The project, in an out-of-the-way sitting room off The Berkeley Hotel lobby, was deceptively simple: Remodel a space that architect-designer David Collins recalls as "dark, dreary, and underused" but preserve the carved-wood paneling designed by the great Edwardian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. While many designers would have tiptoed around the paneling, Collins painted it a cloudy blue—a favorite Lutyens color—then installed a martini-cool interior of ebonized cabinetry, low-slung chairs in pale-blue leather, red-shaded lights, red velvet draperies, a tasseled Lutyens pendant light. Evoking a chic, subaquatic salon, The Blue Bar became a favorite with London's free-floating scene-makers (including Madonna, a Collins client) from the moment it opened last fall.
It's just one example of the "design-it-and-they-will-come" mentality that has taken hold in the English capital. Invigorated by years of economic prosperity and creative ferment, London has recently experienced a spate of design-driven transformations fueled by an optimistic, inventive spirit not seen here since the Swinging Sixties. The public has flooded into the Tate Modern, the former powerhouse that architects Herzog & de Meuron turned into an industrial-strength art museum. It stands in long queues to board the London Eye, the Ferris wheel that towers over the city like an English child's wildest Meccano Set fantasy. (It stayed away in droves from the Millennium Dome, but that was no fault of its ingenious Richard Rogers design.) Norman, Lord Foster's vaulted latticework roof for the British Museum's new Great Court brilliantly mediates between the circular reading room and the rectilinear porticoes around it, revealing both the sky and a courtyard that had been obscured for more than a century. Reflecting the city's revved-up sense of style is a seemingly endless stream of imaginatively designed hotels, restaurants, and shops. Even discounting the hype about Cool Britannia, there's no doubt that design is the new coin of the realm; along with the much-touted makers of Britart and Britpop, a Britpack of dynamic younger designers—both natives and transplants—has raised the standard for contemporary design in a country defined by tradition.
The best London designers, young and old, can transcend the limits of tradition even as they draw inspiration from it, as Collins did with The Blue Bar. The Dublin-born designer has infused contemporary glamour into old stalwarts: He revamped the Art Deco bar at Claridge's Hotel with sleek new lighting, red leather upholstery, lustrous draperies, and an onyx-topped bar; he has given fresh appeal to a slew of restaurants, among them Mirabelle, the century-old J. Sheekey, The Criterion (a gilded Picadilly Circus landmark), and The Belvedere (a converted coach house in Holland Park). "England is gradually becoming Europeanized," Collins observes. "Losing its aloofness, opening up to new styles and influences. What counts now is individuality and how well you execute it—it's either well done or badly done, stimulating or boring."
Many other designers agree—for all the pluralism of the current scene, Young Turks and Old Guard alike applaud the bold, deft gesture. One of the main venues for such gestures is London's 100% Design fair, which has emerged as a major forum for contemporary design ideas. Launched in 1995, it filled a deep void. "During the early-nineties recession, designers had been forced to survive selling things like candlesticks," event director Ian Rudge has said. "There was this pent-up energy to create interesting new design, and people were finally leaving behind the eighties, Thatcherite, retrospective mindset of chintzy interiors." The latter period is recalled on both sides of the Atlantic as a time when the affluent liked to decorate as if they were landed gentry, drawing furnishings from some stately (if imaginary) ancestral home.
Today interior design is more about celebrating individual vision, not class divisions. "People are much more informed and better able to make their own choices," notes manufacturer and retailer Sheridan Coakley, whose company, SCP, features furniture and lighting by younger stars like Matthew Hilton, Jasper Morrison, and Terence Woodgate. "For a long time in this country, buying modern furniture for the home was seen as a nouveau riche thing. But that's been swept away—we've kind of reinvented ourselves, as people of all sorts recognize that we're living in a modern world." It's a sign of the times that Coakley has expanded beyond his Shoreditch showroom with a well-stocked boutique at Selfridges, part of that Oxford Street institution's makeover. (Another venerable department store, Harrods, has also added a contemporary furniture section, with a large selection of modern classics.) Among the more striking SCP products are Hilton's shapely Balzac armchair and artist Rachel Whiteread's singular daybed (actually the space beneath a daybed, rendered as a cushy solid).
Long-established designer Mary Fox Linton notes, "We're all living differently now—there's less formality, more of a focus on function." While she is sufficiently steeped in the traditional to have been hired for a remodeling of Eton, Linton usually works in a contemporary vein, from her lines of furniture and fabrics to her award-winning interiors for One Aldwych, the Britart-filled hotel that has attracted Londoners since it opened in 1998. With crisp, uncluttered lines, muted colors, and high-tech flourishes like fiber-optic reading lights, the guestrooms are pared down but serene, their rigor softened by the material richness of shimmering metal mesh, Thai silk draperies, dark wood, and brown terrazzo. "I like to be innovative but not gimmicky," she explains. "And I strive for comfort."
The man who did more than anyone to give contemporary design its cachet is Sir Terence Conran, whose eponymous shops continue to showcase smart furnishings and accessories. But the success of modern design is widely evident, both in large stores like Heal's and Habitat and smaller shops like Coexistence, Skandium (specializing in classics of Scandinavian modernism), Babylon, Viaduct, and Bowles & Linares, which sells that duo's clever designs, among them an adjustable rocker and a quick-assembly aluminum bookcase. Lord Foster's Millennium Bridge may have got off to a shaky start, but his Nomos table is rock-solid—and available at Purves & Purves. Among the designer-owned showrooms making waves with admirable work are Function Ltd., which displays Ou Baholyodhin's brand of refined simplicity, and CA1, where that group presents the line of modern-minded furniture it deployed in 2000 at the hip Notting Hill hotel The Westbourne. Designer Tom Dixon sells his edgy industrial-funk work through his company, Eurolounge, while catering to more mainstream tastes as Habitat's design director. Habitat, SCP, and the Islington shop twentytwentyone all produce furniture by midcentury master Robin Day, the "English Eames," who's still turning out fresh designs. Among the sources of vintage-modern furnishings are twentytwentyone and Themes & Variations, a Notting Hill gallery for a range of postwar icons by the likes of Werner Panton, Arne Jacobsen, and Piero Fornasetti.
The ascendancy of clean-lined modernist furniture and interiors can be viewed in part as a victory for those who led the backlash against eighties excess: the minimalists. The land that spawned the horror vacui of Victorian clutter is also where its antithesis reached an artful apogee in the interiors of John Pawson, Claudio Silvestrin, David Chipperfield, and other gifted (and still-active) architects and designers. Strange as that may seem, minimalism echoed English respect for understatement and utility and had several forerunners, from the white plasterwork of Neoclassical Georgian design (itself an echo of sun-bleached classical ruins) to the reductivism of Mary Quant and the miniskirt. Its crisp, unadorned planes and monolithic built-ins could look terrific in photographs—as in the Pawson-designed home of Doris Saatchi, whose friends asked, "When is the rest of the furniture coming?" But even its admirers admit that minimalism can be hard to live with. Some signature shop and restaurant interiors remain, however, and designers continue to apply minimalism's lessons about proportion, the beauty of elemental materials, and the luxury of space and light.
English design tends to fall into one of three categories—modern, traditional, or a more eclectic approach that may be closer to either, but, like David Collins, mixes things from different periods and cultures. Kelly Hoppen is eclectic, yet still enough of a modernist to have redesigned British Airway's first-class cabins. Given to Zenlike pronouncements such as "texture is the new color," Hoppen likes to combine Asian elements with contemporary Western furnishings in tactile fabrics. She believes that the home should be a style-blending sanctuary, luxurious but informal, and has created collections of rugs, window treatments, and neutral-toned paints for her acolytes.
As former managing director of Colefax & Fowler, designer Chester Jones is steeped in traditional style but prefers, he says, "to build on a disregard for historical correctness, allowing for a mix of antique and contemporary furnishings and art." Jones is fond of objets de vertu such as Roman rock-crystal finials and taxidermy specimens—"the sorts of things that might have been found in the curio cabinets of an eighteenth-century prince," he explains. "They're harder to find now." (Such objects add singular interest to his decor for American billionaire Paul Allen's London house.) While many of his more extravagant interiors skew to the traditional because the clients have large antiques collections, the designer tries to introduce other influences, from American folk art to African tribal art. "I like things that may have little intrinsic worth but have a culturally ambiguous resonance—for example, a nineteenth-century eel trap that looks like a NASA rocket prototype," he says.
Michael Reeves is known for a tailored approach—not surprising, given his 20 years as a fashion designer. His Brompton Cross shop displays his svelte upholstered chairs, case goods, and lamps, plus things he finds compatible, such as Chinese cabinets, porcelains, and antique woodcarvings. And the Mongolian lamb pillows in pale lavender? "There's been a shift toward using more color, though if used in the wrong way color can be jarring in London's gloomy light," he says. "Clients are wanting more dramatic interiors, with a wow factor, almost a stage-set effect, including versatile lighting, good art, one or two fabulous antique pieces, perhaps a big Buddha in the drawing room—and all the comforts of home." (Among the sources Reeves favors is William Yeoward, who's widely admired for his traditionally inflected but essentially modern furniture and glassware.)
The Heirloom Effect
Of course, traditional English decorating has always been eclectic, with its layers of fabrics and furnishings suggesting an accretion that has evolved over many generations. "But you cannot be halfhearted about it," cautions designer Nina Campbell, the doyenne of the style. "To pull it off, you have to see it through down to every detail." Having created interiors in the English manner from Hong Kong to Beirut, she is currently freshening up rooms at The Connaught. "I err on the side of simplicity and never sacrifice comfort to aesthetics," she insists. "And I try to give every room a bit of wit." Through her books, shops, and lines of fabrics, wallpaper, paint, and carpets, Campbell continues to be a touchstone in the world of interiors.
Another traditionalist, the Persian-born decorator Alidad, has mastered the English way of blending disparate colors and patterns in rooms that read as harmonious wholes. The study of his high-ceilinged flat in Mayfair combines 17 shades of red and diverse antique rugs and textiles, yet there's no discord—the space, with its touches of gold, is rich and inviting. The dining room, with embossed leather walls embellished with gold and polychrome motifs, casts a spell by candlelight. Alidad's interiors affect an elegant nonchalance, but nothing is haphazard. "I like them to look lived in," he says, "and to stimulate all the senses."
Kit Kemp has worked on a scale that would be the envy of most designers, creating interiors for a string of boutique hotels and restaurants in London developed by her husband, Tim Kemp. Though each has a different character, all are marked by Kit Kemp's urbane-country-house aesthetic. Even guestrooms within a particular hotel differ, though they generally contain bed linens and window draperies lined in contrasting fabric, an old-fashioned writing table, inviting upholstered chairs, and fabric-lined walls (one Pelham Hotel chamber is nattily clad in pinstriped suiting material). The designer loves antique paneling, framed prints, and flowers both in vases and spilling across needlepoint rugs and swagged draperies. But she also knows when to add an informal lilt—an oversized plaid, a splash of bold color, charming wall stenciling, and faux finishes. The hotels' sitting rooms possess a residential warmth that makes lingering a pleasure.
The Kemp hotels' home-away-from-home quality appeals to such peripatetic fashion, film, and stage stars as Giorgio Armani, Naomi Campbell, Jeanne Moreau, Albert Finney, and Steve Martin. The celebrity crowd that flocked to the Covent Garden Hotel has also embraced the couple's most recent lodging, the Charlotte Street Hotel. Inspired by its proximity to Bloomsbury, Kemp placed art works by Bloomsbury Group members in the lounges and sprinkled rooms and corridors with framed reproductions of fabric designs from the related Omega Workshop. The dining room's lively mural derives from frescoes by Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry. "The things I buy for the hotels are things I'd want to live with," she explains. "I don't want anything that in five years will look past its sell-by date. I try to combine the best of the past with the best of the present." (Kemp may be strongly rooted in tradition, but she included contemporary art works and modern Cab barstools by Mario Bellini in the Charlotte Street mix, and acrylic lamps and kinetic wall sculptures in her design for the Notting Hill Brasserie.)
Much of the best of the past still passes through London's shops and showrooms. The antiques shops of Pimlico Road and King's Road are full of gleanings from the manors and outposts of the Empire (and the rest of the world). Also with a shop on Pimlico Road is David Linley, whose bespoke furniture is traditionally crafted and based on time-honored models. On Fulham Road, Hemisphere (a David Collins favorite) purveys vintage French modern designs by Jacques Adnet and other masters, while Snap Dragon offers Chinese pieces. In addition to classically English wallpapers and fabrics, Colefax and Fowler offers an array of antiques at 39 Brook Street, where you can still see Nancy Lancaster's famous butter-colored living room. Nina Campbell finds touches of glamour in the selection of antiques and accessories at B&T Antiques and Guinevere. Designers of every stripe like the old-new, East-West mix at Mint, David Champion, Ogier, and Carden Cunietti.
With quintessentially English companies like Burberry and Connolly opening up new flagship stores and giving themselves makeovers for the millennium, could The General Trading Company—the home emporium where every Sloane Ranger shopped—be far behind? Directly behind its old Sloane Square digs is a new store designed by Spencer Fung, one of London's sharpest young modernists. "The GTC is very well known as a place where the royal family buys gifts, and where there's an eclectic selection of goods," he says. "The British are celebrated travelers, and a gentleman's home would often have art and artifacts from all over the world—the GTC reflects that tradition. I wanted to make the new store feel like a grand English house, but using a modern language." The architect's open-plan scheme creates a series of room settings, from traditional to more contemporary, with taupe concrete floors and an open fireplace as a central focal point. Last year Fung finished work on the home of Joseph Ettedgui, owner of the seriously stylish Joseph shops. This year he's designing projects in America and Africa as well as England. "In both my architecture and my furniture," he says, "I emphasize simple, sometimes sculptural forms and try to achieve something beautiful and timeless."
A former hospital in Chelsea contains Jonathan Reed's widely published home and his showroom, where he combines his own elegantly contemporary furniture with an ever-changing selection of vintage pieces and work by artist-craftsmen. "In any interior, it's critical to get the architectural details right—doors, ironmongery, finishes," he says. "We think of what we do as a kind of couture for architecture." As lead designer for a model penthouse in a Thameside high-rise, Reed created a cosmopolitan aerie with impeccably modern furnishings, exotic accents (Zulu pots, antique Chinese yoke-back chairs), and a posh palette of fabrics and materials (wenge, Venetian stucco, mohair velvet). In his own home, personable vintage-modern pieces mingle with his own designs and offbeat elements, like a Burmese colonial bed and steel cabinets that once served the Ministry of Defense. In his design for a new house in Ireland, Reed is using the local vernacular of dry-stone walls and turf roofs, and he's forging an "industrial-meets-Africa" style in a New York loft for a rock celebrity couple. "We work with a lot of fashion people and other creative types, because they're the ones who want to do something new, and who trust in the design process," he says.
Design for Art's Sake
The resurgence of design in this switched-on global village echoes its vibrant contemporary art scene. "I often find the art galleries there more interesting than the showrooms," says London-born designer Jenny Armit, now based in Los Angeles. Designer Mike Rundell draws both energy and clients from the art world. He collaborated with artist Damien Hirst on his striking restaurant-cum-installation, Pharmacy, and designed the gallery White Cube2, a linchpin of the East End's artist-led revival. The gallery's owner, Jay Jopling, also hired Rundell to renovate his Robert Adam-designed house near Regent Park. "Adam's proportions were marvelous," the architect remarks. "We made the house modern while keeping the wonderful cornices and plasterwork, which are a fine framework for art and sumptuous fabrics."
"For me, art, furniture, fashion—they're all symbiotic," says David Gill. Part dealer, part curator (he once worked at Christie's), Gill's specialty is furniture with poetry in its soul. He converted a handbag factory in Vauxhall into a light, airy showplace that's been called the decorative-arts equivalent of the Saatchi Gallery. There he exhibits work that's always about more than function, including recent and older pieces by Garouste & Bonetti, Oriel Harwood, Donald Judd, Grillo Demo, and other artists and designers. Gill's neo-Baroque sensibility is a lyrical departure from less-is-more modernism.
"In England now there's an understanding that originality and daring are what make for amazing rooms," observes Armit. "I've noticed a return to craftsmanship and a more imaginative use of color." Rundell adds, "What I find encouraging is that people are rejecting bland pastiche, the mere collection of objects with no point of view." The English critic Herbert Read wrote that beauty "is not an arbitrary choice; it is rather the exact solution of a problem." With its wealth of design talent and its resources, London—where innovation and tradition go hand in glove—offers more ways than ever of solving that problem.
For all phone numbers, first dial 44, then 20.
ALIDAD $ 2 Michael Rd. SW6 7384-0121
B&T ANTIQUES 79-81 Ledbury Rd. W11 7229-7001
BABYLON DESIGN $ 301 Fulham Rd. SW10 7376-7255
BOWLES & LINARES $ 32 Hereford Rd. W2 7229-9886
NINA CAMPBELL 9 Walton St. SW3 7225-1011 www.ninacampbell.com
CA1 $ 1-3 Leonard St. EC2 7253-1900
CARDEN CUNIETTI $ 83 Westbourne Park Rd. W2 7229-8630 www.carden-cunietti.com
DAVID CHAMPION 199 Westbourne Grove W11 7727-6016
COEXISTENCE $ (by appointment) 288 Upper St. N1 7354-8817 www.coexistence.co.uk
COLEFAX AND FOWLER 39 Brook St. W1 7493-2231 www.colefaxantiques.com
DAVID COLLINS ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN $ Units 6 & 7, Chelsea Wharf, Lots Rd. SW10 7349-5900 www.davidcollins.com
THE CONRAN SHOP 81 Fulham Rd. SW3 7589-7401 www.conran.com
EUROLOUNGE 7792-5499 www.eurolounge.co.uk
FOX LINTON ASSOCIATES $ 4 Hewlett House Havelock Terrace SW8 7622-0920
FUNCTION LTD. $ 12 Greatorex St. E1 7426-0666 www.ou-b.com
SPENCER FUNG ARCHITECTS $ 3 Pine Mews NW10 8960-9883
THE GENERAL TRADING COMPANY 2 Symons St. SW3 7730-0411
DAVID GILL GALLERIES 60 Fulham Rd. SW3 7589-5946; by appointment at 3 Loughborough St. SE11 7793-1100
GUINEVERE ANTIQUES 574-580 Kings Road SW6 7736-2917 www.guinevere.co.uk
HABITAT $ 196 Tottenham Court Rd. W1 7631-3880 www.habitat.net
HARRODS 87-135 Brompton Rd. SW1 7730-1234 www.harrods.com
HEAL'S 196 Tottenham Court Rd. W1 7636-1666 www.heals.co.uk
HEMISPHERE $ 173 Fulham Rd. SW3 7581-9800
KELLY HOPPEN INTERIORS 2 Munden St. W14 7471-3350 www.kellyhoppen.com
CHESTER JONES LTD. $ 240 Battersea Park Rd. SW11 7498-2717
LINLEY 60 Pimlico Rd. SW1 7730-7300 www.davidlinley.com
MINT 70 Wigmore St. W1 7224-4406
OGIER $ 177 Westbourne Grove W11 7229-0783
PURVES & PURVES 220-224 Tottenham Court Rd. W1 7580-8223 www.purves.co.uk
REED CREATIVE SERVICES $ (by appointment) 151a Sydney St. SW3 7565-0066
MICHAEL REEVES INTERIORS $ 91a Pelham St. SW7 7225-2501 (Reeves will open a shop in New York in September; 212-414-0488)
RUNDELL ASSOCIATES LTD. $ 45 Grove Lane SE5 7564-5252
SCP LTD. $ 135-139 Curtain Rd. EC2 7739-1869 www.scp.co.uk
SELFRIDGES 400 Oxford St. W1 7629-1234 www.selfridges.co.uk
SKANDIUM 72 Wigmore St. W1 7935-2077 www.skandium.com
SNAP DRAGON $ 247 Fulham Rd. SW3 7376-8889
SOLARIS@MILIO INTERIORS 170 Westbourne Grove W11 7229-8100 www.miliointeriors.com
THEMES & VARIATIONS 231 Westbourne Grove W11 7727-5531
TWENTYTWENTYONE 274 Upper St. N1 7288-1996 www.twentytwentyone.com
VIADUCT $ 1-10 Summers St. EC1 7278-8456 www.viaduct.co.uk
WILLIAM YEOWARD FURNITURE 71 Warriner Gardens SW11 7498-4811
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.