STYLE FOR THE AGES
His career has spanned decades, but British interior designer Nicky Haslam's eye is as fresh as ever. As Odessa Paloma Parker learns, his unending enthusiasm for life is as much to credit as his impressive social standing
"It was all by mistake," Nicky Haslam says with a laugh as we speak by phone in mid December. He's describing how he, interior designer to a host of celebrities and aristocrats, entered into the industry in the 1970s with no formal training but a wealth of life experience. Escaping the bustle of New York – where he arrived in 1961 with photographer David Bailey, and worked under Diana Vreeland at Vogue – Haslam settled at a ranch outside of Phoenix. Despite appearing in a Warhol film and moving in the glamorous inner circle of Manhattan society, Haslam wanted to be a cowboy.
The decorating Haslam did within the Arizona property attracted many admirers and he had already garnered praise for his decorating prowess back in the Big Apple. Bolstered by a burgeoning reputation, Haslam returned to London in 1972 to decorate a townhouse for Lord Hesketh. "I grew up among the right proportions and colours," Haslam notes about his natural ability to design decadent but liveable spaces, one that was celebrated with an Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of the Year award in 2016. "And when I say right, I mean attractive."
Indeed, Haslam's entire biography reads as a lifelong pursuit of beauty and pleasure, and to be awarded with what's referred to as the Oscars of Interior Design is fitting. With a social circle that's garnered him coverage in both gossip columns and Vanity Fair – and an equally distinctive client list – it's regrettable that Haslam's accomplishments and the passion behind them are often eclipsed by his jet-setting exploits. But as Martin Waller, founder of the Andrew Martin Awards notes, it's a charmed life that has afforded Haslam the opportunity to explore his boundless creative instinct. "Nicky has known everyone from Tallulah Bankhead to Andy Warhol, from Mick Jagger to Siegfried Sassoon," he says. "He has spent his life amongst talented and brilliant people. Inevitably it has produced a multi-faceted, multi-layered cultural hinterland that has influenced his work."
Haslam's interiors can be found around the world, from Barbados to Russia, each revealing an eye focused on fusing whimsy and elegance. A Mayfair townhouse project boasts a dining room brimming with mismatched floral motifs, while a home in New Orleans features a dining table within a library, the room's chandelier dangling from a ceiling painted with a cloudy blue sky. "I suppose he is really a rebel," says Colette van den Thillart, an interior designer who acted as creative director of NH Design for 13 years, and now collaborates with the brand from her base in Toronto on projects including furniture and fabric design. "[He's] a freedom fighter of the aesthetic spirit, and of the decorative mind." She remembers her first meeting with Haslam at his country house in Hampshire, England. He was wearing track pants, a white T-shirt and denim jacket, "and yet he was wrapped in this agonizingly romantic interior," van den Thillart recalls. "I really just thought he was the coolest, maddest thing I'd ever laid eyes on."
A knack for first impressions has suited Haslam well. Alexandra Shulman, British Vogue's editor in chief, met him for the first time when she was a teenager, at a party thrown by Lady Antonia Fraser in London. "He was immensely friendly, immediately, and even though he was some years older than me, he took the time to make friends with me," Shulman says. The two have remained in the same professional circuit throughout their careers, and Haslam was present at the fete for the publication's 100th anniversary last May. "I think the way that he communicates with people is a factor that's stood him in good stead," Shulman says. "The fact that he's interested in people, and interested in the new, he's interested in the young – it's reflected in his popularity."
Indeed, Haslam continues to seek out the unique within the design landscape, and says that he's intrigued by "the sciences coming into decoration" via new products with metallic and transparent features. His unwavering commitment to creating novel spaces, though, means he's hesitant to credit social media's contribution to the decor landscape. Speaking of social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest, he says that they produce a desire among users to "want things to look like a hotel, or like their friends', or like the last restaurant they've been to." He sums up the results in one word: bland. And Haslam's quick to call out the difference between most social media users and his own clientele. "It's for the young and the aspiring, not the tried-and-true people of taste," he says.
So, what can the aspiring masses learn from Haslam instead of scrolling through a feed of photos? Described by Shulman as "omnipresent" and by Waller as "the essence of taste, erudition and sophistication but with a wit and playfulness," perhaps van den Thillart sums up his charismatic contribution to his accidental profession best: "He really knows how to suck the marrow out of every facet of life, and that hunger spills over into the work."
Nicky Haslam will speak with Odessa Paloma Parker during the Interior Design Show's Globe Style Saturday on Jan. 21 at 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.interiordesignshow.com.