FOR EVERY DOROTHY DRAPER OR JOHN STEFANIDIS, THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF UNTUTORED AMATEURS WHO’VE CAUGHT THE INTERIOR-DESIGN ‘BUG’ AND SET UP IN BUSINESS. BEWARE CHARLATANS BEARING PAINT CHARTS, ADVISES ALISTAIR McALPINE.
The 20th century has seen interior decoration flower as a profession and produce its own bona-fide stars, from Nancy Lancaster to Tony Duquette. The past had its important practitioners too, but often they laboured in relative anonymity. In England, country gentlemen equipped with a pocket volume of Palladio or a useful pattern book worked on the look of their estates alongside practical men who understood the parameters of the use of stone, timber and gilding. These builders and craftsmen knew how to erect a sound structure while respecting their patrons’ search for fantasy and classical beauty. Many examples of this work survive today and are much admired.
To record all the decorators who joined the profession in the 20th century would take up as many pages as the Encyclopedia Britannica. But for every educated and talented decorator who worked during this period, there are a thousand amateurs who aspired to the trade. Most were inspired by personal experience, having treated their own house like a Christmas tree, adorning it with their own collections. (This works if your collections are worthy of display, and it can even work, as an expression of identity, if the stuff is dross – but that’s a hard trick to pull off.) However, there is a vast difference between harmoniously arranging your own possessions and doing the same for a stranger.
Many decorators with minimal skill embark on changing the shape of a client’s house while employing builders as untutored as they are. After walls are demolished and beams left unsupported, homes face a real danger of collapse. The true interior decorator is highly trained, often an architect with an understanding of the principles of construction. To list such people and to enthuse about their ability would take only a short volume; great names are inevitably few and far between. They tend to be innovators, too. You may prefer John Fowler’s crisp romantic style to the flamboyant modern baroque of Dorothy Draper. If the subtle minimalist of John Pawson leaves you cold, you may gravitate to the rich layers of John Stefanidis’ Patmos retreat. But at least we can agree that these practitioners all have a unique signature. All are (or were) knowledgeable too, which is critical – but knowledge alone is not enough; talent alone is not enough; a great decorator has an extra touch of magic; not only understanding how a building can be transformed, but how it can be made to stand out from other similar buildings.
Some people believe that the mark of a truly great decorator is that he or she makes your heart race with joy. A racing heart is not a comfortable condition, however, and in fact much decoration has the more modest job of creating an efficient environment to live and work in; a home is not a work of art, and an office has to function. Indeed, the real point of decorating is not to astound but to create a harmonious atmosphere that humans enjoy, without their really knowing why.