In his New York town-house atelier, hatmaker Rod Keenan reigns supreme
John Robert Miller -- Interior Design, 4/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Right off London's Regent Street, one finds Savile Row, the world's premier address for bespoke men's suits. Three blocks from New York's rather less snooty 125th Street, right off Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard, one finds hatmaker Rod Keenan's atelier. Keenan designs and blocks his collection of bowlers and trilbies in the tradition of the best Savile Row tailoring. All the work is done by hand, more often than not by Keenan himself. A tall wisp of a man with shoulder-length graying hair, he plies his trade in the basement workroom and showroom of his Harlem town house, known as the Castle.
The four-story house was built in 1887 by George B. Pelham, son of an English naval designer. Unusual in comparison to the row of Queen Anne houses that the architect also built on this street, Keenan's boasts a rusticated limestone facade and a square crenellated tower. The hatmaker had been living in a rented apartment in Harlem when the real-estate bug bit him. He contacted the Harlem Community Development Corporation, which links prospective home owners to derelict properties, government funding, and developers willing to take on the work, but he was told there were no houses available. "But I persisted, calling and faxing every day," he says. "After three deals fell through on this house, they told me about it. When I saw it, I knew it was for me."
He did, however, alter the floor plan the CDC had assigned to the project. Among other emendations, he redesigned the staircase, reconfigured bedrooms and bathrooms, and upgraded appliances. After two years spent carrying the plans around and collecting furnishings with the help of friends such as interior designer Jamie Drake and fine-art and antiques consultant Philip Hewat-Jaboor, Keenan finished renovating the once burned-out property.
Despite the fact that the house is only 15 feet wide, he managed to accommodate not only living space but also a basement-level work space reached by descending a staircase, the walls of which are adorned with framed pictures of Rod Keenan hats from various editorial spreads. Keenan studied fashion at Parsons School of Design in both New York and Paris, then returned to New York in 1989 and transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he earned his millinery degree. Having apprenticed with leading milliners Lola Ehrlich, Victoria DiNardo, and Woody Shelp, Keenan has won devoted clients including Jamiroquai, Elvis Costello, Prince, Elton John, Dennis Rodman, Vince Vaughn, Maxwell, Robin Williams, and Samuel L. Jackson. Films such as Charlie's Angels, Shaft, Mars Attacks, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar all feature characters wearing Keenan's hats.
At the bottom of the staircase, one finds the workroom and showroom, separated by the staircase's drywall enclosure. "I use one room for blocking and steaming and the other for display and finishing," he explains. In the workroom, vintage wooden blocks used to shape brims and crowns line steel shelves, and trays of colorful thread interspersed with thin wire are tucked in drawers. Steamers, sewing machines, trims, and labels—in constant use—cover wooden tabletops supported by spring-loaded metal trestles. Looking at Keenan's long fingers, so used to the heat of a steamer, one cannot help but see the hands of a sculptor, endowing shapeless felt with masculine, modern shapes that emphasize couture detailing. In the long and narrow showroom, stone walls painted bright white act as a backdrop for the hats. Made of South American straw or Czech fur felt, they perch on many-branched custom hat stands of varying heights. The boilers unfortunately share this part of the basement, but Keenan makes the best of the awkward placement: He uses the heat to dry hats.
The same idiosyncratic flair evidenced by Keenan's hats manifests itself on the Castle's upper stories. The moment one ascends to the parlor floor, one is struck by a blue glass chandelier.
It is Venini, circa 1930—and exactly what the space above the stairwell needed. To add pattern to the interior composition, Keenan requested contemporary-art recommendations from Hewat-Jaboor, who promptly E-mailed a photo of an oil on canvas by recent U.K. graduate Julia Walton. Her painting, with its rows of tonal blue squares, is now mounted on the wall behind the chandelier.
To one side of the staircase is the dining area, a study in graphic contrasts. High-backed 1930s chairs upholstered in cut velvet surround the white marble top of a Saarinen table, and the artworks lining the walls include an Isabel and Ruben Toledo wreath that Keenan bought at a DIFFA auction. Beyond, in a small seating area tucked in the front of the house, stands Keenan's finest Anglophile touch: a floor-to-ceiling Regency bookcase made for William Beckford, on loan from Hewat-Jaboor. If one proceeds in the other direction from the staircase, the modern kitchen appears. The drawing room follows. Then, at the very back of the parlor floor, one finds a small terrace often used for summer dining. Below lies the garden, where Keenan relaxes on summer evenings. "I know the day is over when I retreat to train my clematis vines and prune my boxwood," he says. "My garden in Harlem."