Design Times: October/November 1999
No Sugar Candy: An Interview with Lady Spencer-Churchill, Designer
By Louis Postel
“WE HAVE NOT JOURNEYED ACROSS THE CENTURIES, ACROSS THE OCEANS, ACROSS THE MOUNTAINS, ACROSS THE PRAIRIES BECAUSE WE ARE MADE OF SUGAR CANDY.”
– Winston S. Churchill, Speaking to the Canadian Parliament, Dec. 30, 1941. Henrietta Spencer-Churchill and I were in Chicago at the Decorex USA press office, and the noise was too much for an in-depth interview. “Does it bother you?” I asked. “No, not really,” she said, “The noise doesn’t bother me.”
Lady Henrietta remained cool and collected. Like her grandfather Sir Winston, she projects a self-assurance and determination that transcends borders. And now she has arrived here in broad-shouldered Chicago to take her design message to the world. The bustle in the Mart’s press office was not going to sour her. She was on the campaign trail. I imagined it would have been easier to chat in her London or Woodstock offices, or better yet, Blenheim Palace, where Lady Henrietta grew up.
Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and landscaped by Capability Brown, Blenheim is a decorator’s dream. Really, it would be hard to go wrong there. The architecture soars; even a Formica dinette set would look good. It’s a long, transatlantic trip from designing venerable English homes to tackling new luxury homes in the U.S.
Some of those featureless, 10,000-square foot “tract homes on steroids” have to be much bigger challenges than working with the historic gems of her native land. But Lady Henrietta seems ready. After all, architectural details are something she’d be happy to install, and let the snobs pound sand. From her Rizzoli books, Classic Meets Contemporary; Classic English Interiors; Classic Decorative Details; Classic Fabrics; and Classic Georgian Style, to her own TV show, fabric line, and new residential projects in the States, it’s evident Lady Henrietta has a lot to offer. Confident, glamorous, and to-the-point, she’s more interested in design with a capital “D” than promoting any particular tradition. She will be someone to follow as she journeys, in her grandfather’s phrase, “across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies.”
Henrietta Spencer-Churchill: I’ve always been excited about houses and space. Even as a child I was always very curious. I was very nosy when I went to people’s houses. I sort of wanted to know why things were laid out like they were. It’s a fascination. I’ve always loved art and architecture. When I left school, I didn’t go to the university, but I went to live in Italy and Paris for 18 months. I sort of did my grand tour, if you like – Florence and all around that area, Rome, Tuscany, and then Paris for nine months. I was learning languages and studying art and architecture. It was a very good grounding for me and gave me a lot of sound principles to work from. When I came back to England, I went to the Inchbald School of Design, which is one of our well-known design schools. It was a year’s course, which doesn’t sound long, but in fact, you can cram a lot into a year. And that really gave me background knowledge on the architectural side of design. I wanted to be an architect. At that time, it was frustrating to be an architect in England, because we don’t build a lot of new houses. And I would have wanted to work on residential projects, not commercial.
So, I thought, “Well, you know, the next best thing is interior design.” At that stage, we were still very much regarded as decorators. The phrase “interior designer” wasn’t really in existence, because there weren’t many people in England in that field who had formal training. All the great decorator, such as Sybil Colefax, David Mlinaric, and Nancy Lancaster, were good because they had inherent good taste. I worked for a designer for three years at a small firm. I did not want to work for one of the big firms, because I knew that I wouldn’t really learn a lot. I didn’t want to go to Colefax & Fowler. I wanted to go somewhere where I’d really be at the core. So I worked for Diana Hambrey, who had a good business based in London. After three years, I was only, what? Twenty-one? I thought, “Why not set up my own business?” I don’t think you realize at the time what hard work it is to run your own business. And it’s just grown gradually from there. It takes time. You have to work jolly hard. You go through some rough patches, and you come out of them wiser. You learn by your mistakes.
LP: Have you ever had a harrowing experience that made you wonder why you’re in this business?
HS: I’ve gone through times thinking, “I really want to change, I hate this.” See, every job is different. Sometimes it’s the clients who are harrowing and other times it’s the subcontractors who are harrowing, and sometimes it’s a combination of both. But you learn. I’m not somebody who gets fazed by anything.
If I have a drama, a situation, I deal with it. It doesn’t get to me; it doesn’t upset me. I just handle it. You’ve got to be like that in this profession because so many things go wrong. It could be simple, like delayed fabric deliveries, or major, like something structural that puts the whole project back. But you’ve just got to take it in your stride, be philosophical about it, and get on with it. At the end of the day, it’s a job. On one of the projects I’m working on, I’m probably dealing with over 300 subcontractors. For example, take a pair of curtains. To make up one pair of curtains, I’m probably using six different suppliers and subcontractors. You’ve got one for the fabric, another one for the contrast fabric, another one for the trimmings, another one for perhaps the poles, the finials, somebody else for the lining, somebody to make them, and somebody to hang them. So that’s seven people involved in making one pair of curtains. Now spread that across a whole house. Same applies to furniture. You might have one piece of furniture, the fabric, the contrast piping, the fringe, and somebody who makes it. So you have to coordinate all of this. It’s a lot of work. Clients don’t realize I spend a maximum of 10 percent of my time being creative and 90 percent being an administrator, just coordinating my staff, telling them what to do, and checking they’ve done it. It’s a nightmare, really. That’s the only disillusioning thing about this business; I feel frustrated that I’m not being creative enough.
HS: Yeah, it’s all that. Also, if you’re going to be good today and you’re going to survive in this business, you’ve got to be very efficient. And you’ve got to be a good administrator. That’s what I’m good at, planning, coordinating, and getting things done. But equally, I like to think I’m good at design. But I don’t feel I’m realizing my full potential as a designer half the time.
LP: How could you change things to do that?
HS: I think you’ve got to have a very, very efficient team in place behind you that knows the system, knows the ropes. I’ve got a pretty good team, but there’s always new people you have to check up on, and they don’t know the business like you know it. And perhaps they don’t have the same level of commitment as you do, because you’ve got to be 100 percent committed to it. Now, having diversified into doing books and television and fabrics, and doing a lot of travelling and lecturing and things, it makes it a much more amusing job. You don’t get so stale. If I was just decorating or designing, I think I would have moved on by now. Probably what I’ll do in the next few years is try and cut down on the design business. I find it very, very tiring; it’s a lot of work for not a lot of reward, as you say. I’d like to concentrate more on opening up my career in other areas. I’d like to do more television, I’d like to carry on with the books and lecturing, and maybe do more product design. I’ve done television in the U.K. I had a program called “Classical interiors,” which I did for Sky. I’m not doing that at the moment, but I do the odd program here and there. And I’m hoping to do some over in the U.S. I did a mini-series with HGTV called “The World’s Most Beautiful Homes.”
LP: What kind of design did you grow up with?
HS: I was brought up surrounded by Georgian and Baroque architecture. The house I lives in was Georgian, and Blenheim Palace was Baroque. I was surrounded by the grand scale, which in a sense was good, because it certainly taught me how to relate scale and proportion to other areas. It wasn’t something that I’ve been intimidated by. You grow up to appreciate details – architectural details, furniture, and paintings. That was something I didn’t really have to learn. It was just part of my upbringing. At Blenheim I always loved the great hall and the salon with all the painted ceilings, trompe l’oeils, and things.
LP: Was there important art there?
HS: I’ve always been more interested in furniture than art. I like art, but as a person, I prefer room colors to oils. I can really appreciate a good painting, but furniture gets to me more. But you can’t just take a piece of furniture and say, “I love that piece of furniture, I want to put it in this house,” because it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to relate the period of the furniture to the period of the house and the scale of the furniture to the size of the room. You don’t have to be tightly purist about it, because a lot of new houses can adopt a different style. It might be built in the Georgian style, but that doesn’t mean to say that every single piece of furniture has got to be pure Georgian. That’s totally unrealistic from a budget point of view. So you can be eclectic. Or you can buy modern pieces which will work with that style. But I’m not one for being totally eclectic in terms of having five different styles of rooms within one house. I don’t really like that. I don’t like it when you have to go from Georgian to Jacobean to Victorian to . . . I don’t think that works terribly well. As long as the design plays, then that’s fine.
HS: Well, we try to put them in. A lot of people often ask me what the difference is between American design and English design. Mainly what I find is that a lot of English houses have built-in-character, because they’re old and they’ve been passed down from generation to generation, and you don’t want to just get rid of that. A lot of American houses are new, so they don’t have the history or the character, whether it’s a patina that’s built up on the wooden floors or some other architectural feature. So you sometimes have to put those in, nice cornices, paneling, pediments over the doors, that sort of things. I think a lot of people just try to overcompensate with the decoration, so they mix too many patterns and styles together. It gets a bit flamboyant. I like to concentrate more on the architectural side and keep the decoration low-key. English design is very comfortable to live with. You go to a lot of these houses in the countryside in England, and they’re not decorated; they’re just lived in. You go in there, and you immediately feel it’s home. You can clearly plop down into any sofa or chair and relax. So it gives us this lovely feeling of character and being able to relax and feel invited. Often that’s just the sense of style the people have within them. I mean, they wouldn’t have employed a designer to do that. English people, even today, feel like it’s defeatist to employ a designer. They think they should be able to do it themselves. A lot of people move into a house and they don’t do anything, since the house has been handed down from their parents or something, so they don’t want to go in and throw out what’s there.
LP: Is it defeatist?
HS: I don’t think it’s defeatist, because I look at my role as a designer more a carrying out a professional service, rather than being very innovative in design. I don’t think designers today get employed to be flamboyant. They get employed to take the hassle out. It’s a service industry. We’re carrying out a huge job, dealing with all the subcontractors. We’re the middlemen just putting it all together. It’s like employing a tax accountant to fill out your tax returns.
LP: How do the U.S. and England differ on color?
HS: The Americans are bolder at using color than we are in England. But, again, because of our climate and the houses we live in, we’re probably more restricted and safer in our color use. We don’t want the decor to overshadow the buildings themselves. If you’ve got lovely furniture, you’ve got lovely paintings, you’ve got lovely architectural features, don’t detract from those. Everything else has to be subtle. But if it’s a new house, a new building, I always get quite bold in dining rooms with dark, stronger colors. Because it’s a room you only use at night, you can get away with it. But we’re not as adventurous as you.
LP: Where would you start with a beautiful 54th-floor condominium on Park Avenue with no architectural paradigm?
HS: It depends on what the clients want. They might want to keep it very minimalist. So, you buy furniture and things accordingly. But if they want to have it more traditional, then you put in some nice architectural features. In a sense, that’s easy because you can create what you like, there’s nothing there to dictate what to do. So in a situation like that, I would follow my client’s brief. And if there weren’t one, then I would do what I like. I’d like to do something more contemporary and minimalist. See, I always get asked to do traditional things, because those are what I have a reputation for. Sometimes that’s a bit aggravating. You think, oh, if somebody would just ask me to do something totally minimalist.
LP: How do you make minimalist comfortable?
HS: When I say minimalist, I think it’s not having lots of fussy clutter and having very simple lines and maybe lighter, cooler colors. It’s not lots of pattern; it’s using more textures and monotone schemes, simple curtain treatments, and those sorts of things. But I would still bring in the old nice piece of furniture and wood to balance it and give it some depth. LP: Your next book is about entertaining. Why?
HS: Just because entertaining is something that interests me and I think it’s always topical. And I wanted to move slightly into a different area. I mean how many books on decorating or design can you write? I’m quite keen to progress my career into different fields, not to just stay static. This is like a sort of stepping-stone. The book is not just about big parties. There’s entertaining in kitchens and there are picnics. It’s dinner parties, it’s breakfasts, it’s teas, it’s everything.
LP: Do you remember any parties that were as elegant as some of what’s in this book?
HS: Oh yes, lots of parties. Not mine in particular, but yes. In England there are still some wonderful traditional parties which you go to that are incredibly elegant.
LP: Do you ever do landscaping?
HS: A little bit. It’s something I’d love to do. I’m not very knowledgeable about plants, but I love planning the areas. So I do tend to get involved with the areas immediately outside the house, and perhaps selecting statues and planters and garden ornaments, that sort of thing. But when it comes to the horticultural side of it, I’m useless. LP: You don’t dig.
HS: No, but I like it. And funny enough, my family, particularly on my mother’s side, is full of brilliant gardeners. My grandparents had this house with the most beautiful garden that was open to the public. My uncle is chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Chelsea Flower Show, all of that. My mother’s a wonderful gardener. And my grandfather on my father’s side loved gardening. But it hasn’t hit me. In a word, it’s just that I don’t have the time. You need time to create a garden, and I will do that one day. But it’s not one of my priorities.
LP: A lot of designers here are really intent on bringing the outside in and the inside out. HS: I think that’s important. With terraces, conservatories, and those sort of areas we get very involved, but beyond that. . . . Well, I’d probably do it more if I had the time and the mentality for it. Because I’ve got enough to do, I say, right now, use the old boundaries as your limits. Don’t try and overstep them.