Let’s begin by talking about the apartment that gives the sale its name, and how your transformation of the property came about.
I had worked with the client before, but this time he decided to come and live more permanently in London, so the idea was to re-do it more substantially. We changed quite a lot of things; the whole bathroom, the cornices, skirtings - it had a semi-major overhaul. He is someone who travels a lot, so even though he was living in the apartment it was still a pied-à-terre; perfect for a character like him who was very busy. It was a flat that he could entertain in and also quite cosy and homely when he’d just come back from a big trip; a multi-functional space that worked in different ways. It was grand enough for nice dinner parties and yet comfortable for him to live in.
You have a very interesting background, and route to where you are now. Did you inherit your taste and flair from anybody in particular?
I was always more on the artistic side when I was little but I was good at science, mathematics and physics so my education was purely focussed on science. I did statistics and computer science at university. I was 16 when I came to London from Switzerland, and I couldn’t speak English. When I started my O levels, I had to do things that didn’t require written English which is why I ended up with qualifications in maths, computer science and statistics. I therefore had no option but to carry on with that at university. I went to university and after a week of doing statistics I knew it was the wrong subject for me, but in those days we were well behaved boys, and girls and we just got on with it!
And can you pinpoint your earliest memory of appreciating beautiful art and objects?
Once I graduated, I said to my parents I’ve got a place at LSE to do some unpronounceable subject but I don’t want to do it, I want to do something in the arts. They were the ones who suggested that I do the Sotheby’s works of art course, and somehow, I got in. At the end of it I was very lucky, I was offered a permanent job. In that sense, my life really started then; looking at paintings and works of art, all day long and thinking in a very visual way. I started working in the Islamic department and eventually became the youngest departmental director. I started with textiles and carpets, then I moved on to the objects.
They were the best years of my life. I didn’t need anything outside Sotheby’s, I had all my friends, everything there. It was a very exciting but intense experience, with lots of travel for months on end and producing international sales; we were a bunch of hyper young people in our 20s who used to do all the travelling because we spoke different languages. My parents only saw the hard work side of things, but we had so much fun.
What was it about that process that you liked most?
In those days, there was a room at the top of the stairs – as you came in from Bond Street, the first gallery on the right – and that was my room of vitrines. I used to lock that room for three days, nobody was allowed to come in and I used to display all of the objects against the textiles, getting it just right. Unusually, the art handlers and the porters were not involved in any way as they normally would be.
What made you decide to eventually strike out on your own, and how did you make the switch?
At the back of my mind which was slightly worrying was this idea that I could do whatever I wanted with the Sotheby’s name behind me, and I had this childish way of wanting to be able to say, I’ve done it on my own. I decided the best way to approach my business was to be a semi-interior designer, semi-antique dealer. The idea was to do up my flat, with everything in it for sale. So, when my first client came in and asked me: “How much is that table?” I thought: “I don’t want to sell that, I like it”. “How much is this bedside?” And I thought: “Well, I’m really attached to that so why would I want to sell it?” I soon realised I can’t do the dealing bit, I have to become a designer, and that’s how it started.
Was it an easy transition, then?
Nobody had trained me or told me, “do this, do that, don’t put a lamp there”, none of that. That’s why my familiarity of dealing with all the antique fabrics and textiles at Sotheby’s allowed my own style to naturally develop. I wasn’t conscious of it. It’s just that I had no fear of antique textiles because I’d looked at so many patterns and so many textiles together which a lot of decorators can’t do because they’re afraid of them. They’ve all been trained to become interior designers and not necessarily about the history behind the antiques. With me it was the opposite, I had no restrictions.
Your style has become incredibly distinct, so it’s almost come full circle. Would you say that you’re a rule breaker?
Not really. I like other people to break the rules, those who are on the edge of design, but personally I only use aspects of that. When you break rules, it’s hard to design timeless houses and rooms, because you have to keep breaking the rules. For me, my interest is in designing timeless rooms that will still work in 20, 30, 40 years’ time, which are not subject to fashion or trends or anything like that but they do take aspects of it. The rooms have got to be relevant, but relevance is not just about the look. The timeless room becomes timeless when you’ve thought about everything – the function of the room, how it’s going to be used, how the traffic works in a room.
"When I design a house the most important thing is that nobody has to change anything once it’s completed."
I think carefully about all the things which might seem obvious, but are often overlooked. For example, if you’ve got a grand dining room and there’s no storage for crockery and cutlery nearby, it doesn’t become timeless. That means you’ve got to go and build something. When I design a house the most important thing is that nobody has to change anything once it’s completed. Of course, they can tweak the fabrics here and there over the years, but it has already been thought through to work in harmony.
How do you ensure that something is beautiful and functional? Do you ever have to compromise?
Yes, on occasion you have to compromise because a lot of properties, particularly in London, have been bashed about. A lot of houses have been converted into flats, which they weren’t designed for and lots of developers have done very cheap jobs to convert them. So, you can get stuck quite often. As much as possible I try and bring back the original balance and harmony to these houses. For example restoring the original cornices, skirtings and raising the ceilings if I can.
Do you think that some of your mathematical and scientific origins comes into that?
Yes. I use it every day of my life, almost every minute, unconsciously now. It has given my head a methodical and logical way of working, and that’s absolutely essential for me. I’m very lucky to have been exposed to the two worlds, the mathematical world before, and now the artistic world and the seamless interplay between them.
"My whole philosophy is that when I design a house is that I tell my clients to think about the female line of their family, and the different people who collected or bought different things across generations."
How does travelling around the world contribute to your aesthetic vocabulary? Are there particular places that you turn to for inspiration?
Well that’s a very interesting question because I see myself as a traveller and a gatherer of different things from different parts of the world, who somehow puts them together. I’ve always done that, and I belong everywhere and nowhere. If I go to dinner in Paris, I just go, I don't think about it. If I have to be in Frankfurt, to have breakfast with somebody, I just go. I am adaptable and belong immediately to my environment wherever or whatever that might be. I’m very interested in different cultures, different histories and different looks I consider it just part of me – it’s like luggage that I bring with me.
Depending on who the client is I can switch in different directions to suit them. There is a basic vocabulary to my style, but it is done around the needs and desires of the client. A design scheme is exposing people to the world, and that can bring about insecurities. I’m more of a psychologist than an interior designer – I’ve got to calm people down and say everything’s going to be fine. Once I have their confidence, everything starts rolling in rhythm.
How do you know when a space is finished? Do you plan everything down to the very last detail before you start, or is there room for things to evolve as the project goes along?
Some jobs, especially ones outside of the UK, are designed meticulously, meaning down to the last ash tray, literally. But some jobs are not like that, they evolve over time and have a more organic lifespan. I quite like it because sometimes you haven’t quite found the right painting, so we just wait until we find it. It depends very much on the client and the location. Some clients prefer to be more hands-on than others and want to be involved in every work of art or painting that I buy.
What is your advice for collecting great objects that will live timelessly in a beautiful home?
My whole philosophy when I design a house, even if we’re starting from scratch, is that I always tell my clients to think about the female line of their family, and the different people who collected or bought different things across generations. If somebody says to me, “this is an 18th century house, do an 18th century interior” I say no – I’m not into making a museum. I’m there to create a home and a home consists of a look that has evolved over many generations.
For example, your great-great grandmother bought this piano, your great grandmother pulled this wall down and brought the chairs from upstairs to downstairs, your grandmother did something else and your mother changed something else. So perhaps there are things from the Regency period, then there are pieces of Victorian furniture and works of art because your great grandmother bought it, and then Edwardian things and then probably Art Deco things, all successfully mixed, which is how you make a home. I like that evolved look that is comprised of different styles and periods, but the whole thing goes together. This is obviously, within reason – you can’t put ridiculous things together!
When you go to a stately home that’s what we see; pieces from several different periods, and fabrics that don’t necessarily go together but the overall look works. And that’s my aim, and it makes my life a lot more difficult to achieve because we are trying to achieve this from scratch. I like that juxtaposition of very good things with ordinary things with semi-good things. That’s how you create a timeless home.