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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.