Flower: Let’s start with the basics. What drew you to pursue a decorating career?
Richard Keith Langham: I’m from Brewton, Alabama, where there are a number of beautifully appointed houses that piqued my early interest. I used to say that when you grow up in a small town, there isn’t anywhere to go but your own house, so it better be pretty. I eventually left Alabama to pursue my studies in New York and ended up working as a runner for Mark Hampton—now talk about a true education! And then I went to school in England for a while before coming back to work for the firm of Irvine & Fleming. They were absolute masters of English style and incredibly generous for introducing me to their New York harem of grand ladies, including Jackie Onassis and Pat Buckley. Those years taught me that the best rooms are quietly elegant and richly detailed, but they are always brought down to earth with humble things. Eventually I started my own design business in 1991. Wow, it’s hard for me to believe I’ve been in New York over 30 years.
Well I love that you’ve lived there that long and haven’t lost a bit of your accent.
Most people come to New York to reinvent themselves, but I guess I never truly wanted to reinvent myself. I just wanted to live where it was all happening. There’s a bit of a Southern design mafia here, and we tend to stick together like glue. If you ever think your accent is starting to slip, just get together with this group and it comes back like magic.
So you’re a Southern boy, now firmly planted in New York, who loves the English look.
For one thing, I dislike the word “look.” I try to avoid repeating myself or having a signature style. I think I best serve my clients as an editor, by going out and finding the ingredients that work for their rooms and personalities. I do love houses with depth and soul that are filled with things from the past. A room should wrap its arms around you when you enter. But yes, I’ve always thought the most beautiful rooms are English, with comfortably worn furniture, big bowls of fresh flowers, and lots of layers.
It’s clear you’re never a wallflower when it comes to expressing an opinion—nor do you shy away from using color and pattern.
Beige just bores me. Why start from that place when there is such a more interesting and full spectrum of color to be had? I like to start by walking through a house and figuring out what the progression of color should be. There has to be a thoughtful progression of color—perhaps beginning boldly, and then leading through to a quieter space. Southerners always talk a lot about “sense of place,” and that plays into it, too. Flowers from your garden, for instance, offer the ultimate range and palette that you can draw from for paint on the wall or the coloration of a beautiful chintz, which holds hands with the other room in almost a subliminal way.
You use a lot of floral fabrics in your work. What are some of your favorites?
Going back to my roots with Irvine & Fleming, I’ll always be in love with floral chintzes. Most people only want a small dose, but I still adore them. Although I never like to use fabrics too much over and again, a few that will always be classic include “Tribute to John Fowler” by Hazelton House, “Cumming Rose” by Rose Cumming, and “Bradstock” by Lee Jofa. I gravitate toward floral patterns that are a bit offbeat and not so botanically correct. The palette from flowers is so extensive they inspire with colors almost unimaginable.
“I’ve always thought the most beautiful rooms are English, with comfortably worn furniture, big bowls of fresh flowers, and lots of layers.”—Richard Keith Langham
Do you believe a touch of offbeat is essential to good decorating?
Absolutely. I never want a room to be overly serious. There’s no fun in that, and—no surprise— I’m definitely not a matchymatchy person. I like to spread what I call “a little stardust” in every room. I’ll line a pair of curtains in an unexpected color that isn’t used anywhere else, or I’ll anchor an otherwise grand space with a cotton dhurrie. I’ll take a fine Louis XIV chair and cover it in a casual fabric, and I always find a spot for what I call “kooky chairs”—one-of-a-kinds with flamboyant shapes.
Getting back to flowers, are you much of a do-it-yourself arranger?
Only when I’m forced to or if I truly only want something very simple. There’s so much talent in New York—I’d rather call on one of my floral friends at Sebastian Li or Plaza Flowers.
OK, if I “forced” you to make me an arrangement, what could I expect?
Well I am addicted—absolutely addicted—to hydrangeas. They grow all summer long at my weekend house in Long Island. I adore their big, showy blooms, and I don’t have to do much to keep them going. I’ll stuff them into a very simple container. I have a centerpiece from a junk shop that I bought years ago, a blown-glass bowl on a two-foot-tall plaster-candlestick base. At a dinner party it’s great for the table, because it puts the flowers above your head and there’s no interrupting a good conversation. And when in doubt, I can always rely on a trusty silver Revere bowl. I tend to like monochromatic arrangements or the same shade in different values, such as the palest pink to deep magenta, rather than the Crayola-box approach to mixing colors . . . except maybe for Easter.
May we end on a gossipy note? You’ve worked with a number of high-profile clients, and I’ll bet you’ve seen it all. Any secrets to spill, say, on Jackie O.?
Surely there can’t be much left to say that everyone doesn’t know at this point. But Mrs. Onassis had a gardener at her house in New Jersey, and come late spring, when the lilacs would bloom for only a week or two, she would have him whack down these massive branches of lilac and truck them to her Manhattan apartment. They’d tower over you, and the smell would almost knock you down. She’d say in her sweet, breathy voice, “Keith, all you have to do is just put a few lilacs in a vase and they’ll rave for days.”
By Karen M. Carroll | Photography by Billy Cunningham
Don’t miss this collection of Langham’s designs! About Decorating: The Remarkable Rooms of Richard Keith Langham, Sara Ruffin Costello (Rizzoli New York, 2017)