September 21, 2023


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The secret to a stylish home

What makes an interior stylish? This is a question I have given much thought to while preparing a virtual tour of some of my favourite interiors for the FT Weekend Festival, which takes place this Saturday morning.

I see rooms all the time that are technically well constructed: luxurious fabrics, elaborate lighting, expensive art, books and objects placed just so. The colours sit well together and the overall look is very . . . pleasant. Inoffensive. I would not call these rooms stylish, however. They are not interesting enough, with no clever details and a thoroughly uninspiring selection of furniture. They have a distinct lack of personality about them. Some might call these rooms elegant, but I want more than that.

Luke Edward Hall at the Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia. ‘Decorated by Dorothy Draper, I admire its bombastic scale and “Modern Baroque” style‘
Luke Edward Hall at the Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia. ‘Decorated by Dorothy Draper, I admire its bombastic scale and “Modern Baroque” style‘

Dressing a room is rather like dressing oneself: think of David Hockney with his floppy bow ties, giant windowpane check suits and natty knitwear, or Mick Jagger in the 1970s with his oversized lapels and shirt collars. For me, this is great style: it is a unique take on putting clothes together. Of course, Hockney’s striped rugby shirts and primary hued sweaters can be picked up anywhere, but it is the way these clothes are put together and the unexpected details: a pair of oversized, round spectacles, mismatched socks. It is how they are worn: with confidence. It is the same with a beautiful room, and it is an idea that I stress weekly with my column in House & Home: a confident eye used to pick and mix colours, patterns, furniture and objects, a fearlessness and unpredictability — this is what makes an interior stylish.

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For my tour, I chose a variety of buildings to discuss: a grand English country house, a villa on the Côte d’Azur, and a colossal wedding cake of a hotel located in the mountains of West Virginia. And there were plenty more on my shortlist. These buildings and their interiors are wildly different, and the eclectic mix reflects my varied personal tastes. I chose an old country house because I enjoy history and architecture, craftsmanship and opulent decoration, but style is not about expensive things. (More on that later.) A tiny, cheap Milanese trattoria that hasn’t changed its look since 1962 can be as stylish as a fine Regency gilded furniture-filled drawing room. What unites the interiors I love is a certain boldness and strong sense of character. I am not tied to one defining aesthetic, instead what I find appealing is a layered interior full of a mix of interesting objects, put together by someone with flair and a point of view.

A study designed by English interior decorator David Hicks, with framed antique prints on the walls, a large crystal chandelier and tapered bookcases
A study designed by English interior decorator David Hicks, with framed antique prints on the walls, a large crystal chandelier and tapered bookcases © Fritz von der Schulenburg/The Interior Archive

A hero of mine is the English interior decorator David Hicks, because I am drawn to strong colour and clashing patterns. Hicks’s genius, florid colour combinations, the way he mixed furniture from different decades, geometric carpets with floral curtains, cheap pottery with antiques — I can’t get enough. But I can get behind subtler colour schemes, too. I think now of the famous all-white interiors of the 1920s and ’30s, designed by decorator Syrie Maugham. Maugham’s rooms are still, to me, the epitome of elegance, and the lack of colour in some of them has nothing to do with the ever popular all-beige look of today. This is because Maugham knew how to make rooms sing with her choice of glamorous, eccentric furniture.

A pair of 20th century footstools by Maugham (sold by Christie’s in 2017) always sticks in my mind: they are made from cream-painted wood, carved like rope, with black patent upholstery, and they are the chicest footstools I’ve ever seen. Maugham encouraged less reverence for antiques, often stripping, bleaching or painting them. This is what I mean about having a point of view, because these ideas were contemporary and much copied. This is great style. David Hicks had it too. I admit, however, that getting the right, good-looking mix can be problematic to achieve. I think the key is to make the contrast between objects striking: a 1970s space-age chair either side of a gilded Neoclassical console table, for example. The objects don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be stylish, to have worth, because of their shape, colour, age or materiality, for instance.

The living room in the Chelsea home of Syrie Maugham, taken in February 1933
The living room in the Chelsea home of Syrie Maugham, taken in February 1933 © Alamy

My interest in rooms goes deeper than how they look. With my own work as an interior designer and artist, I aim to tell stories with drawings and objects, to conjure a mood or atmosphere. I like houses with stories attached; I want to know about previous owners and their visitors, what they did and how they used and enjoyed their rooms. Some of my favourite interiors are special to me not because of a particular wallpaper or piece of furniture, but because of their stories. This is when rooms become more than just the sum of their parts. The winning combination? A house with a compelling story, elegant architecture and a noteworthy interior.

Footstools by Syrie Maugham

Wilton House, one of my chosen interiors for the virtual tour, is such a place. Wilton has been the country home of the Earls of Pembroke for more than 400 years and was rebuilt in the Palladian style in 1647 by Inigo Jones and John Webb. Its most spectacular features are the 17th-century single and double cube rooms, which contain furniture by William Kent and portraits by Van Dyck. The 19th-century cloisters house a collection of Greek and Roman statuary formed by the 8th Earl, including the Mazarin Collection from Paris, bought in the 1720s.

I remember my first visit: strolling through the cloisters, dappled light filtering through the windows and dancing across stone busts, wandering down to the Palladian bridge in the grounds and laying my head on the grass by the River Nadder. Apart from its many treasures, Wilton appeals to me because of its connection with Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton and their crowd of bright, creative, unconventional friends. Whistler in particular spent a great deal of time at Wilton, often visiting his good friend, the writer Edith Olivier, who lived in a little house on the edge of the estate. (If you haven’t already, read Anna Thomasson’s A Curious Friendship — the story of Whistler’s friendship with Olivier, which began in the 1920s. It is full of sparkling glimpses of Wilton House and its surroundings.) When I think of Wilton, the past blends with the present, Whistler’s majestic drawings swim before my eyes and the magic of this house and garden captures my imagination.

The Double Cube Room at Wilton House, near Salisbury, Wiltshire © Simon Upton
The cloister in Wilton House. which was rebuilt in the Palladian style in 1647 by Inigo Jones and John Webb © Simon Upton

As much as I love an ornate, gilded, historic interior, style is not about inheriting museum-quality furniture. I visited a couple of friends recently who have moved to a cottage by the sea. Most of the furniture they have accumulated they found on eBay: an old, supremely comfortable armchair covered in a William Morris fabric, a sofa in a faded tangerine linen, rugs made from jute and seagrass. The sheets on the black iron beds are sunflower yellow and in their hall, a fez brought back from Morocco hangs on the wall above a piano covered in straw hats — guests can grab one before piling down to the beach. Again, these friends have a point of view that is deeply personal, and a confidence in their unfussy, soulful taste: Arts and Crafts meets the 1970s.

Luke at Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. ‘I chose it mainly for its wonderful wall “tattoos” by Jean Cocteau’

For me, a good smattering of the unexpected is vital in a stylish room, and this brings me to my final point: what is the key ingredient in a fabulous interior? Wit, I believe. A curious, exceptional take on fun. Take those Maugham footstools, for example: who would automatically think to upholster them in a black patent material? Or, let’s consider another of the houses on my tour, which I chose mainly for its wonderful wall “tattoos” by Jean Cocteau: Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The villa’s interior was designed by the Parisian decorator Madeleine Castaing: its bathroom features tiles painted with flowers in shades of pink and yellow and a painted sink to match.

Wit in an interior is painting a door architrave to look like marble, rather than using real marble. It is Stephen Tennant wallpapering his London bedroom with silver foil and hanging matching silver satin curtains. Dorothy Draper, decorator of the Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia (also on my tour, for its bombastic scale and “Modern Baroque” style) said that she always puts one controversial item in an interior because it makes people talk. It is easy, or more easy I should say, to follow a particular look rigidly: the classic English country cottage, the Provençal farmhouse, but I admire people that push boundaries and experiment, even if it’s putting a twist on something classic. After all, one should respect a building’s age, its location, and while I will always advocate for decorating with antiques, it is possible to bear these things in mind and take a few risks at the same time.

‘Greenbier Avenue’ at the Greenbier hotel © Image by Ron Blunt Architectural Photography
Stairs at the Greenbrier

It is very intriguing to think about style versus taste. Some rooms I see tick all my decoration boxes: lots of colour and pattern, a mix of antiques, a sense of wit, but the overall look is still not to my taste. I might look at a room and think: I wouldn’t have chosen that enormous lamp; I don’t like all that teal; I would never tightly pack flowers of that sort in such a vase. But taste is extremely personal, and I do not believe in pointing out what is good or bad taste, because inevitably what I consider good taste, someone else will declare bad.

Besides, this is the joy of interior decoration: taste is whatever you make of it. Style, I believe, is about confidence and courageousness, but at the same time possessing an instinctive sense of how to put things together, whether that is suits and socks or furniture and fabrics. It is about knowing exactly why these things look good together, too. Ultimately, rooms should reflect their owners. As the American decorator Billy Baldwin (another of my design heroes) said: “Be faithful to your own taste, because nothing you really like is ever out of style”.

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