When the ceiling in our sitting room fell down last month, we descended with the thudding plaster and the lathe into that place anyone who has ever had cause to ‘do up’ a room or a house will know all too well: the World of Interiors, a parallel universe that is not so much Elle Deco, as Deco Hell.
Suddenly whole days go by in emporia with names like ‘Knobs and Knockers’, where you argue bitterly over little brass cupboard handles. The shop assistants in lighting showrooms know your children’s names. In my case, you become bizarrely obsessed with proper plasterwork cornices, and order samples that arrive in toothpasty white chunks, like offcuts from the Elgin marbles. You live on websites devoted to sandblasting iron radiators, and yet the paradox remains: the longer you spend in Deco Hell, the more impossible any decision-making becomes.
‘We spent at least five years arguing what sofa to buy,’ says documentary maker Philippa Walker, who lives with her husband Alan Yentob in Notting Hill. ‘Until finally, at last, we found one we both liked. It was from B&B Italia and cost [she named a sum and asked me not to put it in] but we bought it anyway.’
Chez nous, the party line is that my husband has good taste, while I have actively bad taste. This means we fight like cat and dog over everything house and garden, and are still both recovering from an epic ‘shared experience’ redoing a small nursery bathroom last year. We spent so long a year ago arguing over the tiles that our builder went away, had a baby, and came back to find us still debating whether the washbasin should have a pedestal or not.
So when it came to the imploded sitting room, we didn’t want the ordeal to send us both to the brink again. So we worked out some basics. We decided where we were going to put lights, and bookcases. Instead of downlighters, we decided to install a ceiling rose and centre light as well as side lights, and decided that the cornice belonged to the walls and should therefore be the same colour, to add height to the room. It was all going almost smoothly, until we had to decide the paint colour. Weeks began to slip by in a kaleidoscope of swatches and sample pots.
We went to Farrow & Ball, even though we had vowed never to use their paints again, as they are very expensive and don’t actually do the job (after a few months, the paint starts peeling off, leaving your walls pockmarked).
Even so, decision eluded us. I wanted green. He wanted pink. So I texted Nicky Haslam, the legendary interior decorator, and begged him to ‘pop over for five minutes’ and help. If anyone knows what is common and comme il faut, it is Nicky.
London’s premier arbiter elegantiarum arrived wearing baseball boots, a leather jacket and a baker boy cap like Marlon Brando, smoking cigarillos. He marched into the sitting room, where the carpenter and electrician and cornice-man were hard at it, as if invading a small country. His eagle eye fell on the bespoke ceiling rose that was about to go up, and ‘Take it away,’ he snapped. ‘No overhead lighting!’
I had to move him on. ‘Nicky, what about the colour?’ I asked, ‘I’m thinking green. Like Gilbert & George’s house in Spitalfields.’ Nicky looked at me in silence then handed me a section of Elastoplast. ‘THIS is the colour,’ he said. ‘The whole point of rooms is to make people look prettier! Green makes people look ill. Gilbert & George want to look ill!’ Then he looked around the shell of the room. ‘What you really want to do,’ he said, ‘Is close off this door and knock through THIS wall HERE,’ he rapped on it with his knuckles. ‘Otherwise you have no room,’ he frowned, ‘for a CONSOLE table.’
I distracted him by showing him our extant furniture.
‘Those library chairs are impossible,’ he said. ‘They look like Mars Bars. All shiny, all wrong. They should look like this.’ He stroked his soft worn leather bag, like something that was used to carry cartridges in the trenches. ‘You have a house in the country, they belong in the country,’ he decided.
‘What about the George Smith sofa?’ I asked. ‘Straight to Lots Road,’ he ordered. ‘Should have a straight back, to go against the wall!’
At this point I was starting to panic. I told him I’d interviewed Annabel Astor, doyenne of OKA, and she’d said that the rule was there were no rules. You could even have tartan south of the border!
‘There are some rules and not all are made to be broken,’ Nicky corrected Lady A. So here, for free, are just some of his rules.
When it comes to paint, the rule is two coats and a glaze. ‘If you just slap it on it looks like Horlicks.’ And the cornice does not belong to the walls at all. ‘A cornice has to be Dirty Grey.’
When it comes to floors, rush matting or sea-grass is always nice, and so is stone but never on an upper floor, as it’s nouveau to put stone upstairs. And carpet in a bathroom is cosy and ‘sexy too’.
When it comes to colour schemes, never try to match anything. ‘If anything, clash!’ Otherwise your house looks hotel-y.
When it comes to lighting, ‘LED lighting is vile’ and so is most overhead lighting apart from chandeliers sometimes.
When it comes to furniture, don’t be frightened of putting a large piece in a small room as it makes the space look bigger.
But it was Nicky’s next suggestion that really shocked me. He wanted me to marble-effect my fireplace and put down a cheap white Flokati rug in front of it, or even consider nylon carpet. ‘I love nylon carpet!’
So there you have it. What is common is nice, and what is nice is often common. Just fancy. I do hope that Nicky’s top tips will spare you months of domestic agony in Deco Hell and always remember: a mirror makes a room sparkle!