With His Layered, Playful Interiors, Markham Roberts Makes People Comfortable — and Dogs, Too - 1stDibs Introspective

Designer Spotlight

With His Layered, Playful Interiors, Markham Roberts Makes People Comfortable — and Dogs, Too

In his new book, Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating, the designer includes detailed comments on recent projects, as well as on his own homes. Top: Roberts made the former hayloft of his 19th-century carriage house in Upstate New York into a workspace paneled with unfinished pine. His dog, Harriet, relaxes on the Swedish flat-weave rug. All photos by Nelson Hancock

I first met Markham Roberts right after the smart, irreverent Brown University grad stopped working for the legendary decorator Mark Hampton to hang out his own shingle — a move that had been encouraged by Hampton, who then cheered him on from the aisles of the D&D Building. 

In the ensuing 20-some years, despite his increasing prominence in the design world, Markham hasn’t changed one bit. His charming, down-to-earth manner endears him to clients, as does his ability to complete his design projects on time and on budget. In fact, I have never known anyone who has so many former clients as current friends. 

Markham was my friend first, and then I became his client. Back in 2002, he took a small-for–New York budget and magically transformed a musty prewar Park Avenue apartment into a luxurious and livable space for my young family, including — as is always important with Markham — my dogs. 

He gave me what I wanted: a custom-designed U-shaped banquette for my living room, covered in a lush camel velvet the same tone as my two pugs. And I listened to what he wanted, including a knockout brown-lacquered foyer anchored by a bright-orange sofa and dining room walls wrapped in red-and-white flowered Lulu DK fabric. The apartment was grown-up but playful, stylish but easygoing — words I would use to describe Markham as well.

An Indian painting of a white tiger above the couch in the living room of a Millbrook, New York, farmhouse, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating
An Indian painting of a white tiger joins the lively mix in the living room of a Millbrook, New York, farmhouse.

We’ve met a few times during the pandemic, most recently to discuss quarantine life, tennis and his latest book, Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating (Vendome). The volume, with its oversize images shot by Nelson Hancock, showcases the designer’s recent work around the globe, as well as two of his own, very personal homes. Throughout these projects, what is most strikingly apparent is his deep knowledge of traditional and contemporary furniture and fine art, his adept mixing of patterns, from paisleys to florals to geometrics, and, of course, his famous whimsy and humor.  

You decorated an apartment for me nearly 20 years ago. How has your style changed since? How has design changed? How have your clients changed — or is everyone just getting older?

Well, I prefer to think of it like fine wine — we are getting better with age. I like the same things I did then but have more interests with the passing years, which come from just being older and not unconscious. 

The more I learn about different cultures through travel or from museums, the broader my visual library grows from which to draw inspiration. For instance, I’m using papyrus and reed motifs from a recent trip to Egypt to work out a stenciled border for an Arts and Crafts ceiling of a house in London. So, yes, I think our tastes do change over time. The more we see, the more we know, the more our thoughts about things evolve.  

Decorating has definitely changed — very much in the way information passes and the speed with which things get done. Technology has utterly changed the business. Think of a tool like 1stDibs and the ease and immediacy with which it brings the world to us. 

The entrance hall of a Nantucket home, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating
In the cozy entrance hall of a Nantucket home, a snake photo by Guido Mocafico hangs over the 18th-century Georgian marble mantel the residents received as a wedding present. A Fornasetti chair sits next to the fireplace.

Why a second book? What more did you need to say after 2014’s Decorating the Way I See It?

Are you telling me I said enough the first time? Is it time for me to stop? Here’s what I’d say: It was a big deal for me to have been able to do a book and to have gotten to work with Vendome. I was understandably thrilled to get to do it again with Notes on Decorating and to further describe how I think and approach something I love. 

As a decorator, there is no better way to show off to the world what you do and why you do it. My first book brought me interesting projects from far and wide for clients who might not have ever thought or known to hire me had they not seen it, so I jumped at the chance to do another.

The dining room of an American heiress on New York's Park Avenue, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating
Pierre Frey curtains, red leather chairs and Chinese export botanical watercolors fill the dining room of an American heiress on New York’s Park Avenue.

You actually do the writing for your book  — do you use a different part of your brain when you write a book than when you’re designing a new project?

Writing and decorating both require a lot of thought, discipline and focus, but, yes, decorating allows for more creative thinking. I will say the book was more difficult in that I had to really edit and cut things down — not just the words but the images I wanted to show. There are only so many pages.

You’ve designed grand apartments in London and New York City; elegant yet beachy houses in Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons; and luxurious ski chalets out West. What is your favorite kind of space to work on?

A pair of Chippendale candlestands flanking the entrance to the library of a home in Austin, Texas, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating
French brass wine coolers planted with orchids rest on 18th-century Chippendale candlestands outside the library of a home in Austin, Texas.

I like working all over and getting to travel and see and experience places I might have never known otherwise. Montana was like that for me — I think I’ve done six houses now at the same resort, and I have loved spending time out there. It would be great to get to work in Chicago or San Francisco, the English countryside or anywhere else I haven’t before.

What do you collect?

Lots of things — the most valuable being old, good friends like you. But a wide range of other stuff, too: shells and natural specimens since I was a little boy, drawings and works on paper of all periods and origins, Chinese tribal jewelry, antique textiles, Indian miniatures, Asian lacquer and toys. I’m always out looking for things for clients and keeping my eyes open wherever I go in reality or through the Internet, so it wasn’t hard to achieve my hoarder status.

The book features the side-by-side living rooms and a carriage-house office in your place upstate, in Millbrook, and you devote the final chapter to your dreamy seaside house in Port Townsend, Washington, which was the longtime family home of your partner, James Sansum. Can you explain how you approach very different kinds of settings and keep them feeling indigenous?

, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating
The walls of this Southampton media room are upholstered in a Carolina Irving fabric; the floor lamp is by Pierre Guariche.

Indigenous characteristics always come into play. In my case, these projects are very different houses in different places, and so the decorating forms from that and from whatever situation I am creating the spaces for.

For example, the carriage-house studio in the country is a place for me to work, so I need to think about storage for samples, plans and my work library, as well as lighting to work by and surfaces to spread things out on. These are different considerations from those for the main house, where I need to think of guests and their needs, as well as James, who has in the past accused me of decorating him into a corner.  

Needs drive the design for particular rooms of a house as much as whatever baggage comes with them. In working on our own houses, I never get a clean slate — there are always possessions we’ve collected that I both want to use and, of course, feel the need to use. I guess I don’t get as much freedom in decorating for myself as I do for clients.

Do you have a signature style? 

I try very hard not to have a signature style and enjoy working on all types of projects. I hope the book reflects that.  

With His Layered, Playful Interiors, Markham Roberts Makes People Comfortable — and Dogs, Too
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With His Layered, Playful Interiors, Markham Roberts Makes People Comfortable — and Dogs, Too
Markham Roberts's carriage house studio in Upstate New York, from his book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating

A rattan pendant hangs overhead in Roberts’s carriage-house studio in Upstate New York. The round Milo Baughman chair is covered in a yellow Clarence House linen.

Markham Roberts's studio, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating

The studio is outfitted with pieces he loves, including a metal-and-sheepskin armchair, an Arts and Crafts cabinet, a red Gerrit Rietveld Zig-Zag chair and a Thonet end table.

A suburban living room, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating

In this suburban living room, a patterned dhurrie rug combines with French and Italian neoclassical chairs and Asian lacquer coffee tables for a worldly but approachable feel.

A Montana bedroom, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating

Softness is the theme of this Montana bedroom with cashmere-covered walls, a Mongolian-lamb stool and a faux-chinchilla throw. The Jean-Michel Frank armchair provides a seat for contemplating the mountain vistas.

A Southampton bedroom, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating

An unexpected plaster chandelier hangs from the painted wood ceiling of a Southampton bedroom.

An airy mountain getaway, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating

Rough-hewn wood beams and mid-century and contemporary furniture lend this mountain getaway a Scandinavian air. The dining table, inspired by George Nakashima, has a live-edge walnut top on a custom base.

A Southampton living room, from the book Markham Roberts: Notes on Decorating

The parchment cabinet in this Southampton living room holds a secret — a custom cocktail bar.

Any advice for the amateur decorator?

Best advice to the amateur decorator is to hire a professional!

How about any advice for decorating when dogs are family members?

Like the dark-red-wine-colored suede shoes I favor, which can hide similarly colored spills, camel velvet U-shaped banquette sofas for clients with camel-colored pugs can disguise a multitude of shedding sins.

Markham Roberts’s Quick Picks

“Love this cool bronze console that looks like it can walk away on its own.”

“I love the natural-form metalwork leaves of this Tommaso Barbi chandelier, which satisfies my penchant for hanging plants.”

“Gregory Kuharic’s ceramic gourds are fantastic as sculptures on their own, but they also make great vases.”

“This pair of chic metal and marble pastry tables make me fantasize that I can actually cook and that I have a kitchen large enough to use them.”

“Carlo Nason’s bubble fixtures fascinate me with their concentric tinted-glass layers.”

“I’m a sucker for fancy gilt-bronze-mounted porcelain like this.”

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