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Was it good for you, darling . . ?

Just as the media has what it calls a silly season in the summer, where nothing much of note happens (although sadly that’s not been the case this year), and papers carry stories such as the one I saw yesterday about a German who was refused entry into Dubai because he had 450 body piercings and a pair of cosmetic horns (really ??? ), not much happens from a manufacturing point of view in the world of interior design during the summer months. I have to say, this is a huge frustration to us designers who are still trying to produce things of beauty, only to be told “Sorry, the furniture factory is closed for 3 weeks”, or worse still that we can’t get any fabric, paper, lighting or even a packet of sweets from the Continent as the whole of Europe shuts down for the entire month of August !!!

Anyway, that being the case I decided that this month would be a good opportunity to get right back to basics and talk about good design. Now I realise that this is a huge and somewhat nebulous subject. It’s a bit like saying “I’ve had an idea, do you think it’s a good one?” What’s good to some will be abhorrent to others.

That having been said, there are a number of basic basics, ground rules if you like, that I’ve applied for the last thirty-odd years (some consciously, others sub-consciously), that you might find interesting, and hopefully useful.

Good design can be split into 2 categories; a well-designed product, and a well-designed room. Let’s look at product first. I believe a product is only good if it fulfils 2 criteria. Firstly and most obvious of course, it must look great. But for me that’s only half the story. For example, no matter how fabulous a piece of furniture looks, if it’s not comfortable to sit on it hasn’t fulfilled the other major criterion – that of functionality - and it simply isn’t good design. I remember some years ago having an argument with a London-based designer who was doing some work up here. For some reason, whilst the client had asked us to design most of the house, she had employed this otherwise lovely Irish lady (I’m not being racist by the way, the relevance of her nationality will become obvious in a moment. Besides which I’d be in huge trouble as my wife’s family are all Irish !!) to design her living room. It was an uber-modern room, with a wood floor, luscious rugs, beautifully simple curtains (which we were asked to make and fit) and plain walls - everything looked super. The crowning glory was the furniture, which consisted of 2 very low, sleek, grey leather-covered corner sofas with virtually no backs, which came from Milan. They were breathtakingly beautiful, but you would have been more comfortable sitting on the packing crates in which they were delivered !! When I pointed this out (me and my big mouth) she launched into a diatribe about how sofas like this were meant to be admired for their looks, and not their comfort. She actually said that Italian furniture was designed to be sat on for a maximum of half an hour, and culminated with “the trouble with you British is that you want to sit down for too long !!!” I rest my case – if not my backside.

There are many elements that make up a well-designed room, but for me the greatest of these is balance. To exaggerate the point, a room that consists of soft neutral shades for the walls and carpet, complimented by gentle sumptuously draped curtains won’t benefit from having a red and black sofa as its centrepiece. The same sofa however would look fabulous in a room with a steel grey carpet, white walls, black Roman blinds and bright red lamps. That’s all a bit simplistic of course, but hopefully you get my point.

It’s also about knowing what to risk where. By that I mean that you can be as strong as you like in say a dining room, as you won’t be in there often or long enough to get sick of it. In your own bedroom however, while you may still want the WOW factor, you’re probably not going to opt for a pink faux snakeskin bed, (mind you, if that does tickle your fancy I do happen to have the perfect fabric for you).

Whilst a well-designed room can most certainly bear fashion in mind, I believe it should not be totally fashion led, so much so as to be dateable. What looks absolutely cutting edge today may just turn out to be 2014’s design fad. It’s a rare client who has the budget to completely refurbish a whole room every 2 or 3 years. That having been said, current trends do tend to dictate what’s actually available in the market. For instance, whereas wallpaper borders were all the rage in the 90s, with almost every new paper collection offering co-ordinating borders left right and centre, a lady came into the showroom a year or so ago asking for a border and I couldn’t find her a single one.

Good design is not a “one size fits all” exercise. What works for one client in a particular location won’t necessarily work for another client, or even the same client in a different house. That’s why we designers like to visit your property as early in the process as possible. No matter how good your powers of description, there’s no substitute for actually standing in the room in question, taking in its aspect, gauging how much natural light you have, what stays and what goes etc. etc.

And finally, please please pleeeease, design for yourself. One of the most frustrating situations we come across is when after having spent hours with a client, and coming up with schemes that they absolutely love and we know will work beautifully in their home, we suggest they take the relevant pattern books home to place in the room, only for them to return a day or 2 later saying “No, my sister / mother / cousin’s uncle’s gibbon (delete as appropriate) didn’t like it.

Aaaargh !!!!!!

John Biddell, John Charles Interiors

Live 24 7 magazine editorial - September 2014