THE HAMPTON MISSIVES

Byline: Nathan Cooper

NEW YORK — Living in a home designed by the late interiors guru Mark Hampton was a privilege reserved for a chosen few. Yet within the ranks of Burdens, Steinbergs and Kissingers, and among Hampton’s friends and family, the most coveted symbol of insider status was receiving one of Hampton’s watercolor greeting cards, which brimmed with the decorator’s effortless wit, taste and charm. Not unlike haute couture stationery, Hampton’s whimsical paintings were tailored to their recipients’ personalities and experiences, usually with quite a healthy dose of humor.
Now Duane Hampton, the decorator’s widow and longtime collaborator, has gathered 140 of these watercolors in “Mark Hampton: The Art of Friendship,” a book that offers entree into Hampton’s stylish world of letters.
“Mark had a wonderful way with his friends — calling them, checking in on them and always remembering things about them,” says Duane Hampton from the sumptuous beige living room of her Park Avenue apartment, “and his watercolors really grew out of that. It helped that he had a photographic memory.”
That memory led to snapshot renderings of everything from the Pantheon in Rome (which his daughter, Kate, had fallen in love with during her studies there) to Bill Blass’s stone house in Connecticut.
Hampton multitasked long before the computer buzzword was coined, simultaneously chatting on the phone, flipping through fabric swatches and painting a naughty little card. “Always doing a million things at once,” says Duane, “he would dip his brush in his drink rather than the water dish.” Given the necessary speed of watercoloring, the late decorator usually whipped up his diminutive masterpieces in as little as two hours.
Naturally, Duane was the subject and recipient of several of her husband’s most vibrant and whimsical efforts. A trip to India produced a likeness of her perched yoga-style in a pagoda, deep in meditation. “Of course, I was really just peering into my gorgeous new Indian ring,” she admits. Another shows a range of her favorite evening gowns, circa 1980, including classic looks by Oscar de la Renta, Blass, Halston and Yves Saint Laurent — all rendered as paper dolls.
She has spent the last two years assembling “The Art of Friendship,” which spun out of two posthumous exhibitions of her husband’s watercolors. “The most exciting thing in the world is getting your own Library of Congress number,” she says. She is also issuing reproductions of the cards themselves — which figured heavily in the Hampton family’s own gift-giving rituals — in time for the holidays.
A group of Duane’s friends, including Mica Ertegun, Louise Grunwald and Bill Blass, will toast her new book at the Morgan Library tonight. These are the people who not only delighted in Mark Hampton’s cards through the years but have also lent their prized watercolors to the pages of “The Art of Friendship.”
“There is one that was left out,” Duane confides. “I actually think it was in the layout of the book and my daughter suggested we leave it out. It was called, ‘Debbie Does Munich’ — which was for Annette de la Renta. She’d just been on a trip to Germany.”

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