Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Holiday Greetings

December is a month where normally sensible people begin to talk too fast, drive too fast and become unaccountably irritable at the slightest provocation.  As a child I adored the magic of Christmas.  I was an only child with adoring mother, aunts, and a grandmother who managed to effortlessly create incredible magic for the holidays, all month long.  She smiled and sang from the moment she rose in the morning until the moment she fell asleep with her spectacles on late at night from sheer contentment and exhaustion.

I wish I could say that my household is that serene and beautiful.  It is not.  But I do believe in the magic of the season and the opportunities it provides to draw people together.  After fifteen years of my husband grumbling I think he finally believes it too… Whatever you believe, the holiday season represents a time of going from the darkness back into the light, a time where things are magically transformed, a time of rebirth.

Our modest gift to all of you is to share some favourite images from our archives of this season of blessings, splendour, generosity of spirit and memories…  Thank you for supporting us in every way throughout 2013.  We wish all of our readers peace and joy through the holidays and beyond.

Some of our accessories on display at a recent fundraiser.
Who could resist a winter jasmine candle finished with our handmade
passementerie and fabrics or silk satin lined faux fur bags...

My good fortune at viewing this one off piece by Sophie & Georgie
Art Furniture at Serena Morton's new gallery in Notting Hill

A mammoth Chihuly at Halcyon London.  Must find it the perfect hall...

The back hall at Christmas

This Rock Crystal Ewer, circa 1000-1050, on display
at the V&A was carved out of a single piece of stone and
once covered with gold mounts and other precious things. I long for it...

What a whimsical way to transform screening and security in Mayfair

Yeoman proudly modelling our silk velvet
Boleyn in his summer grazing

The church of St Jason and St Sosipatros, a Byzantine survivor
just outside of Corfu town in Garitsa

The Nativity by Conrad von Soest (1403)

Fragments of frescos at the church of St Jason and St Sosipatros

Epitaphiou at St Jason and St Sosipatros

St Philip's church spire Charleston SC, USA, a crisp winter's day

Another fantastic miracle of construction!
My son Hugo's snowmen representing each member of the family!

Christmas tree awash with pink camellias.
Although they only lasted three days it was worth it.
Robert and Renée with Killian-Dawson's Silbury linen in the background.  

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Client Contractor Relationships - creating a great rapport with your builder

One of the most painful sights in our business is watching a beautiful renovation or construction project degenerate into an acrimonious dispute between the client and their builder or contractor. Sadly, it happens all too often; as the interior designers we often find ourselves caught in the middle.

Whilst it's uncomfortable to be in this position, it does mean that we are often the one party who can see all sides of the picture. With this in mind, we thought we'd suggest some steps clients and builders can both take to minimise the chances of going down this road. After all, stress and anxiety aside, wouldn't you rather spend the last £10,000 in your budget on an exquisite sculpture, a pair of antique lamps or hand embroidered cushions than a series of last minute changes or even worse, increasingly acrimonious solicitors letters?

Restraint of pen and tongue could leave room in the purse for this
powerful sculpture in copper repoussé by Robert Kuo
We'll start by looking at things from the perspective of the contractor. According to Simon Lewis, Managing Director of building contractor RW Armstrong, "the primary reason that a relationship breaks down between a contractor and a client is a lack of meaningful communication".

Now is the time, before you've embarked upon the project and while everyone is still on friendly terms, to set out the ground rules, to ask the tough questions, to have the potentially difficult conversations. If you can set out both parties' expectations in writing and stick to them, so much the better.

By far the biggest bugbear of the contractors we've spoken to is a lackadaisical attitude amongst clients towards timing. In the words of Simon Lewis, "there is a lack of understanding of the importance of making firm decisions in good time. The contractor quite often needs information weeks, sometimes as much as six months, in advance of the materials ever being needed on site."

For example, you may think you don't need to settle on a precise stone, wood or carpet flooring until the three week lead time the supplier needs for delivery and installation, but the thickness of the material you choose will have a direct impact on the thickness of the concrete screed beneath, or possibly even the cabinetry.

Worse, by far, than the client who won't make timely decisions is the one who constantly changes their mind. Not only does it cause mayhem with the contractor and subcontractors, as well as unnecessary expense, it is deeply depressing for craftsmen who have to rip out work they have laboured over and start again. As for your chance of remaining on schedule, forget it.

Remember, it's not just you who is being affected by the resulting delays. Subcontractors and craftsmen have been scheduled in, and they may well have turned down other jobs only to find themselves kicking their heels as a result of the client's vacillation.  The client may then be surprised and hurt when they turn up on site and detect a slightly frosty atmosphere.

A clear vision, well planned and
provided for equals vibrant,
on-time on-budget results

On the subject of cost, there will almost certainly be a spread between the tenders clients receive from different contractors. Clients should resist the temptation to go for the cheapest or take the safe option and plunk for the one in the middle, and probe a little further. There are many variables that could explain the spread. A firm might have higher overheads, but this could include specialists with long experience who will predict problems and come up with solutions, and consequently the quality of the work will be higher, last longer and have a knock on effect on the morale on site. A firm may be more established, or have good relationships with planners and inspectors that will make the project progress through the various stages more smoothly.

When comparing quotes, some of the most important detective work for the client involves going over each line item in the Scope of Work document. Nowhere is the devil in the detail more than here. It's no good saying Builder X's quote is £50,000 less than Builder Y's and dismissing Y out of hand. Where has Builder X managed to shave that £50k? What corners has he cut to come in so low? Does the specification for bathroom tiles, for instance, or cornicing and cabinetry, seem suspiciously reasonable? If so, he may have found you a great bargain, but equally his expectations about the quality of the fit in your home may be significantly out of line with yours. Ask questions. Probe further before you make a decision, not after. Don't allow yourself to fall into the trap of hearing what you want to hear and tuning out the rest.

So often, clients have come to us excited about creating their dream bathroom, primed up to tour the marble yards, showing us pages ripped out of World of Interiors or a House & Garden feature on some new state of the art Swedish taps. Only when they tell us how much they or their builder have/has allowed for these items do we see their faces drop when we tell them this will extend to the type of sanitary ware more usually associated with the lavatories of a fast food restaurant. Or the taps are perfectly in budget until you allow for the ID (interior dimensions) difference in the fittings and the standard UK pipes.  As ever, it's about communicating your desires and expectations clearly and timely.

Meticulous planning results in a no compromise finish

Clients can all too easily get overwhelmed when a contractor starts throwing information at them and demanding decisions on all manner of items that according to one contractor, "they haven't even begun to think about". What kind of electric switches do you want?  What lighting for the bathroom? Will you be having a hand held shower, a rainforest head, or a spa shower? A good interior designer with their years of experience and vast resources will guide clients through the process.  Sadly it is often at this late stage we are approached by clients pulling their hair out. Really, we'd have preferred to have had the conversations six months earlier whilst the client was just beginning to choose their team and in that luscious creative cocoon phase where anything really is possible; but better late than not at all. Decisions made in a rush are generally ones the client will come to regret, where they are more likely to want to change their minds, and where ultimately they will go over budget.  Why not spend the money getting what one really desires in the first place instead of on variance orders?

Next time, we'll be looking at the relationship from the perspective of the client and asking what contractors and project managers can do to see a project from the client's perspective...


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Interiors - to conserve or restore?

Continuing our topic of Conservation vs Restoration, there is a mind boggling amount of information and misinformation widely available online, through television series, magazines and educational facilities.  Where conservation is mostly about repair, maintaining and protecting what is already there, restoration is more about making what's old new again, and perhaps even stamping a fresh identity onto a building or a room.

Photo of Church Farm House, Hampshire, courtesy of Savills

What a conservationist might see when sweeping up the gravel drive of a 17th century farmhouse is evidence of brick repaired with cement, a damp course inserted and interfering with the house's breathability.  Or perhaps lead flashing sealed with mastic.  Or a perfect corner on an interior wall that is sure to be lined with a modern metal corner.  There is a damp patch repaired also with concrete near the front door in the entry hall that will need to be scooped out gently and refilled with lime plaster, acrylic paint peeling in the front hall near the skirting, a upvc window in the scullery that is affecting the breathability of the house... the list goes on.

What would a builder more attuned to clients who show him the latest issue of Architectural Digest see in the same building?  An opportunity to knock something down and start again perhaps?  Or to open up all the interior rooms, to treat the crumbling plaster with a dose of plaster board and a gypsum scrim coat to devise a more rational spot for a cloakroom?  To install warm double glazing at the back of the house where it may be allowed?  To chip off all the old lime plaster because a bit was crumbling and start again with gypsum, so much cheaper and easier with the new wiring going in...  and so it goes.

Every person who looks at a house will see it in a different way.  Most can no longer claim total ignorance of traditional building methods as television programmes feature everything from plasterers to medieval manor houses and thatchers, with everything in between and across all time lines.   I am the sort of person who becomes a quivering lovesick wreck when I see an abandoned building.  And when I move into a house I like to rough it and gradually repair, add, change, as seems necessary and appropriate.  I believe it takes time to get to know a house, its own quirks, wishes, desires, personality, just like a person.  Act too quickly and important messages may be lost or ignored.

Even with a comprehensive scheme for regenerating a listed or just ancient building and respecting the original fabric, many factors, such as budget, time, planning, covenanting, building regulations and conservation issues all come into play.

When, for example, we wished to turn a redundant building attached to our house into a library that was not listed but was in a conservation area, we painstakingly installed period appropriate hand blown leaded lights and wrought iron hardware made by the local blacksmith - we were praised by the conservation officer for respecting the nature of the main building but not slavishly copying what was already there.  However, we were then rebuked by the building regs officer who demanded double glazing and windows that opened to the front.  They would not be secure, but he said this was of no importance to my young family.  What was paramount was the consideration that a handicapped person may buy my home in future and need to get out these windows if there was a fire!

I may wish to repair each of the 49 sash windows in a Georgian old rectory, only to find that my plans clash with my green energy goals.  Do I put in secondary glazing and interlined curtains and hope for the best?  In many cases this is a perfect solution - but does it offend my aesthetic sense to have secondary glazing panels up in Autumn not coming off until Spring gently restores the temperature?

One architect we worked with in Charleston came up with an ingenious - although admittedly costly - solution for his own new house.  Secondary sash windows.  Difficult to clean but beautiful.  Sadly local planners no longer treat this as an acceptable solution, so it could not be done in a new building.

Architect Andrew Gould's House built in vernacular style  with double sash windows
(interior and colour consultation by Killian-Dawson)

...It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying... William Morris, part of the manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)

When television programmes bombard us with exciting new kitchens and clean modern, dust free interiors produced as rabbits from the hats of restoration, the above can seem harsh, indeed impossible to achieve, not to mention limiting our creative capacities and some would say, a building's chance for survival.  After all, isn't a building a sort of organism that is an extension of each time it in, its use changing, its looks changing as each generation leaves it's mark?

I do not have the answers but I do believe it is vital to consider each thing we do to an old building very carefully before attacking it with sledgehammers and acid, and a large team of builders with power tools, serving up contemporary to suit our current view of what we see in magazines and shop windows, or even other friends' kitchens.  Fashion continually alters.  If I walk into an old rectory and find I have been duped and the interior is a modern spotlit, smooth walled chrome and stainless steel mass complete with smart systems, I must confess I feel shocked and sometimes a bit cheated.   The fantasy of living in an old building is not the same as the reality.  Sometimes the inhabitants would be better served to spread their wings and build something new.   Buildings once altered cannot be returned to their previous state, achieved only through time.  We must be careful not to destroy what we fall in love with.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The great debate: restoration vs conservation

As we've all revelled in the long overdue summer sunshine, we thought we'd turn our attention to a topic that's guaranteed to get people hot under the collar: the restoration versus conservation debate.

Anyone who turns their attention to an historic or period property will soon be confronted by this. It's a highly emotionally charged issue. How often, for instance, have you heard of someone who has lovingly invested millions bringing an old behemoth back to life, only to have a neighbour sneer at how they've wrecked it?  Or, admired the mirror sheen on a piece of lacquered furniture to be told "the patina's been destroyed.  They sanded and refinished it."

English japanned cabinet at Mount Stewart, County Down, photo John Hammond,
similiar to the cabinet described above that was recently conserved
Saving something that was on the verge of disintegration for future generations to enjoy, or vandalising an irreplaceable national treasure beyond redemption? Or as is often the case, just trying to make a not particularly valuable piece of furniture pretty and useful again.  Perhaps it would help if we look at what the different sides are trying to achieve.

I have a japanned cabinet on stand in mind as I write this. It is eighteenth century, quite rare and very beautiful from a slight distance. Upon closer inspection the surface is heavily flaking, including the over painted chinoiserie designs, there are several poorly repaired breaks, the plain finished back is warped and starting to draw apart, affecting the stability of the piece, and the top of the chest is also beginning to separate causing the piece to look slightly bowed from the top.  As if that weren't enough to worry about, several pieces of the unusual mother of pearl inlay have popped out due to expansion and contraction from the climate extremes the piece has been subjected to for the two hundred years of its life.

Do I conserve the piece, which means to stabilise and possibly clean whilst disturbing the existing finish and fabric as little as possible, using as many reversible materials as possible? Or do I restore it, which may involve the radical step of renewing the finish whilst probably retaining some of it at the back or underneath as a clue for future restorers, replace pieces at the back where necessary and replace bits of perished inlay, remove the top and try to level it through various methods, etc? What I will then have is a very beautiful object that will also be far more robust - but will its value be affected by it not being in original condition?
This Victorian armchair at centre of photo was in bits in the barn when the
owner purchased the plantation.  Restored and reupholstered it is fit for purpose as
a comfortable reading chair in the master bedroom.  c Killian-Dawson Ltd
This is a subjective debate as salerooms and buyers continually prove. It seems to me that provenance plays a central role in assessing the value of objects that at times seem very ordinary - such as nursery furnishings from the Chatsworth attic sale several years ago which commanded inflated prices compared to the market as a whole.  It also depends on the market; some markets prefer an object to look like new and that element may increase the sale value in a particular sector.  Every sale catalogue mentions "later repairs".

Whatever the point of view, it is still an essential discussion. Conservator William Marshall, for many years manager of the restoration workshop at Hyde Park Antiques commented, "in my view the object of restoration is to bring back the beauty and function lost to time and damage without changing the piece. To make it look as though it was only dusted for 200 years."  My personal opinion varies depending on the value of the item, the intended use and the owner/users point of view.  An organisation like The National Trust spends a substantial amount of its budget each year on conservation, which means mostly boring delicate cleaning, and controlling climate, uv light exposure and pests.

The fate of the cabinet on stand mentioned above is that a decision was taken to conserve rather than restore it.  This can be a more costly process and the final result may be disappointing aesthetically for anyone expecting the bling factor of a new or perfect eighteenth century example of japanned chest on stand.  We were thrilled to show the fading of colour and mottled finish, the raised areas and losses as it highlights this particular cabinet's journey through time to the present.  And the owners placed it in a dressing room where it would not be subject to heavy use or risk of excessive decay.

An original Queen Anne walnut secretary
The same piece, after restoration
by Guenther Wood Group

When these pieces were first made in England (a result of demand from the Orient outstripping supply), cabinetmakers John Stalker and George Parker published the "Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing" in1688.  It described in detail with drawings how to create this labour intensive and highly fashionable finish with different varnishes and gums.  It is even more laborious and expensive to stabilise an existing finish today - just doing the detective work of how exactly the finish was achieved can take many hours.  Is it worth it?  I believe the answer is yes, if you can afford it.  The honest patina acquired over several hundred years cannot be replicated and in most cases adds to the value of a carefully maintained piece of furniture.

However, if a piece of furniture has deteriorated to such a degree that it is no longer useful let alone beautiful then restoration is almost certainly the answer.

"Every antique, no matter how humble, has a very important story to tell about our cultural heritage."
Olaf Unsoeld, conservator

Next time we will examine the impact the restoration/conservation debate has had upon houses and the way we use them...

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Return to the Gilded Age?

Last week saw us at Althorp for the occasion of their Literary Festival, now in its tenth year.  By festival standards it's an intimate and friendly gathering, which perhaps accounts for its ability to draw star names. We'd been invited there to meet Julian Fellowes, and enjoyed the special treat of hearing how he got his start in the movie business, about the twists and turns of Downton Abbey, and of meeting his stunning wife Emma.  After a lovely afternoon learning more about Althorp, meeting some of the staff, touring the grounds and grand reception rooms, we had a brief chat with Earl Spencer, who was appropriately self-deprecating about some of the recent repair and restoration achievements in the house and on the estate, the roof repair apparently made possible by his licensing agreement with furniture manufacturer Theodore Alexander.

l-r Robert and Renée Killian-Dawson, Emma Kitchener and Julian Fellowes
at the 10th Althorp Literary Festival
Replicas of key pieces in Althorp's furniture collection are reproduced for the wider market.  It is extraordinary to me how we have progressed culturally to such a greater dialogue in the world that secretaries and four poster beds, which in past centuries would have been enjoyed by no more than a few privileged guests and the staff curating them, can now be replicated and bought in places as far flung as San Francisco and Bangkok.  I was in Charleston when Earl Spencer was promoting these pieces five years ago and began to contemplate how anything goes culturally at this time in our history.

The entrance front of Althorp, transformed in the 1770s by celebrated architect Henry Holland.  The mathematical tiles or brick slips which clad the building, were chosen as a more cost effective alternative to white brick, hiding the original mellow Tudor brick beneath, showing that we are often slaves to fashion as they were used for the Prince Regent's residence in Brighton amongst many others.
Ideas, although they have always spread quickly in our quest for the new, now spread almost instantaneously through our hunger for the next thing.  When I asked Julian Fellowes what he longed to write next, I expected a charming but evasive answer.  Instead I was intrigued when he talked about his research into the Gilded Age and the ascendence of families like the Astors, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts over the old New York, America's upper class society, that keen social observers such as Edith Wharton examined so exhaustively. One wonders if he will be as sharp a critic and observer of them as he has been in his past novels about our own aristocracy, or whether he will create the television feel good factor that has so compelled us with Downton Abbey.

Reception in the Saloon at Althorp where the original stairs shown were once painted white
(the stair carpet is inverted, a device we occasionally employ to lend character). 
As a member of old New York society, Edith Wharton was in a unique position to be both critic of the nouveau families who commissioned more bling than Versailles in the court of Louis XV, a commentator on the times, and also a creator of her own home and gardens, The Mount, distinctively not gilded.  Based on seventeenth century English country houses such as Belton House in Lincolnshire, it was her personal design laboratory.

Grand Hall at The Breakers as it was rebuilt in the Italian Renaissance style in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt epitomizes the Gilded Age's architectural exuberance, extravagance and liberality of design influence.  Descendants  of Cornelius Vanderbilt still occupy apartments on the third floor in Summer, as it is only leased by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

Wharton wrote over forty books, my personal favourite being The Age of Innocence, which was filmed in 1993 by Martin Scorcese starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer.  In the opening paragraph of the novel she describes "shabby old red and gold boxes in the old Academy vs the new Opera House", comparing the Patrician old families' preference for the old and worn to the bigger and better ethos of the new like social daggers warmly written.  She also wrote "The Decoration of Houses" with interior decorator Ogden Codman, which has become an American standard tome of design.

Pictured in The Library at The Breakers are Alice Gertrude and Gladys Vanderbilt.  The intimacy of the scene belies the grand scale of the room with its massive sixteenth century French chimney piece and even more massive scale.
So, will we move towards a new Gilded Age when the as yet unannounced work Julian Fellowes is in talks with NBC to create hits our screens?  Will Victorian bling, for so long unfashionable, return to enjoy a renaissance and a consequent spike in values? It is difficult to imagine in these tumultuous economic times and predominance of spare, clean decorative schemes.  I was reminded of the parallels though, when Julian Fellowes mentioned that during the Gilded Age, there were extraordinary social and economic changes taking place, many of them very difficult for entire swathes of society.  We tend to forget the painful things and hold on to what was bright and good and glamourous about any time.  Thus history repeats itself.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Glimpses of Mon Repos

Walking up the long, pine sheltered drive, past an impressive pair of pillared gate houses that seem to be watched over by a scarcely interested caretaker, I asked a question in Greek and was treated to a full and knowledgeable survey of Mon Repos' 250 acre estate, nudging out over a slight promontory near Corfu town. I knew of the place only distantly and had seen photos of it in disrepair in the late 1990s. I was a little surprised then when I rounded the final curve in the paved road and saw the building in reasonable repair, doors and shutters tightly closed, several loud male voices evident from inside. I walked round the entire building searching for the source of this spirited discussion. Finally I tried a small door tucked in to the side of the front entrance and... Chaotic but welcoming I was told there was no admission fee and was free to wander around. I must admit to being disappointed at not getting to come in through the front doors to experience the hall's scale as I imagine the architect had in mind for anyone entering the building, but I had the place completely to myself apart from the attendants who moved around the polished floors turning on lights for me as I glided through or when I wanted a photo of the the lovely sweeping staircase. 

A view to the sea from the portico

Built on the ruins of St Pandeleimon church, and believed to be the site of the ancient city of Corfu, Mon Repos was first called The House of St Pandeleimon then The Casino by Sir Frederick Adam and his Corfiot wife. The regency style building was designed by architect Sir George Whitmore who also designed the palace of St Michael and St George in Corfu town. Sadly, the couple never enjoyed the palace as they were posted to Madras as Governor. Unfortunately Adam, although well-loved by the aristocrats on the island, left Corfu's coffers empty with his extravagance. After cession of Corfu to Greece in 1864 the palace was gifted to King George I of Greece and came to be known eventually as Mon Repos. It is also known also as the birthplace of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1921. After his birth the family remained in residence for eighteen months until the political winds of change overtook them in late 1922.

During the 1970s the building fell into disrepair. Furnishings were sold, sent to other houses and some disappeared, plundered. Being a hopeless romantic I found the building beautiful in its shabby repose. Of course the harsh climate would have turned it into a ruin eventually had its refurbishment in the 1990s not occurred. (Note: dates listed are approximate as different sources state widely variable dates) 

The rotunda lights the first floor hall and is supported by massive Ionic columns,
reception rooms leading off it in all directions
These days the building is The Paleopolis museum, probably in need again of a touch up here and there, as damp is invading in many places. Each room is a gallery; containing historical photos, documents, watercolours of the islands flora, artefacts from the various important archaeological sites both within the grounds and elsewhere on Corfu. It feels institutional, with lighting in the cornice and period furniture dotted around the place, the obligatory audio visual tour and displays, which admittedly are very informative. The interiors leave only a little sense of their former royal and official occupants. But there are some wonderful ancient figures and other artefacts in the galleries, evocative photos of the island's more recent past. I've always admired too the reproduction quality of bits of sculpture and ancient jewellery, not precious just a powerful reminder of an ancient past.

Miraculous BC survivor
The building has a feeling of being in transition, like many public buildings that have been repurposed from private homes, and of course like many buildings in Greece possibly earmarked for a firesale. I like to think of the building full of life; the smell of beeswax polish, children laughing and sliding down the banister in fancy clothes when the grown ups aren't looking, mother making an entrance on the same staircase in a somewhat more dignified manner, candles aglow, music in the background, the scent of night flowers wafting in through thrown open french doors. This should be a place for celebration.

The elegant staircase hall with pretty pink and white marble floor

Instead it is only me, dressed in humble linen, dreaming of a more glorious present for this place, a place where judgement of the Greeks, from each other and in the eyes of the world, is not afoot.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A view of women's portraiture

Recently I've been researching women's portraits with a particular project in mind. I popped round to Philip Mould's eponymous gallery and was immediately drawn to a portrait occupying a discreet corner  in the front gallery. For weeks now I've awakened thinking about this picture, apparently an important find. Philip is holding his cards very close to his chest, so I don't know what it will take for him to part with her. But I've been told that unless an appropriate suitor comes forward, she may be taking her chances at Sotheby's.

The Duchess of Parma, attributed to Zoffany, is certainly beautiful, undeniably the portrait of a richly dressed, powerful, cultural woman. It is amusing to note her husband relegated to a portrait within a portrait in the background. Swift, almost coarse brushstrokes have produced an astonishingly sumptuous and precise portrayal of a lady's finery and accoutrements. It flatters the sitter, yet asks many questions.

Duchess of Parma, attributed to Zoffany, Philip Mould
"Philip's picture is a little gem and a very important subject," remarked Tim Corfield of specialist fine and decorative art advisors Corfield Morris during a spirited discussion over my current infatuation. My remark that Philip had referred to the eighties love of all things Zoffany led me to ask Tim what he thought the value of these sort of pictures is now. "The Zoffany market hasn't moved much in the last twenty years or so, but indications are that it could be coming back in fashion."

Further afield, I was reminded of another portrait that, although it is in a museum in Vienna, its subject created The Achilleion on the Greek island of Corfu. I was there recently looking at projects on this breathtaking island, awash with wildflowers in the temperate Spring air, the majestic olives telling the stories of many centuries. I am smitten and vow to deepen my passable knowledge of modern and ancient Greek.

The Achilleion is the palace created between 1889 and 1892 as a summer residence for the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Her peripatetic existence, spurred by an aversion to her philandering husband, grief over the death of two of her children and her dislike of political duties, ensured that she spent very little time here. Her initial love affair with the island and the palace eventually waned as a reflection of her inner turmoil. The building, based on the lost structures of Pompeii and conceived by Warsburg with the help of Neopolitan architect Rafael Carito (although not finished by them), is beautifully sited where a modest villa once stood. And although many criticised its architectural pomposity, it has a beauty brought to life by the embracing climate of the island. As is often the case in Greece, as a museum it is wonderfully free of people breathing over one's shoulder to check whether one is stealing the family silver or destroying precious textiles with hated fingerprints! Windows were blessedly open to catch the breeze on this sweeping hilltop stucco confection overlooking the sea a few miles south of Corfu town. I was struck by the youthful exuberance of this painting, a quality I daresay the Empress lost later in life, but was captured here during a moment of hope, when her life was still an uncharted map of dreams yet to be revealed.

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria in dancing dress,
by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1865, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

"I wander lonely in this world,
Delight and life long time averted,
No confidant to share my inner self,
A matching soul never revealed."
(Sisi, The Poetic Diary)

The Peristyle of The Muses, a stunning space which sweeps out beyond a grand reception room connected by equally grand columns, surrounds this enviable tree sheltered expanse. It calls out for dancers to spill out of the brightly lit rooms in the palace on sultry summer nights. I envision Terpsichore swaying and strumming the lyre until she is moved to glide off her marble plinth and on to the swathe of black and white marble, the breeze teasing her hair out of its fillet.

The Nine Muses; Terpischore Muse of the dance,
The Achilleion, Corfu

The colonnade, busts of bards and poets cast towards
The Nine Muses and The Gardens. Striding along here one is reminded
of the raw emotive power of architectural scale and symmetry

The Achilleion's terrace, the Ionian barely visible in the distance, where
even the most scholarly would concede to a night of dancing and music
beneath the stars.

Friday, 12 April 2013

TV Design Shows - why we love them, why we don't

The popularity of interior design related shows on TV has probably done more than anything else to open the general public's eyes to the innumerable possibilities out there when it comes to creating interior spaces. How does this impact upon professionals in the industry, and what do we make of the shows?

Here's the rub. The type of project that we as designers and clients all want makes for extremely boring television. We receive a clear brief, concepts are drawn up, reasonable changes agreed, a budget is agreed, work begins and everything comes together on time to the delight of a satisfied client. Who wants to sit in front of that for an hour when you could be watching Downton Abbey on the other side? No, the pleasure in these shows comes from the fights, the disasters, the delays, the walkouts, the unpaid contractors threatening blue murder, the painter and decorator spilling a 5 litre tin of Little Greene over a £50,000 carpet, the architects and designers shouting at each other and calling each other unspeakable names, the stuff the 4am night terrors are made of. 

First conceptual sketch for a weekend bolthole, 20 weeks away from smart and cosy furnishings arriving...
One of the most intriguing projects we have seen recently was the redecoration of Avebury Manor in Wiltshire. Its core dates from the mid sixteenth century and, now in the hands of the National Trust, has had a long and chequered history. It is also close to our hearts as we were married in the neighbouring St James's Church.  For years it was tenanted by an interior designer and was recently the subject of a BBC series as a group of experts, historians and interior designers tried to work out what to do with it.

Trod on for hundreds of years, paving at Avebury Manor seen through the ghostly lattice of ironwork railings
The team took some bold decisions and many of these have been quite controversial. However, having visited Avebury Manor both before and after the restoration, I have to say that for the most part, there is much to like. I am left in disbelief at what was achieved for so little money, but that's television for you. When your stuff is going to be aired on TV all over the world, suppliers are inclined to give you advice and goods, if not for free, at a significantly marked down cost. Try ordering some of that luscious Fromental hand painted bespoke wallpaper for your own breakfast room, or the acres of sumptuous Watts fabric making up the curtains in the billiards room, and you might be in for a nasty shock.

The other area where TV design shows have us rolling our eyes is when it comes to timescales. Yes, projects have to be compacted into the allotted viewing hour, but the fact is rooms don't come together in a weekend. The best results take time. Sourcing the right pieces, living with the colours through seasonal light changes, discerning what works best can be a drawn out process. Viewers don't see the months of preparation leading up to what is in effect an installation. And because it's TV the room becomes a set with all that implies. Finishes which look fine on the screen can actually be awful close up. Nothing has to last beyond the show, and neither does it have to work particularly well, although to be fair this was not the case with Avebury Manor, with its thousands of visitors traipsing through every year combined with a policy of allowing people to touch and feel the furniture.

BBC TV's Restoration Home is a great example of the schadenfreude so beloved of armchair decorators. We saw two episodes recently. In the first, a woman took on a timber framed Manor House after falling in love with its stained glass, panelled hall and central staircase. From our years in the Black and White heartland of Herefordshire, there's one rule about timber framed houses and it is this. Don't go near them unless you absolutely have to live in one, whatever the cost may be. Because, believe me, the cost will be huge. Nothing is simple about these properties, and they have an ability to suck up money totally disproportionate to their size. This particular Restoration Home drama still has to play itself out, but as we left it the poor owner was left with a pile of sticks and not a whole lot else once pretty much everything had been discovered to be totally rotten and stripped away.  Although we can all be grateful to her for saving a piece of our heritage, financially she would have almost certainly been better off sourcing the Tudor panelling and staircase she so adored, not original to the house anyway, in an architectural salvage yard and starting from scratch.

The Hermitage, near Hounslow, badly damaged by fire in 2003
 and sitting empty, open to the elements
Would you save the building for this?
The second episode we viewed was a classic example of a couple getting in too deep and wildly underestimating the amount of money required to complete the project. Sure enough, the money was soon spent, the builders were on their way to the next job, and the couple were left with a ghastly mess. What happened next was little short of a miracle. They took over the project themselves and through sheer force of will and rolling their sleeves up, made it happen. It was a fine example of what the Americans call sweat equity, and a well earned result for the family. The interiors, which sadly perfectly illustrated the Conran style furnishings we mentioned in Classical Interiors, Part I, a few weeks ago, were an awkward solution for a vernacular building and made my heart sink. I see this so called design solution all over the UK, which is a sort of mindless adherence to our media driven purchasing.  Despite this, I was left with complete admiration for their determination and perseverance.   

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Separated by a common language

Having spent six years practising interior design in the United States before returning to the United Kingdom, we are often asked about the differences in the way things are done on either side of the Atlantic. In our experience, the greatest difference is the willingness of American clients to hand over the task of designing and decorating the interiors of their home to a professional. Indeed, many a US client would no more consider embarking upon their own interiors than they would complete their own tax return or attempt to buy a house using a DIY legal kit.

As an interior designer, you are at the centre of a team of professionals clients surround themselves with to facilitate their vision. Americans are comfortable with professional relationships that encroach upon intimate aspects of their lives, because they want their homes to work hard for them. And they enjoy the camaraderie of sharing knowledge. Some of our US clients are incredibly knowledgeable about works of art or the history of architecture, or other areas of design and this in enriching for all of us.

In certain circles in Britain it's almost as if hiring an interior designer or a decorator is tantamount to admitting to the world at large that you have bad taste and simply aren't up to the task. Though this attitude is changing, it still persists in some places. It was most famously epitomised in the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who seemed to bundle interior designers in with management consultants and considered both to be a waste of time and money. (Though hers is a somewhat unfair case as her unique talents mean she is probably more effective than many practitioners in either field.) Thanks to the media and the heightened status of celebrity designers, British clients are becoming more adventurous, but there is still a tendency amongst chatelaines and even moguls to think of the friend who helps me pick out curtain fabric or accessories before going on to a chummy lunch at Daphne's.

Making sense of the infinite possibilities out there
Over the past two decades the US interior design industry has undergone continuing profound changes that many practitioners are still struggling to come to terms with. Internet shopping dominates clients' perceptions and expectations, whatever market segment they come from. Traditional industries such as furniture manufacturing and carpet weaving, both centred around North Carolina in the US, have been hugely affected by cheaper imports from India and Asia.

Whilst this opens up more choice for many consumers, it has resulted in a loss of craftsmanship, particularly at the higher end. Dying skills are being replaced but it becomes harder and harder to find people to undertake important restoration work or entrust with significant new commissions. For example, we found we had to retrain curtain makers to hand sew as many US clients simply weren't accustomed to paying for that skill set in the finished product, even though North Carolina was renowned in the past for its fine seamstresses. The American College of The Building Arts is one gem in the Southeast founded by John Paul Huguley. In Britain, with its tradition of listed buildings and plentiful supply of repair, restoration and renovation work, the situation is slightly healthier, although as with the United States skilled labour now constitutes one of the most expensive elements of any project and is not always readily available.

A hook, part of a set of hardware specially commissioned by Killian-Dawson
from students at the American College of the Building Arts
There is a common perception that whilst the Brits are imbued with a stoic patience, Americans demand instant gratification and want everything now. Though there is some truth in this, there is also some convergence as internet savvy British clients develop a taste for quick results and Americans discover that reduced margins and tougher credit mean suppliers are all running stock inventory at the absolute minimum levels and almost everything is now manufactured to order, with 12 to 16 week minimum lead times the norm.

Created over centuries, reproducing a classical scenario like this takes craftsmanship, time and money.
What cannot be replaced is the interior designer's depth of industry knowledge, space planning skills, and long term supplier relationships, to name but a few. And as Nicky Haslam famously said, "Why would you want to do up a house on your own if you can afford help? It is extremely difficult and time consuming." The bottom line is that any professional interior designer worth their salt will have many years of experience to carry you through a project. They will be able to liaise with other professionals and be tough at times to fight your corner when another professional says it can't be done. And they will, if they are very good, be able to interpret your taste and wishes in a way that you never could yourself as they are there to see the bigger picture. Finally, in more stringent financial times, a designer can be an all important pair of eyes and ears to recognise potentially expensive problems before it is too late and can keep costs from spiralling by making firm decisions at the beginning of a project rather than making decisions on the fly when the pressure of a deadline looms.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Classical Interiors (Part 2)

In a purely classical room, sheltered by the embrace of classical form, there is a singular intention, a thread of decorative motif that will carry throughout in varying degrees. An acanthus leaf that snakes around the cornice will embellish the leg of a chair. The shape of that cornice will be echoed in the rug. This decorative harmony is pleasing to the eye and although to us it may look a bit staid or overly formal, it was a revelation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Nearly as soon as it was introduced though, we were busy chipping away at classicism, or perhaps reforming it for our own purposes, and responding to the cycle of industrialisation and war. With industrialisation came cheap, mass produced pictures and furnishings. Today we are not accustomed to exercising rigourous restraint when creating or renewing rooms. Few of us will seek to freeze a room in time when putting it together. This is usually the preserve of the rare historic house where a collection of furnishings has remained intact, where the original collection is being pieced back together as much as possible, or where the owner seeks to create a particular period.

The double parlours at Millford, 1840, in South Carolina, repaired and restored, including many of the original Duncan Phyfe furnishings, sought out and returned to the house by owner Dick Jenrette. He believes Millford to be the finest example of Greek Revival Architecture in America. 

Especially in Britain, we are often happiest to create a pleasing jumble out of all our possessions, or as Nicky Haslam said recently on Radio 4, "to create a story of objects". The decorator Nancy Lancaster was famous for creating this look, perfected at the home bought with Ronald Tree, Ditchley Park. She and her husband had little in the way of important pictures and furnishings for theit vast pile. Instead she created atmosphere using pieces that were the precursors of what is detestably referred to today as shabby chic. Brought up in a lovely house in Virginia that had suffered much during the American civil war, a bit of pleasing decay was important to her. Whilst we try to make things old using special finishes and dyes and paint finishes, she would leave a newly upholstered sofa lying out in the rain until she had the result she was after.

The elegantly proportioned hall with Palladian chimneypiece and stone flags,
comfortably yet sparsely furnished by Nancy Lancaster in the mid 1950s

What we do today, often unconsciously, is use classsical principles as a reference point for our rooms. The anything goes approach often termed eclectic, which in real terms means a mixture of furnishings, art and pictures from many different periods and styles, in a room that may have no architectural context for its contents, predominates. We are literally bombarded with choice and to some degree I believe that is reflected in the way we furnish our rooms and why we furnish them this way. It is what we see everywhere. Media exposure, for better or ill, has become our version of The Grand Tour. Despite the pendulum swing at the end of the last century towards modernism, classical influence is still apparent.

Classical architectural details such as the early dado and panelling in this intimate drawing room, and the cornice added by antiques dealer owner Michael Rainey, although incongruous, provide a suitable backdrop for its contents.  The fine bibelots and furniture, combined with contemporary sofa and chairs,  are almost whimsically placed.  Decorative scheme by Killian-Dawson  

"Happy are those who see beauty in modest spots where others see nothing. Everything is beautiful, the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret it." French painter Camille Pissarro