My father lay in an open coffin. He looked magnificent. Not a hair out of place, dressed in a David Hicks tie, his eyes peacefully closed. My mother had tucked his obituaries into his coat pocket. “He’ll want to read those on his way,” she said. ‘The Prince of Taste,’ ‘Arbiter of Design,’ ‘The Elder Statesman of Style’ headlines rang out announcing his death at just 69 years old.
My father certainly was one of the major figures in post-war English design and whose ideas would leave their mark on the world for many years to come.
He was famous for his own distinctive look, unusual use of outrageous colors, bold carpets, mixing old with new. His creations tended to be on a grand scale, a villa above Monte Carlo for Robert de Balkany, Baroness van Zuylen’s house in Normandy, an Athens penthouse, the original nightclub aboard the QE2, a private suite for the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Place, a yacht for the King of Saudi Arabia, and the home of Vidal Sassoon.
He believed all design required intense enthusiasm, style and understanding, and my father’s spirit and awareness for design never stopped, not even for lunch. He complained that Sunday lunch had no style to it at all. “I like inventive cooking.”
He paid great attention to lighting, and thought not so much in terms of color, but in terms of color schemes. He believed that the quality of furniture and objects in a room were less important than the manner in which they were put together. And he did not mind mixing styles from different periods, holding that good design always goes with good design.
He was never ever afraid to speak his mind. (“I hate satin, I hate wrought iron, I loathe color used on modern buildings. Red dogs are hideous.”) A room with too many small objects was considered restless, and bright blue swimming pools were vulgar (ours was painted black), daffodils were the wrong shade of yellow and trampled down as he ran them over in his Range Rover. Always rather surprising.
He was sharp, witty and irreverent, and what he brought to design was an impeccable eye, coupled with a dominating personality, and made full use of both in his dealings with his clients. And at his peak he oversaw a global empire of shops and franchises.
In later life he moved on to gardens. I remember a journalist telling me that the test of a good garden is seeing it in winter as it takes considerably more skill to make a garden look good in winter. The garden he created in Oxfordshire looked good at any time of year. He always began with the view from a principle room in the house, the dining room, the drawing room, an upstairs bedroom. “One’s main enjoyment of the garden will be from inside,” he said, “so get the vistas right, then you can embroider between them.”
One of his favorite inventions was a perambulating spire; from across the fields this looked like one of the grand monuments of Stowe. On closer inspection it was a makeshift plywood structure, strapped to an old shepherds cart so it could be shifted about the landscape to provide a focus at the end of a vista or obliterate the view of village roofs. Visiting guests often thought they were losing their minds, one day to the next it appeared as if the church spire had moved.
He was a traditionalist, with a wicked twist, instead of a predictable overcoat he wore a long black cape, with a scarlet lining that would float out behind him as he strode about, a blazer in bottle green instead of the more usual navy, and he would travel with flowers in bud, cut from his green house wrapped in plastic and taken with him on business trips to Tokyo or New York.
Perhaps not as obvious, was my father’s courage, his business collapsed and he simply retrenched and rebuilt, starting again from the beginning. And possibly requiring even more bravery was a physical condition that must have been torture for someone so formerly handsome, he suffered from a hormonal condition that caused his neck to swell. He faced this with a matter-of-factness, determined not to let it affect his life.
He designed absolutely everything around him, from the nose of a client to my mother’s hair-do. The only thing he did not design was his logo symbol, his H sign; it was designed by the son of a local farmer as a thank you for mentoring him. This logo went everywhere, writing paper, sheets, carpets, fabrics, notepads, umbrellas, biscuit tins, aprons. He then elaborated this geometric ‘H’ symbol into an entire alphabet, the letters of which became the wallpaper of my childhood.
The final thing my father designed was his funeral. Everything was arranged entirely according to his directions, which he had written down in a small notebook. The coffin, without handles, as those were far too common, made in grey-stained sycamore as directed and lined in one of his own fabrics, was carried by his gardeners and my brother, across the little moat of his Pavilion and laid to rest on an ivy covered trailer, behind his Range Rover. Hundreds of mourners followed behind as he was driven away for the last time, from his beloved home and the gardens he had conceived and created. Away from a life of inexhaustible ideas, which inspired generations of designers to come, including his daughter.