Nicky Haslam is never too far away from the gossip-columns due to his numerous social engagements, but it’s his day job as one of Britain’s top interior designers for which he has earned his well-deserved reputation. In addition to his interior design and packed social calendar, Haslam is also a journalist, author, photographer, gardener and more recently, a singer. He has also thrown open the doors of The Hunting Lodge, his beautiful home in Hampshire, and made it the subject of his latest book, Folly De Grandeur. This is his third title following Redeeming Features and Sheer Opulence, and after a long career, Haslam shows absolutely no sign of slowing down, let alone stopping. “I never get bored – I’m so lucky that what I do is 24 hours a day,” he says.
It’s clear he’s still very much young at heart. “I worship Topman,” the UK fashion store – not exactly what I was expecting to hear! “The one thing the British have is street style, which nobody else is any good at,” he elaborates. But Haslam is quite a fan of the eclectic. “It seems everybody wants to do the same things and they have the same aspirations, and I find it frightening,” he says. “People should surely want a bit of oomph and a bit more luxury and individualism, and not just rooms by the yard, which so many decorators do,” he says, seamlessly moving the conversation back to the reason I’m here.
I’m keen to learn more about Haslam’s own style – he’s been at The Hunting Lodge for forty years. Owned originally by John Fowler, of Colefax & Fowler fame, Haslam has retained some of Fowler’s own decor. “I’ve changed bits and moved things around, but I won’t change the walls. I’ve rather studiously kept the walls as Fowler did them, because he got them very right.”
It would seem that Fowler was something of an influence on Haslam. “He pulled England out of war-time with his decoration. There was a tremendous strictness about the decoration, even in very grand houses, until Fowler put a lot of fringe on the curtains and made them touch the floor and put sashes on them,” he says. “I like colours that are completely opposite to each other. I don’t think that just painting it white is always right – unless you want to sell your house!”
In his early years, Haslam was also influenced by his time spent living in Arizona. Upon returning to England, “my first interiors were very American-based – I didn’t do ditzy English interiors,” he explains.
Haslam has moved on since then, and has accordingly changed how he thinks about interiors. “I think the whole point of a home is to stamp it with your personality,” he reveals. “I do get people’s personalities quite quickly – I’m quite good at that, so I understand what people want almost from the word go. I’ve got this theory that houses have a sort of voice that tells you slightly what to do – you’ve got to listen to the walls and listen to the person too, a subtle combination between their dream and the house’s reality.”
Another important influence on Haslam was his mother, Diana Posonby. “I went to a Dior party for dinner last night,” he says. “I said, ‘I bet I’m the only person in this room, out of all these hundreds of people, that actually saw the new collection the first time – my mother took me aged eight in Paris in 1947. All the people at Dior simply couldn’t believe it – they’d never met anyone who actually saw it the first time! But my mother liked good clothes and she had a great style.” Haslam speaks very fondly of her, and it’s her portrait that he would save if he had to leave his house in a hurry. “My mother was interested in music and dancing,” he says, perhaps revealing where his love of singing comes from. “She really was a character! She loved having people around. She was a ‘get up and go’ person.” Interestingly, Haslam doesn’t credit his interior design aspiration to her, however, because “my father was more influential in the design of the house,” he says, referring to the former family home of Great Hundridge Manor where he grew up.
Hundridge has since passed hands. “It’s owned by Charles Mullins and he’s bought back quite a lot of land – more than my father had – and he’s trying to put the house sort of back to how we had it.” One wanders whether he’s referring to opulence as opposed to ostentation. “I’m rather anti valuable things,” he confesses. “I like things that resonate, with a story – I love that. I like connections.” An avid collector, Haslam continues to add to his house to this day. “I still collects things now,” he says cheerfully. “A chair just arrived that I bought the other day, a nice, Gothic chair. But I’ve just got a new flat in London, so I’m on the buy!” Speaking of which, in case you were wondering where Haslam likes to get his furniture from, “Lillie Road is wonderful.” What Haslam doesn’t reveal is whether his newly-purchased chair is from here, or from his new range for Oka. “We’ve done a couple of lines of Gothic furniture for Oka for September,” he tells me. “It’s incredibly British.”
Since we’re on the subject of British, I take the opportunity to ask him about his connections to the Royal family. “The Queen, when she was young, looked ravishing, and her sister, of course,” he says. “But I think the Queen was actually better looking than her sister. She has terrific style. She just knows. But the trouble with the Royal Family, of course, is that they can’t wear black – they’re not allowed to. They have to wear bright colours, and I think that’s given the Queen her style, which I think is terrific.”
Haslam was also friends with the late Princess Diana, so I’m keen to know what he makes of Kate Middleton’s looks. “I think she’s rather wonderful. She’s got such lovely limbs. She’s very graceful. She is not totally aware of her beauty, I don’t think.”
I’m curious to know Haslam’s idea of beauty. “It suddenly occurred to me that there is nothing more important in the world than female beauty,” he says. “It’s what really matters. I think female beauty, from Helen of Troy onwards, it’s been this sort of thing that has kept the world going, in a way.” So, who does he think is beautiful – Audrey Hepburn, perhaps? “She was wonderful, but I don’t think she was beautiful. But I loved her. The few times I met her, she was adorable. She had a terrific sense of style, but of course, Givenchy helped a lot there.” Who else then? “Lena Horne was one of the most beautiful people I’d ever seen. Unbelievable. Diana Cooper was amazing-looking, but she didn’t know it. She always wanted to be dark and didn’t want to have blue eyes and wanted to be quite different.”
In addition to mixing with the royal, rich and famous, Haslam has also designed interiors for them, and examples of his best work read like a who’s who. His favourite projects have been “largely when I bond with the client and everything goes perfectly. Ringo Starr, that was a wonderful job, and they were terrific. We couldn’t photograph it because he’s very, very private, but it was a fantastic job.” I can’t help asking if Haslam has ever sung with him. He laughs. “No, but I sent him a piece I did the other day, so maybe after that, he’ll sing with me!”
It’s another unfulfilled ambition, of which Haslam still has several. “I’d love to decorate for films. But that’s very specialised, and you have to know about lighting, and what works and what doesn’t. But I’d love to do that. I’d love to have been the set decorator for Liza Minnelli,” he muses, before suddenly showing me a picture of Clark Gable. “Look at these trousers – I’m having them made,” he says, before getting back to the topic at hand. “I’d like to be a film star, I suppose.” With Clark Gable’s trousers, it’s surely only a matter of time….
Nicky Haslam’s Folly de Grandeur: Romance and Revival in An English Country House by Nicky Haslam and photography by Simon Upton is published in the UK by Jacqui Small, £40 (book jacket above), and in the USA by Rizzoli, $50 (book jacket below).