Rose Uniacke is one of London’s leading interior designers, but she does much more than create stately, minimal rooms. Uniacke’s business is based in Chelsea, where she runs her studio and her eponymous shop from a double-aspect showroom in the Pimlico Road design district. The latter is stocked with both carefully chosen antiques and 20th-century furniture, as well as Uniacke’s own lines of furniture and lighting. These three activities – designing interiors, selling antiques and producing her own collections – complement one another perfectly, not least because she believes so strongly in curating spaces that combine the old and the new with effortless refinement.
Uniacke originally trained as a furniture restorer, gilder and specialist in paint and lacquer. In 1994, after moving to France, she began buying pieces and sending them back to her mother, the well-respected antiques dealer Hilary Batstone, for her Pimlico shop. Interiors were a natural progression for Uniacke, as clients increasingly asked for her advice on how best to display their purchases. Today, from her Pimlico Gallery and design studio, she oversees a team of 20 and is developing residential and commercial projects around the world, most recently in the south of France and San Francisco.
No two Rose Uniacke interiors look the same. The idea of rolling out a signature style is anathema to her. Guided by a historical sensibility, she instead takes a painterly approach to these serene and harmonious spaces that are relevant to the client and the architecture. “I have a visual sense of what I am trying to achieve, but it is never formulaic,” she says. “I don’t like spaces to be too perfect – an element of the unfinished or the casual is a reminder that we are human.”
ROSE UNIACKE. PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM MANNION.
What comes first when you are designing – the interior or the art?
It depends on the client’s situation. It may be that someone wants me to design a space around their collection. That is interesting because art in itself sets a mood, so it may suggest a path forward that is well defined. If I don’t need to take art into consideration, I begin by conceptualising the whole situation – the bones of the room – and then try to establish a context that is going to feel logical, comfortable and welcoming. Art becomes a part of that context.
Do you know from the first moment exactly how the art will be installed?
No. Part of the fun of design is that it is an organic process. Even if you visualise something beforehand, you can’t always anticipate how the volume of a space will be affected when you come to hang a painting on the wall. It may alter the balance of the room’s composition, so that you realise you need something else of weight or strength to counteract that effect. It is all about creating a sense of harmony. A small object might have a power equal to that of a huge canvas. But it is not essential to have art in a room – if you are trying to express something simple, it may be best to leave the walls unadorned. The absence of art can be interesting and is certainly restful.
How important is it to install the correct lighting?
Not nearly as important as most people think. I am not pro the “home as gallery” approach. I don’t believe that art should necessarily be highlighted – and when I do use light, it is never in the perfect way that a gallery would. I am trying to achieve something much more casual. Often I will hang pieces low to bring them to eye level.
Do clients ask you to buy art on their behalf?
Yes, it often happens, but it is not a question of saying, “The room is finished – let’s add some art.” Everything must feel integrated and speak with one voice. For me, the furniture and the art must feel as comfortable as the people. Any art I buy for a client, therefore, must have relevance – I am not looking to shock with art, but to use it as part of the palette when it comes to balancing a space.
INSIDE A GRAND PRIVATE HOME, KNOWN AS PIMLICO HOUSE, WITH INTERIORS DESIGNED BY UNIACKE. © ROSE UNIACKE ART.
How easy is it to work with a client’s existing art collection?
It is absolutely wonderful to work with art from different periods, because the mood it conveys can be so different. Currently, I am designing a Georgian house in Richmond around a major collection of African contemporary art. Instead of feeling like a gallery, the house is comfortable and integrated. Working with Old Masters or antiquities presents a different challenge.
What do you collect yourself?
In my own home, I have collections of contemporary art, photographs and furniture from all periods. We have recently bought a few pieces of Roman glass, a fabulous Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann bookcase and a work by Sigmar Polke. I don’t like to be rigid about how art is defined. Personally, I think a piece of design is as valid in an artistic way as a painting. I love objects and furniture – they can be incredibly powerful and do the same job as sculpture or art.
How would you describe your own style of design?
An interior is like a canvas. You might just have a simple table and chair and a glamorous light – and that may be all you need. To me, a space should have a soul and a voice. I am also a firm believer in function: it’s boring if you have to worry where to put your glass down. Life is complicated enough without that.
Helen Chislett writes regularly on design and decoration for international publications, including the FT’s How to Spend It magazine, and 1stdibs.