[ED: This post is a continuation of a previous post on the work of Angelo Donghia. Available online texts on Donghia's work can be sparse, and more often focus on his legacy as a businessman rather than his skill as a decorator. More information on his life and work can be found here and here. It should also be noted that artist Richard Giglio's apartment was attributed to Donghia in Architectural Digest's New York Interiors, 1979.
The video interview below was taped in 1981, four years before his death of AIDS-related pneumonia.]
"Light pouring through multifaceted skylights makes its own geometric play in a living room where checks and plaids are counterpointed against white. White separates—and at the same time holds together—the strong blues and reds used on sofas and chairs and in the rug. The bar stools came from the S. S. Caronia."
"At the age of forty-five, Angelo Donghia is unique in the world of American interior design. While most designers find their work with private clients all-consuming, he has successfully embraced almost every aspect of the design business and even achieved the impossible: he has moved into the mass market without lowering his reputation in the eyes of his private clients.
Today, in addition to his interior design company, Angelo Donghia has four other distinct corporate entities: a fabric company, a furniture company, a licensing company, and an ever-growing collection of showrooms throughout the country. In all, he employs eighty people.
At the age of ten, Angelo Donghia was growing up in the small mining town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, aware that he didn't want to follow in his tailor-father's footsteps and that he liked making things more attractive. According to Mr. Donghia, nothing has changed. "I'm really doing the same as I was then," he says. "Except now I'm doing it in the big wide world. I've always wanted to do things. In high school I was the president of five different organizations at once. I was always very busy, and I love getting lots of people involved. Strangely enough, I didn't do any of that at college; I was very quiet."
College was three semesters at the University of Miami followed by three years at Parsons School of Design. From the day he graduated, his life has followed a logical progression of one success after another. "At the end of 1959, I decided to apply for jobs. I had three designers on my list: Michael Greer, Yale Burge, and Billy Baldwin. For no particular reason, Yale's name was first so I called him first and he hired me. I asked for one hundred dollars a week. He said, 'You'll take seventy-five,' and I said, 'You're right.''' It was an association that ended only with Mr. Burge's death in 1971."
"The bedroom opens onto a small sitting area. The carved-wood sofa was spray-painted white and covered in white cotton. The room divider holds objects but also encloses ugly, but necessary, water pipes."
"Angelo Donghia became an associate of the company in 1962, a vice president in 1964, and in 1966, when he was made a partner, the company became Burge-Donghia. "By 1968," says Mr. Donghia, "I was running the decorating business and designing rugs and fabrics and some furniture for specific jobs. Yale had a furniture business separate from our partnership, and he decided I should have one too. So we created Vice Versa, a fabric company, for me.
"I needed furniture on which to display my fabrics, so I used the pieces I had designed for customers. The fabric company became successful, but I felt I could do more. So I started selling the furniture through the same outlets.
"Then Yale died. I continued the decorating business as well as the fabric and furniture companies, but I noticed I was being 'knocked off' by the large furniture and fabric companies. I decided it might be a good idea to do my own 'knock-offs' of my own designs, and that's when I entered the mass market." To work with the manufacturers involved, the licensing department was formed in 1973.
Mr. Donghia's network of showrooms grew from his dissatisfaction with the "way his custom fabrics and furniture were being represented on the West Coast. "They were pushing me off into a corner and not supporting me. So, to protect my designs, I looked around for my own small showroom space." In doing that, he discovered that he wasn't the only designer who was unhappy with his representation. This persuaded him to buy a large Los Angeles showroom, where he now represents twenty-seven companies. Its success led him to open others in Troy, Michigan; Chicago, and Miami.
The story of Angelo Donghia's career may sound too cool, calm, and collected to be true. But for those who know Angelo Donghia, it's hard to imagine it otherwise. A man of calm assurance, he also has a creative, versatile, quick mind, and he realized early on the importance of having a cool, hard business head as well.
"It's very easy to be creative in the design business," he says, "but it's very difficult to make money. As a designer, your expertise is in pretty colorings and gracious living, not in dealing with other people's money. But you have to do that too. So you might as well make them work together."
"More counterpoint of color and pattern in a bedroom. The small geometric design of the carpet is picked up and enlarged upon in the quilting pattern of the bed cover. The effect of these hard edges is softened by the curved headboard with its broad rim of gathered white cotton."
""I was brought up by a father who was a terrific businessman. I was exposed to the constant effort needed to make any business grow. Then Yale Burge gave me the best possible training in our particular business. But I think the main reason I succeeded has been that I was never afraid to fail. If I fail, I know one thing: I am very talented with my hands. If all this goes out the window, I'll never starve. If you reduce everything to the necessities of life--being able to feed and protect yourself-I'll always be able to do that.
"I never take success for granted, and I don't do things for success. At the same time, I'm not going to do things that cause failure. I'm going to work hard and follow all the rules that make one successful—establish a good credit rating, make choices that appeal to people, gather a staff that supports me, not suppresses me. And I believe very much in integrity and in keeping agreements."
These are not the kind of words one hears often from an interior designer-or from any creative personas—as the reason for his success. And Angelo Donghia is creative. He, more than anyone, has given us soft, sensuous luxury in a modern setting. While his designs are light, airy, simple, and meticulously tailored ("I learned from my father how to cut pants and vests, but I never got to the big time-coats"), they are also romantic in their softness, their colorings, and their interplay of pattern and shape."
"At the other end of the living room, pattern plays on texture. A Victorian wire birdcage stands in front of a window shaded by vertical blinds. The floor is covered with terra-cotta tiles. The rectangular table is rattan covered; the round table with animal-like legs is by John Dickinson."
"Mr. Donghia doesn't think there are many secrets to interior design. Furniture should be comfortable and suit its purpose—"A reading chair is not a reclining chair, and vice versa"--and versatile--"Dining tables should have other purposes, and you can dine in rooms other than the dining room. Remember that windows exist to let in light and air, not as an excuse for fancy treatments. Use less but bigger pieces of furniture and only a few important accessories. Get rid of the unnecessary.
''There is no magic to color combinations. Look at the colors you enjoy wearing most, and look at the way nature combines color; you never see anything ugly there. By all means, play safe with neutrals. They are always good backgrounds for people."
The house shown here exhibits all of Mr. Donghia's design principles and also points up his sure hand with color and pattern. In lesser hands, mixing strong colors with equally strong plaids and geometrics is a certain recipe for visual disaster. When it is done by Angelo Donghia, however, one senses the cool control of the man along with the romanticism. Nothing is extraneous, but the rooms are soft, not stark.
Obviously, Mr. Donghia no longer plots the details of every interior his company designs. But he does control them. ''I'm now half designer and half businessman," he says. "I deal only in concepts. But I have the ability to project what I want to the people who work for me so that they produce what I have asked them for." As he crisscrosses the country keeping his designer's eye on the myriad spokes of his business life, Angelo Donghia has time to reflect. "I always resisted the way my father constantly drove himself. I always thought he worked too hard and was too successful. I have become exactly what he was-and I'm not sorry.""
ALL IMAGES AND TEXT TAKEN FROM INTERIOR VIEWS BY ERICA BROWN, VIKING 1980