For House Beautiful’s 125th anniversary this year, we're digging into some of our favorite spaces from our archive—including, so far, decorator Sister Parish’s New York Apartment and the West Hollywood home and studio of designer extraordinaire Tony Duquette, dubbed "the house of a magician." Here, we revisit a piece about fashion designer Halston’s Manhattan townhouse, from 1977, which was first published in our October issue that year.
Fashion designer Halston (née Roy Halston Frowick) is back in style like never before thanks to a recent Netflix miniseries about his life, which merited a recreation of his Paul Rudolph-designed Manhattan townhouse—the same dwelling that House Beautiful featured in its October 1977 issue. Much like the fashion icon’s designs on the runway, his own abode was swathed in nothing but minimalist furnishings and decor that have certainly stood the test of time.
In our latest archive dive, we explore the iconic home, wherein Halston often held star-studded parties for his many famous friends and muses, including a fête for Liza Minelli’s first wedding anniversary. Evidently, the design legend understood and appreciated—first and foremost—the importance of the people he entertained at this abode, telling House Beautiful, “One of the problems is that designers, and people themselves, don’t seem to realize that you have people in rooms.” He added, “Over-decorated rooms compete with the people, clearly the most important element in a room, the reason the room exists. But when there are too many pictures, too many flowers, too many things in a room, you just don’t see the people.”
Read the original story below:
The Essence of Understatement
Halston’s Townhouse Manhattan: Stunning Spaces of Subtlety & Style
The incomparable Halston, whose fashion philosophy is Less is Best, lives a Less is Best life in an aura of chic austerity in a contemporary landmark—the only townhouse built in Manhattan since World War II, and a further landmark because it was designed, its architecturally integrated furniture included, by the incomparable modern architect, Paul Rudolph. It’s a many-planed, multi-level, skylighted place of soaring spaces, suspended stairways, catwalk galleries, platforms and overhangs—as complex a piece of sculptural geometry as ever was created, yet as devoid of excess as the shape of an egg. It reflects Halston’s astuteness in interior design.
What Halston calls “the main room” is a sparse, yet magnificent expanse, 27 feet high at its skylight apex and primarily ornamented by a glass-walled, mirror-backed garden of Chinese bamboo, the mirror a marvelous reflector of the light and action in the room. “My extravagant idea,” says Halston. It was executed by Florist-Landscapist Robert Lester—the tab, $4,000. The room is purely white and gray, the furniture upholstery a firmly knit flannel jersey that Halston also uses in apparel design. The floor is carpeted in “The Suede Look,” a dense velvet carpet Halston designed for Karastan Rug Mills, using delustered nylon yarns, using delustered nylon yarns, which give it suede-like, come-and-go highlights that suggest Halston’s famous Ultrasuede.
“Except to sleep or look at TV, I rarely use any room but this, its proportions are so interesting to me,” he says. “And it’s here that I’ve discovered that modern is the only way to live. I like the simplification of living with only a few things.” Dining area is raised, canopied by a sitting room balcony, reached by sculpture-like, unbalustered steps. The decorative accessories are absolutely minimal—a long ebony fish by Marisol, flowers in a hefty crystal vase by Victor Hugo. “It delineates space on the long wall. All this white, far from being stark, is continually changing, reflecting nuances of light and shadow.” The suspended stairways and open catwalks are no hazard, he says. “You get used to them.”
Halston, frustrated at modernizing a Park Avenue apartment, lucked into this house. “I called a real estate agent and asked if a townhouse like the Rudolph house was available, and believe it or not, the Rudolph house itself was for sale, so I bought it.” He is delighted with its spaciousness, its architectonic subtleties and its light. “It’s an exciting place. It works as well for 200 people as for two. With more than 200, like the party I had for Liza Minelli’s first wedding anniversary, it gets a little crowded. The house doesn’t need decoration and I don’t like many art objects around, unless they’re portable and design and can be moved. I prefer important pictures—I have about 400 of them—but I don’t care to have a lot around at one time. I have a storeroom of art and accessories so I can change them about from time to time.” Light, which Halston considers of utmost importance to how people look—and he’s surely an expert on that subject—is artfully controlled. The main room is bathed in continually changing natural light from skylight and garden. A hundred lights in the ceiling and concealed lights elsewhere can be manipulated to varying levels. And then there is firelight and candle glow. “At night I use lots of candles (perfumed candles by Halston Fragrances, one of his 35 firms), but I put them on low tables because candlelight coming up from below is more flattering than light from above.”
Of decoration generally, he says, “One of the problems is that designers, and people themselves, don’t seem to realize that you have people in rooms. Over-decorated rooms compete with the people, clearly the most important element in a room, the reason the room exists. But when there are too many pictures, too many flowers, too many things in a room, you just don’t see the people.”
The gray, which he has used exclusively in the main room, is there because, he says, “Gray happens to be a very becoming color to everyone—blondes, brunettes, redheads, young and old, although there are no old ladies in America. Again I say rooms are for people, and the important thing is to flatter the people in a room.”
Halston, who was born Roy Halston Frowick in De Moines, Iowa, began his impressive career with his own millinery business in Chicago, moved on to New York to work with Lilly Daché for a time, then on to Bergdorf Goodman where he kept 150 milliners and 350 dressmakers busy executing his designs. The clientele, he says, was “the Who’s Who of the world. It was a marvelous experience because the whole world was coming to me.” It was here that he designed the famous pillbox for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which many people feel rocketed him into the limelight. But that’s not true, he says. “I’ve always been successful. I’ve never really had what you would call a ‘down’ period.” He speaks somewhat regretfully about the demise of the hat in fashion. “I still have a tender part in my heart for hats. You can change the look of a woman with a hat, and every time a woman wears a hat she is really noticed. From the beginning of time the hat has been the secret of royalty. Why does the Pope wear a large hat? Why does the queen wear a tiara? And look at the hats the pharaohs of ancient Egypt wore. They wore them for one good reason—to be noticed.”
Halston works in an office even more spare than his home surround—a gray-carpeted expanse walled in mirror and virtually empty save for his table desk and a few Breuer chairs. “My mirrored walls are a functional necessity. I always work through reflections in a glass so I can see the fitting of a garment back and front and sideways.” His own habitual habit is black pants and turtleneck, quite unrelieved by color or ornament. This seems to emphasize the neatness of his slim figure, but it also makes you focus on his face, which is a youthful, blue-eyed, high-browed one, suggesting his Norse and English ancestry. His staff, or at least the staff visible to an office visitor, also wears black.
What with his proliferating enterprises, he has outgrown his present building and is moving to a two-story studio and office in the posh Olympic Towers, with an overhanging suite that delights him. “I can look down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square and up the avenue to Harlem.” He has been a New Yorker for 20 years. “I love New York. I’m one of those nuts who live here.” But he believes that the simplification of living that this house has given him is what makes city life bearable. The house has also given him the urge to build a modern vacation house “somewhere on the beach. I’d love that. I’ve never built a house, but I’m dying to do it.”
The simplicity, comfort and easy maintenance of his Rudolph-designed furniture appears to have made him more furniture-conscious than one might imagine a fashion designer to be. “I see things around, but I don’t see much furniture that I’d like to own—it all seems overdecorated or overstuffed or something. Too much has been done with it and I don’t think you need so much any more. When you look at newly decorated rooms, there is always the Barcelona chairs or Breuer chairs. They’re modern classics, but what else is new? I work hard all day and I don’t want to come home and sit upright. I want to recline a bit. I’d like to do some furniture design because I think there’s a need for it, although some people think that apparel designers should stay out of home furnishings. I don’t agree with that at all. Apparel designers have a proven track record in home furnishings design—look how phenomenally successful they've been with sheet designs.”
People who work closely with Halston invariably comment on his perfectionism and his definite feelings about what he likes and wants. Decisiveness is his strong point. All of which comes across in a conversation with him, but it also comes across that he’s a pretty hard-headed realist. If he would like to put all women back into hats, he probably won’t try to because he is well tuned into the facts of today’s casual life, where the function of a hat is to keep the head warm and the rain off.
Despite the trailing clouds of glamour and the recherché that his name evokes, he is a practical man and quite cognizant of the way people really live. Commenting on his own mode of entertaining—and he is a frequent host—he says, “People don’t sit down for long, formal dinners any more—that’s old fashioned, so rarely, rarely do I set the table as you've photographed it. That acrylic dining table is more often than not used as a bar or a buffet. Guests don’t sit around it—they sit around the big, marble-top coffee table.” The table-top was originally wood, but Halston added the stab of marble to give it a drink- and food-proof surface. “People seem to like to be close to the floor, so they sit right on the floor or on hassocks or on the stairway. I never have an elaborate dinner menu with lots of courses, because I find that people usually eat less at night and enjoy simpler food. Dinner may start out with crudités and the main meal may be blanquette de veau or salmon or baked potato with caviar. This seems to me to be a more contemporary and practical way to entertain.”
Although his designs for a celebrity clientele that can afford the luxury of hand sewing, fine details and superb fabrics have made him a celebrity himself, he takes a most down-to-earth approach to the 400 apparel designs he does each year for the mass market and to his bed-and-bath and rug designing which is also large-scale business. “The mass audience is a great challenge for a designer, a fascinating, complicated thing. I want to give it the same design excellence that goes into the custom-made. Ideally, I’d like to work only in fine fabrics. I’d like, for instance, to do a very thin, wonderful carpet; I’d like to have a top line of very elegant bed and bath designs in the very finest cotton. But the market is polyester and cotton. We must be realistic. Cotton today is priced as high as silk used to be. Besides that, these fine materials require care, and Americans like the push-button life. Women like to mix a little liquid with some powder and say they’ve made a cake. And they like to put sheets in the washing machine and forget them. It’s just a part of modern life—and something that you cannot change. Whether you like it or not, you have to compromise. I do think though, that if you set your standards high to begin with—and this I insist upon—then maybe the compromises won’t be too difficult to make.”
Words by Marion Gough, J. Bradley Reiter, and Kathleen Mahoney
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