The unrivaled queen of surface design rises to the top with an unyielding desire to succeed and a unique vision for the future.
As you approach Patty Madden’s home via its winding driveway, the scene is something out of a Disney movie.
Bushy white-tailed deer frolic on her yard and in the woods that line the property. Amazing views of the Hudson River sparkle from her open porch, where her husband and business partner, Gary Miller, has been enjoying them all morning. As he walks towards us, a huge Cuban cigar in hand, Madden opens their bright red barn door with a welcoming smile on her face.
“Ugh, I wish you had,” she says dryly when we tell her we almost ran over one of her deer on the way up. “I have some groundhogs I need you to run over too.” The critters have not been kind to her landscaping, she explains.
Needless to say, we knew all too quickly that this isn’t the typical industry personality.
“It’s quite the opposite of what I do,” she says as she leads us through the house, built in 1905 and set on 17 acres in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. “Everything I do is so contemporary.”
Walking through Madden and Miller’s home is like wandering through an antique shop on Lexington Avenue—the perfect juxtaposition to the modern patterns found on her upholstery and wall covering designs. From the mantel over the fireplace lined with ornate candelabras to the original butler cabinets still in place, the interiors convey a deep respect for the traditional.
The smell of basil wafts through the air and we come to find Madden’s assistant in the kitchen, grinding up leaves of it, along with ginger, for soon-to-be-dehydrated kale chips. Madden has been a raw vegan for the past seven years. We look at each other quizzically as she offers us glasses of “ionized water.” We opt instead for the iced tea and take our glasses out to that infamous porch, where we all sink into the biggest, fluffiest leather lounges known to man.
And this, my friends, is where the magic happens. It’s no wonder the couple has decided to retract from the rat race of New York City and implant themselves in this upstate haven. Here they sit, day by day, side by side, in their matching lounges, working away on laptops as the Hudson snakes its way through the valley below.
But life wasn’t always this way.
Madden began her career as a research librarian for the Walker Group in New York City and was in charge of which materials got in front of the designers, and which didn’t. It was a power position but unfortunately did not offer a powerful salary.
“I figured it out and I only had about 50 cents a day, or something ridiculous like that, to live on. I couldn’t even take the subway both ways to work,” Madden says.
She’d get by off business lunches and dinners with vendors. “I’d only eat a few bites then have the rest wrapped up to take home. My refrigerator would be filled with to-go cartons.”
But as her husband (and now CEO of Patty Madden Inc.) told her once, long ago, on a particularly low day for her, “money always chases talent.” According to Miller, much of Madden’s success stems from the fact that she’s always remained at the forefront of product development. She’s even pioneered embossing techniques that are exclusive to her company.
While designing for high-tech retail spaces with the Walker Group, she recalls spending hours wandering through the Decoration & Design and Architecture & Design buildings in New York City, but being unable to find the “hard-edge, minimalistic” looks she needed to fill these types of spaces.
“So I made them myself.”
She began doing freelance product design in her spare time and eventually began to receive royalties for her work. In 1984, she officially started her own business; the Patty Madden brand has since spawned Luxe Surfaces for wall coverings and Patty Madden Software for upholstery.
Madden is not only the creative genius behind the products—she also creates all of the companies’ advertisements. She says her background in interior design helps her create them. “I know what’s going to make the eye linger.” The ads have a gritty feel to them, thanks to the contrast between Madden’s featured design and the grayed-out industrial or landscape backgrounds she uses to frame it.
“Oh, I’d love to get that in a shot!” she exclaims as we drive past a huge iron tank wrapped with chains and sitting on a flatbed on the way to lunch.
Rather than in a studio, Madden opts to design either outside or in their sunroom. She used to start by creating 3-D models before she moved to the digital side. “She’s relentless in pursuing getting products made,” Miller explains.
And despite her success, the two remain grounded, always remembering who they are and where they came from. “We never take our lives for granted,” Miller says. The couple plans to give back a little this month as they travel to Costa Mesa, Calif. to judge The Common Thread for the Cure’s second annual Wine + Design event on Sept. 27. More than 20 pinot noir and chardonnay wine labels will be created and entered by local design firms, each incorporating the “Pink Carpet—Vintage Hollywood Glamour” theme.
Wines with the winning label designs will be served during the benefit and made available for purchase from Russian River Vineyards. The Common Thread for the Cure will receive a donation for each bottle sold.
For Madden, design isn’t just a profession—it’s in her blood. Her mother decorated yachts, and she recalls taking trips to pick out fabrics for her projects. Her grandmother, Martha Phillips, was considered the top retailer in designer couture clothing salons, and was an early supporter of Valentino, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and many other now-famous fashion designers.
Perhaps it was this inherited ability to see things the way others don’t—to see what the world will want before it even does—that got her through those rocky beginnings.
Her husband, her biggest cheerleader, puts it best (yet again): “Persistence is what makes success.”