It might have been November on the calendar when Holiday House opened for its seventh year, to benefit The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, but it was the first Saturday in May on the third floor.
For his second room at the Academy Mansion, designer Patrick J. Hamilton channeled Kentucky Derby Day, bringing the pageantry and festive spirit of the venerable southern tradition to the Upper East Side.
“I’ve always really loved the idea that Holiday House was built on: creating sort of a living calendar you could walk through,” said Patrick. “I really love the challenge of themed decorating, and it’s been done brilliantly in the past by a stellar roster of designers. But for some reason, no one had every tackled Kentucky Derby Day! It just seemed ripe with possibility!”
But this was a different kind of derby: Patrick took the colors, themes, rituals and patterns long associated with the Derby and used them in a surprisingly non-equestrian way. “I like to think of it as ‘Derby Deconstructed’,” says Hamilton, “and plus, there are great designers who do equestrian style really well… I didn’t want to end up with a room that would be compared to that kind of take.”
Jockey’s “racing silks” provided great inspiration, showing up in color-blocked upholstery and artwork. The day’s nickname, “The Run for the Roses” inspired the brilliant fuchsia that enlivened the room (artistic license, and a nod to the charity’s pink ribbon, turned classic rose-red into that amped up color, on silk satin chairs and rose floral arrangements.)
Even the signature cocktail of the day, the mint julep (see the recipe for Patrick’s twist on the classic below), was evoked in an unexpected way: the entire room started with a cool mint green. “I also wanted to see if I could make a mint green room fresh again,” said Hamilton, “and the minute that grasscloth went up, and the molding got that coat of fresh Farrow & Ball white, the vibe got very southern, very fast!”
Grasscloth also went up on the ceiling, a nod to the more humble side of the day, meant to evoke the straw in the stables. “I really love mixing fine and rougher textures in any room, but it felt especially appropriate when representing the Derby. It’s a glamorous day, but it also has a real earthiness to it.”
A handful of literal horse references got the ball rolling, and once visitors to the room were in on the joke, of sorts, about the room’s theme, it became a “Where’s Waldo?” of equestrian references. Diamond patterns, frequently found in jockey silks and stable coats-of-arms, showed up on the fireplace surround, tete-a-tete upholstery, and quilted velvet. Racetrack ovals joined in on the pattern play, and horseshoes made frequent appearance, both actual and evoked in the turquoise lamps and custom embroidered pillows. Stirrup-inspired lamps, and drapery tie-back that looked like brightly colored reins helped keep the theme hiding in plain sight. And you can’t have Derby Day without a hat… the room’s main light fixture (the feathered “Egret” Chandelier by ABYU Lighting) finished off the room with a playful, light-hearted spin on the millinery creations that help make the Derby such a stylish event.
Hamilton also tweaked the bones of the room to make it more southern, and to give the room a fresh look for any repeat visitors to the show house: two recessed book cases flanking the fireplace were covered with plantation shutters and treated like windows. “I love those grand first-floor rooms in southern mansions, with those great walk-out windows to wide verandas. This was my way of creating that kind of room.”
The subtle nods to the long-running tradition got the seal of approval from a few Kentuckians touring the house, and more than a few horse-loving visitors also approved. “I had such a great time turning the elements of the day into a room that anyone might love. But I did really breathe a sigh of relief when I heard compliments delivered in an actual southern drawl!”
Head over to Patrick’s blog to read more specifics about the room including tips on how this Derby Day room can inspire more of your own theme decorating.
Mint Julep Gelées
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
2 cups cold water
1/2 cup firmly packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup bourbon
Garnishes: fresh mint sprigs, coarse sparkling sugar, candied rose petals (recipe follows)
Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in a medium saucepan. Let stand 5 minutes. Add mint leaves and sugar. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, 3 to 5 minutes or until steaming. Let stand 15 minutes. Remove and discard mint leaves. Stir in bourbon. Pour mixture into a lightly greased 9- x 5-inch loaf pan. Chill 4 hours to 1 week. Cut into squares. Garnish each with a candied rose petal, fresh mint sprig and coarse sparkling sugar.
Candied Rose Petals:
Edible rose petals
1 egg white
1 teaspoon water
1 cup bourbon smoked sugar
In a food processor, add smoked sugar and process until superfine. Set aside. In a small bowl, mix together water and egg white. Lay rose petals on a wire rack and use a brush to paint each one with egg wash. Use a sifter to sprinkle sugar over petals. Turn over petals and repeat. Do not shake off excess sugar. Let petals dry on rack for 24 hours. Store in air-tight container until ready to use.
Adapted from Southern Living and Nashville Lifestyles