Albert Hadley: In Memory and the Value of Sketching

Albert Hadley: In Memory and the Value of Sketching

John Danzer, longtime friend and the beauty and brains behind Munder-Skiles outdoor furniture, had a party for me on the occasion of my first book, Atlanta at Home. It was around 1994, and I was still living in Atlanta then. Well there I was in John’s chic upper east side atelier, […]

John Danzer, longtime friend and the beauty and brains behind Munder-Skiles outdoor furniture, had a party for me on the occasion of my first book, Atlanta at Home. It was around 1994, and I was still living in Atlanta then. Well there I was in John’s chic upper east side atelier,  and up I looked to see Albert Hadley standing in line like everybody else, waiting to have his book signed. Mick Jagger himself would not have thrilled me more. Signing a book I wrote about design for one of America’s best-known and most admired designers, well, that was something for a little girl from Tarboro. Of course Albert Hadley was once a little boy from Springfield, Tenn.

Albert Hadley sketch
This showhouse room was one of the first Albert Hadley did after joining sister Parish. White linen on the walls, red sisal on the floor, pink taffeta curtains, and a tie-dyed Louis XVI settee. After the show, Betsey Whitney bought the settee, and Babe Paley bought the Louis XVI-style chairs.

It struck me then how unassuming he was, though he had much to assume and rightly so. A few years ago I interviewed him  for House Beautiful–he was well in his 80s then–and joined by his young and talented then-assistant Britt Smith, who’s since gone out on his own. At the end I asked him what the favorite part of his job was. “5 o’clock,” he said. We all fell out laughing.

Albert Hadley sketch
The auspicious, if scribbled, beginnings of Mrs. Astor's famous red-laquered library.

Much has been and will be said about Mr. Hadley’s life and legacy since his death a week ago at age 91. I want to talk about his sketches.

Albert Hadley sketch
This is a penthouse drawing room in Charlotte, N.C.

“Some people make lists,” he says in the 2004 book Albert Hadley – Drawings and the Design Process, “I sketch.” Once I’ve defined the concept with a sketch, my imagination is set free to investigate the various possibilities. He explains that he makes the sketches for himself, sometimes up to 20 for one room, and that the client may never see them.

Albert Hadley sketch
Elsie de Wolfe's bedroom in After All, the house in Hollywood she lived in during World War II when she was married to Lord Mendle.
Albert Hadley sketch
...and what he wrote about the Elsie de Wolfe sketches

His “scribbles,” as he calls them are his “attempt to work it all out–get rid of bad ideas, examine possibilities and deal with space, proportion, line, shape and light.” The sketches bring clarity,  he says, the key to good design.

Albert Hadley sketch
A "fantasy sketch" done by Mr. Hadley when he was a student at Parson's, which he attended on the GI bill after the war.

I’d say clarity is the key to good anything, wouldn’t you? And what I take away from this–apart from the delight of the drawings themselves and seeing Mr. Hadley’s hand in them–is the importance of clarity in composition. Decorating is nothing if not composition, and if we can get that right, the room will be good.

Albert Hadley sketch
This very rough sketch for Eleanor Alger still manages to convey furniture placement, window treatment, antiques, upholstery, lighting, and accessories.

So when I look at what a room needs, I think about the composition: high-low, dark-light, soft-hard, modern-traditional, “legs”-skirts. For me a room needs all these elements to work. It never occurred to me to try to sketch a room in order to work it out, and I’m not sure I’d be so good at it. But as a part of the design process,  thanks to Mr. Hadley, I see how excitingly useful it can be.

Albert Hadley sketch
Betsey Whitney's bathroom. Have you ever.

“Some people say they can’t draw;” he said, “that’s nonsense. You can put something down.”

Ol’ Albert Hadley sure put something down. And we sure will miss him.

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