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.