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,  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.


  1. Forgive me for being overly spiritual in responding to this inspiring post (it is Holy Week, after all), but I receive “a word” from a community of Episcopalian monks in Cambridge, Massachusetts each day and what they sent (part of their “rule” of life) resonates with what you’ve given us: “Each of us has been given the divine spark of creativity and imagination, and as we grow in our conversion to Christ, so should our gratitude and reverence for these gifts. Fear and inertia quench the spirit. Faith in the Giver of all good gifts will lead us to use the opportunities our life provides for developing our creativity and using our imagination.”

    1. Randall this is such a welcome message and spiritual reminder to us all, particularly in this Holy Week. Thank you thank you thank you, and blessings, Frances

  2. where have i been? how did i miss the sad news about mr hadley’s death? i was stunned to read the news here, not unexpected since he was 91, he just seemed larger than life itself.

    a quick story about a surprise in london at the international antiques fair. my friend and i were first in line, well, cut in…..long story. i looked back at the gentleman at the head of the line and sheepishly apologized, we smiled at each other and his american accent made me take a second look. we both stopped and said in unison “i know you!” it was john danzer who was at my chicago shop’s event 6 months prior……… the adorable & talented mr. danzer!

  3. I have the very same book!! Albert’s sister Betty is a dear friend of my family… It was not only a loss to the design community but a terribly sad loss for his sister as well. He will be greatly missed!

    Lovely post! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh Hilary thank you, and thank you so much for writing. I have thought of Betty and now wish I had written her but do not have her address etc. I never met her in person but had the pleasure of interviewing her when I wrote about her lovely house for Veranda – years ago.

  4. As an architect and former Parish-Hadley employee, I have been greatly influenced by the wonderful sketching style of Albert Hadley. His talent for creating such an evocative interior with just some strokes of a felt-tipped pen and some smudges from a soft lead pencil is a lesson for us all.

  5. Thank you so much for this fabulous article! I am an interior design student and would like to use some of these sketches in my assignment – is it possible for you to refer me to the original sources you used please?

    1. Hi George snd thanks for writing. The post sites “the 2004 book Albert Hadley – Drawings and the Design Process” and Im guessing that is the source of the sketches. Good luck to you in your career of creating beauty!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *