For those who wish to see the very best of English design, David Hicks’ incomparable interiors are an excellent place to start, writes design consultant, critic and Editor-in-Chief of The London List, Benjamin Weaver.
David Hicks, born in 1929, was one of the few English decorators to sway the indigenous upper classes from their predilection for the Masterpiece Theatre school of design. While American designers, such as Frances Elkins and Billy Baldwin - and more recently, Stephen Sills and Billy Cotton - have consistently reinterpreted and revitalised traditional interiors, making them relevant to the era and epoch in which they live, in the UK - pre, and even post, Hicks - there has been a paucity of such originality, with an over-reliance on period pastiche.
The charismatic, possibly over-indulged, only son of a stockbroker, Hicks started his career, “painting cornflakes packets”, as he would later recall, in the art department of advertising agency, J Walter Thompson. Then, in 1954, a glowing article appeared in House & Garden magazine on the eye-popping makeover that Hicks, then in his 20s, had wrought on his mother’s Belgravia townhouse. There was almost overnight a whirlwind of excitement, whereupon the glittering beau monde of London high society — such as Mrs Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Mrs Rex Benson, ex-wife of publishing magnate, Condé Nast — began beating a path to the young designer's door.
“I’ve had Syrie Maugham and John Fowler; I want something new,” Benson told him in no uncertain terms. It was a request ideally suited to Hicks’ bold, graphic schemes, which, in large part, could be attributed to his quite reasonable aversion to what he called, “the mauve socks and suede shoes image” of the English decorator.
Handsome, charming and debonair, Hicks caught the eye of Lady Pamela Mountbatten, the younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India and a great-grandson of Queen Victoria. Upon their marriage in 1960, Hicks found his newfound celebrity, and ego, immeasurably enhanced. Of course, this went far beyond royal connections. To borrow a somewhat hackneyed phrase: behind every good man, there stands a great woman - and, as Lady Pamela would later recall, Hicks' signature high-gloss brown walls entered his decorative repertoire as a result of her hurling glasses of Coca-Cola at him during moments of marital discord.
Hicks’ vibrant, color-saturated interiors became the acme of jet-set chic, and very soon Sultans, Kings, and even rock stars were queuing in their droves for his unique, somewhat idiosyncratic brand of savoir-faire. Even high priestess of refined WASP style, Jackie Kennedy, told Hicks that the only way she made it through her first night at the White House - which she referred to as “that morgue” - was by begging a pair of his bedside tables from her sister, the effortlessly elegant Lee Radziwill, to brighten up the otherwise oppressive presidential abode.
In a similar vein to architect and decorator Isabelle Hebey, or French fashion designer Roger Vivier, Hicks championed eclecticism. One must remember this was, at the time, a relatively new, still shocking approach, combining such polarising elements as Chippendale and Louis XV furniture with chrome accents and abstract artwork, which, more often than not, looked at its best within a rigorous envelope of Georgian architecture. Never afraid to set the cat among the pigeons, for the Knightsbridge apartment of collector, philanthropist and cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, Hicks designed a somewhat unusual sitting room,rniture, painted white and upholstered in magenta leather.