Nicky Haslam is one of our best interior designers, a charmed and charming agent of style, a tastemaker for the sometimes directionless rich, a brighter star than most of his astronomically stellar client list.
Considering a joint project, I asked him over lunch to tell me all the amazing people he had met. He demurred, but later that afternoon I got a 20-page handwritten document and on page one the names included John Kennedy, Svetlana Stalin, Picasso and Elvis.
But Nicky is perhaps better known to Spectator readers as a contributor of meticulous, gossipy, beautifully crafted, super-well-informed and often rather saucy accounts of what used to be called high society. But how to describe the man to a reader who has not met him? He is elegant, witty, exquisitely mannered, enjoys a party and is generous as a host.
Naturally, he has a good eye, whose vision he applies to himself. The Nicky of the Eighties was a sleekly silver-haired Pimlico decorator-type in a proper suit and statement tie. The Nicky of today, shown as a sort of frontispiece to his delightful new book, has become a high-concept gardener.
In between, there have been other episodes in personal style. I once asked where he got his jacket, a curiosity in metallic turquoise plastic, or some such aesthetic atrocity. ‘Zara, darling. Twelve quid’ he twinkled back at me. He delights in chance finds and has a genius for assembly. In his punk phase, which he entered as a man of mature years, he confided to my wife that he had dyed his pubic hair purple. At the time, he also had a purple car. With this interior designer, the urge to style is total. Recently, he has expanded his repertoire to include crooning jazz standards, many by his old chum Cole Porter.
Folly de Grandeur is a book about Nicky’s own country house, a heartbreakingly beautiful 1740s hunting lodge on the Dogmersfield Park Estate near Odiham in Hampshire. In fact, a fussy small cottage disguised by Jacobean gables in prettily faded red-brick, in 40 years of ownership it has been fettled and expanded, furnished and, generally, advanced to publishable gorgeousness. Interior designers often make books about their homes, not least because it makes soft-furnishings tax-deductible, but, Nicky Haslam being Nicky Haslam, there is rather more going on here.
In an early conversation I discovered a shared passion for Mario Praz’s The House of Life (1958 in Italian, Englished six years later), an account of decorating an apartment in Rome, but in fact about a great deal more. Praz was a Haslamesque exotic, a linguist and cultural historian, author also of The Romantic Agony, who, bizarrely, found himself in the chair of Italian at Liverpool University in the Thirties. I see Folly de Grandeur in this genre of house decoration as intellectual autobiography (with knobs on).
The Hunting Lodge was given to the National Trust in the Seventies by John Fowler, whose social promotion from the furniture floor of Peter Jones led to the creation of Colefax & Fowler, the pioneer firm of interior designers which represents the gold (or perhaps more appropriately ‘gilt’) standard of the business. Since Nicky acquired the lease from the Trust, his 40-year adventure has represented a continuation of a tradition.
Often I wonder what exactly interior design is. A profession, agency, art, craft or trade? Maybe it is a therapy or a psychosis. Clearly, considerable ego and confidence are involved. It is not just nature that abhors vacuums; interior designers abhor them too, rushing to fill emptiness with meaningful things. In this way, the Hunting Lodge’s rambling and expanding room-plan and gardens are chapters in which Nicky talks us through, if not the meaning of life itself, then the meaning of the author’s own version of existence. And very beguiling it is too.
The Hunting Lodge speaks in words and pictures. And in Folly de Grandeur the reader learns about artifice and facsimile. You have the coup d’oeil created by unexpected changes of scale. We learn how to marble-ise with a felt tip pen and why a fake door is just the thing. Who would have thought MDF panels attached to the walls and finished with scumbled paint could be so attractive? Certainly, if there are any modernist purists left, they will be outraged by being instructed to paint little blue circles on tripod tables to make them jolly. And one day, as a test, I will ask Terence Conran what he thinks about the ‘spiky dahlia lamp base’ that Nicky so cheerfully recommends.
This is a pleasurable book about pleasure. If it has a fault, I felt a slight want of the mischievous guidance that Nicky customarily distributes to his friends: ‘Coloured fireworks are common’ is, for example, a favourite of mine. And while the literary style is mellifluous and intelligent, the notion that visual motifs should ‘echo’ each other grates because ‘reflect’ is the correct term. And I suppose jealous or insecure readers should be warned to expect frequent phrases such as ‘in the 1960s, at my Arizona ranch....’
But that’s Nicky for you. For those not lucky enough to know this wonderfully engaging man, this book about his equally engaging house is the next best thing.