Fera, the restaurant that opened at Claridge’s this spring, looks at first glance like a space untouched since the 1930s: understated grey walls, honey-coloured marble, stained glass skylights above the walnut tables, Art Deco motifs and mirrored columns. Which is just the sort of invisibility that interior designer Guy Oliver was trying to achieve. ‘A friend of mine walked into the restaurant and said, “What did you do — did you paint the walls?” I didn’t like to tell him that we spent five months changing everything,’ explains Oliver at high speed, as we settle down in the Fumoir next door for a chat.
What links all his interiors, whether private country houses or hotels (he has been Claridge’s go-to for nearly 20 years and also had a spell as a consultant for the US hotelier and property developer André Balazs), is that almost everything, right down to the teaspoons, is made bespoke by craftsmen. When he was asked to redesign the Connaught hotel in 2007, for example, he persuaded the owners to let him create a suite in the attic, full of exquisite Afghan woodwork based on Peacock House in the Murad Khane district of Kabul. The idea came to him through his work with Turquoise Mountain, a charity set up by Rory Stewart that trains Afghans in skills such as carving and calligraphy.
‘Peacock House had been part of the royal residence but was basically a slum,’ he recalls. ‘It had such beautiful woodcarving details and I thought it would be incredible to show people in London. At the time you couldn’t DHL from Kabul so I called a friend in the air force and convinced him to fly the woodwork back to an airbase here.’ The suite, which is called the Prince’s Lodge, has attracted everyone from Kings of Leon to the king of Malaysia, with a percentage of the room rate always given back to Turquoise Mountain. It’s typical of Oliver’s vision. He has no qualms about suggesting unlikely ideas to seemingly unapproach-able people, or roping famous friends into his projects. (Another example: he’s the reason that Kristin Scott Thomas and Christian Louboutin are involved in the campaign to save London’s Smithfield Market.)
Oliver arrives for our meeting in jeans and a navy Burberry polo shirt, and whizzes through the kind of stories you hesitate to make up: the time he went swimming, while designing the interior of a villa in Saudi Arabia, with a man who turned out to be Idi Amin (‘That’s what my autobiography would be called: Swimming with Idi Amin’); working in Japan and being woken up at 5 a.m. to visit a house with a 1930s twin-engine aircraft reassembled in the ballroom (it was a shrine to the owner’s father, who had been in a plane crash); and a trip to Moscow in 1996, to discuss with Boris Yeltsin redesigning the Kremlin.
‘I’ll never forget our arrival. We were supposed to be going to the Bolshoi to meet Tatyana Yumasheva [Yeltsin’s daughter], so we flew into Sheremetyevo airport. Policemen got on board and bundled us into the back of a Mercedes. We bombed through the city to the Bolshoi, Tatyana pushed us into a box and nodded to the conductor who started Giselle. Five hundred people were looking at us and I kept thinking, “I wonder what they would do if they knew we were only the bloody decorators.”’
Oliver refers to himself as a decorator rather than a designer throughout our meeting — a habit, he says, that stems from his early days in the business. He grew up in Aberdeenshire where he spent his teenage years visiting antiques fairs with his mother. After the navy visited his school, he enrolled as an officer cadet and was offered a cadetship at the University of Edinburgh, where he officially studied geography but really spent all his time reading about the history of art and architecture. ‘When I enrolled in the navy I was 16. I was aware that I wasn’t hurling myself at teenage girls, but I was also in this strange limbo because there wasn’t much opportunity the other way at a state school in Scotland,’ he says, remembering a time when being gay in the navy meant a court martial.
While Oliver was at sea, he read an article about Michael Player, of the Player cigarette fortune, and decided to write to him. They met, and Player wrote him two references, each of which was to have a deciding effect on Oliver’s career. The first was to Sylvia Lawson Johnston, an interior designer renowned for doing up grand country piles in Scotland: Oliver resigned from the navy — which resulted in a lengthy legal case — to assist her for a year. The second was to Imogen Taylor at Colefax & Fowler, where he took a job as a trainee director. He then went freelance, juggling work with the likes of Michael Inchbald with studying for an architectural diploma at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. Later, he met David Laws, who was finishing the interior of the State Rooms at 10 Downing Street for Margaret Thatcher and looking for someone to take over his business when he retired. (As it happens, Oliver’s brother Craig is now head of communications for David Cameron.)
These days, Oliver has a team of six full-time staff, and works on everything from New York penthouses to swish shops (the soon-to-open Assouline bookstore on Piccadilly will be one of his). ‘My favourite project at the moment is a 60-metre, 1937 yacht that belongs to a British philanthropist. It has to feel period appropriate; he wants the yacht to look as if it has been owned by the same person since the 1930s, whose taste has evolved over time,’ he says. ‘It absolutely reflects the personality of the owner; the design has so many layers that you’d almost think I’ve done nothing at all.’ Now where have I come across an effect like that before?