Take Off the Mask, Angelo! The Donghia Decor Is a Dead Giveaway That It's You

updated 10/01/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1979 01:00AM

"Welcome to gray flannel heaven," says Angelo Donghia, 44, greeting visitors in his Manhattan office. Indeed, the walls are covered in the men's suiting fabric he has made his personal trademark. "This," the interior decorator adds, "is where I live." He hardly exaggerates. From the headquarters of Donghia Associates, he supervises a design empire with retail sales of $134 million that encompasses everything from fabrics to custom furniture to celebrity interiors. At the moment he is completing Barbara Walters' new 10-room Park Avenue co-op which, she raves, is "fresh, clean and underdone." Donghia is also working on the Fifth Avenue loft-like duplex of fashion designer Ralph Lauren. ("I wanted to do it myself at first," says perfectionist Lauren. "Then I finally decided on Angelo.")

Donghia's clients have included Diana Ross (her Sherry Netherland floor-through), Neil Bogart, president of Casablanca Records (his Manhattan duplex) and Vogue editor Grace Mirabella (her bedroom). Among his corporate projects are the conversion of an old Key West warehouse into 12 condominiums and a plan to decorate Warner LeRoy's new, Disneyesque casino-hotel, the Ritz, in Atlantic City.

An even greater challenge for Donghia and his staff of 80 is redoing 50 suites and all the public rooms of the S.S. France, which, rechristened the S.S. Norway, will soon sail as a Caribbean cruise ship. After spending a week in Le Havre photographing and measuring the 66,000-ton liner, Donghia says, "The whole ship will be opened up to sun and air. I want to give the impression of being totally entertained—to re-create the feel of the old J.P. Morgan yacht." His innovations will include a disco with a glass-wall view of the swimming pool and staterooms done in natural fabrics, plump furniture and shuttered portholes. He sums up airily, "They wanted, you know, my look."

It has been an American classic since the late '60s. "Some people think of me as Art Deco," he says, "but it's more '20s and '30s—clean, simple and pure." To keep the Donghia look from becoming cold and functional, he uses chubby lounging cushions and sofas, natural fabrics, chairs with loose slipcovers, lots of flowers, minimal accessories, and doorways and fireplaces borrowed from classical architecture.

As much as his style, what sets Donghia apart from other designers who take turns being "in" is his business acumen. The Halston of the interior design world, he offers a unique variety of products and services at five to-the-trade decorator showrooms across the country.

"Everybody's jealous of him," says one colleague. "They want to know how he got to be a household word." It helped that Donghia (pronounced Dong-gee-yah) was the first U.S. decorator to put his name on a mass-produced line of sheets (for J.P. Stevens). He also designed and endorsed popular-priced furniture for Kroehler. The slim, quiet-spoken Donghia keeps his name before the public with regular visits to department stores, where he gives shoppers free decorating hints—and sometimes even makes house calls. His advice invariably adds up to: "More simplicity and naturalness."

Born in the factory town of Vandergrift, Pa., Donghia apprenticed himself to his father, an immigrant Italian tailor, and progressed from making pants ("a woman's job") to vests. Eventually his love of decor, nourished at the local movie house, won out ("Everything happened in Newport, it seemed, in houses with great moldings, English furniture and grand dining rooms"). He took off for Parsons Institute of Design in New York, graduated in 1959 and landed a job with designer Yale Burge. Seven years later Donghia was chosen to decorate the Opera Club Room at the Met—and became a partner in the firm. Taking over after Burge's death in 1974, he turned the company's offices into his salon. "I work with everyone here; I bring all pictures and fabrics here," he says. "A lot of my clients don't like to go out shopping."

A lifelong bachelor, Donghia often hops down to Key West, where he has restored a historical landmark house. In Manhattan he lives—and entertains lavishly—in an East Side townhouse. (It is also a showroom for his products, and he has often lent it to magazines as a background for elegant fashion photographs.) An avid jogger, he rises at 6 to run four miles.

"I used to think I'd do everything in business, then buy a house in the hills of France, paint, learn languages and fish." Now he says, "One morning I woke up and thought, 'What am I talking about? I don't want to give up my work. I don't want to fish or paint—and I don't have to. I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing until they carry me out.' "

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