how to reconcile a very specific sense of a place like Nantucket with broader design schemes and prevent what is essentially a beach house (albeit a large one) from becoming a festive power-decorating game?
MR: With the client’s exceptional art and important collections of antiques and decorative arts, I carefully chose more casual materials and patterns and tried to arrange the furniture in comfortable, less rigid ways – all to shatter any imagination that could easily take over when dealing with estates like of these. The client has a great sense of humor and enjoys family and friends, and it was important for her to make the house attractive.
Q: What was key to incorporating so many Nantucket-themed collections into the house (baskets, naval Valentines, bird carvings, etc.), without it seeming too fictional or expected?
MR: Things like that are undoubtedly charming, and the client had a lot of them, which I tried to take advantage of in different ways. For example, we had a series of complete sets of Nantucket stacking baskets, which fit into each other like Russian dolls. We decided to hang two antique sets high in the entrance hall on the walls as sculptural art, and use the newly made sets around the house as cash pots and flowers. The antique set is out of reach and therefore protected, and newer ones are on hand to use. We also used sailor valentines – it’s hard to resist them, but they live in their granddaughter’s bedroom where they complement her pink and lavender scheme or they used them in the bathrooms because the moisture can’t damage them.
Q: I can’t even imagine how you started sorting and choosing from your client’s huge collections. How did you even get started?
MR: It has been a challenge of this business, evaluating and finding benefits for many things of the client. We had to edit the parts and come up with different ways to use things, to make them feel new to her and fit into this new house. Take a large collection of carved waterfowl; instead of exhibiting on tables and on bookshelves (which is why we would have to give up books), we made special brackets and hung them in groups on the walls in two areas, creating flock art and adding different visual interest to those rooms.
Q: What was key to presenting these collections in an unpretentious way, so that they charm rather than show off.
MR: I guess it used to be a general concept rather than a conscious decision that both the client and I appreciate less formal things for a house like this. None of us naturally gravitate to fancy or precious fabrics and too much trimming. Making decisions like using different wooden plank designs as architectural backdrops in many parts of the house, painted in fresh white, we set her things up and highlighted them on a simple background, or at least a seemingly simple one. If we hung important fiery watercolors of 18th century birds of prey and a collection of vivid chakra paintings by Julia Condon in the entrance hall, on fancy glazed plaster walls, it would have a completely different feeling – one that I don’t think is so welcome.
Q: What are some of the key components that have helped you so successfully cross the line between highly sophisticated and custom designed and underrated style?
MR: Take for example the wall coverings in the dining room. I wanted to create a formwork effect in the direction of the ticking stripes, and while this is an incredibly complicated and precise job of perfectly setting each track and elaborating with an architectural design, I wanted it to feel simple and not be obvious. The use of a mattress beat helped to reduce any formal quality and seemed less disturbed, and by keeping the entire palate in the room faded or muted, it allowed the interesting pieces in the room to really shine.
Q: There is a strong tradition and craft history on the island. How did you find so many people you work with locally?
MR: My client has been going to Nantucket for decades and already had a great affinity for local crafts, so I was happy to learn from her experience and relationship. We had to work with Hilary Anapole to weave custom rugs in the tradition of large looms and I never visited the lovely John Sylvia store at the bottom of Main Street and came up with something special.
Q: You kept the entrance and halls clean and bright next to the white mill and the elegantly neutral floor of Bob Christian. What was it about?
MR: The room is two-storey with a gallery of stairs above. It has tall windows and has an interesting shape with roof lines. We wanted to play with the boards in their directions on different parts of the sharp white walls and set up the walls opposite Bob Bob’s handsome floor. Both treatments were performed to visually place all the different pieces in the room – an old English dining table, a Dutch mirror, Indian watercolors, antique Nantucket stacking baskets, provincial colored benches and seating chairs, works of art by Julia Condon and Chinese exports and excellent blue and white. A lot is going on, so I wanted to balance that with the simplicity of the white walls.
Q: You are known for your great use of colors and patterns, and this house especially has both. Do you have any advice on how to achieve a combination without culminating in a dizzying effect?
MR: Assemble and see how it works. If it looks bad, discard it and try something else. and keep in mind that things don’t have to match and probably shouldn’t. It’s fun to experiment with color and play patterns.
Q: While the blue-and-white color scheme may seem like an obvious choice for a Nantucket house, you’ve managed to downplay any reference to it to make it feel appropriate, not irresistible or obvious. Any advice?
MR: I don’t really think of this house as blue and white, but when I look at it, there are four rooms that basically have blue and white schemes. Again here, I never like things to match and I think you have to inject contrasts so things don’t get boring. One of the rooms has burnt orange and Pompeian red contrasts, the other has all the greenery and brown and gold elements of the whole pottery on the walls, and the client’s bedroom has a lovely pink, delicate and bright color with its paler blue-white pattern.
Starting to work with a client like this who is funny and smart, loves decorating, has top-notch stuff, and most importantly, what he really wanted to indulge in my creativity was a great experience. I think the result is a house that suits her perfectly, and that is her success.
all photos Nelson Hancock
Thank you Markham – it’s always a treat to talk to you and we hope to see you on the island soon!