Words by Benjamin Weaver
Images from David Hicks in Colour
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.
“I never sit in a chair, choose a fabric, admire or criticise my family’s clothes, without being intensely aware of what I'm looking at,” opined Hicks. “Dedication to design means ruthless criticism and losing friends.” Despite such strong, unyielding views, and a temperament that reputedly veered between disarming charm and apoplectic rage, David Hicks was adored by friends, family and clients alike.
As a designer, Hicks revolutionised “country house style”, eschewing safe, staid, good taste and in its place introducing a cacophony of clashing colors and geometrically patterned carpets (which even infiltrated mainstream pop culture, with a scaled-up version of his hallmark hexagonal carpet design paving the corridors of Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel in the 1980 film, The Shining). Hicks also coined the now-ubiquitous term, “tablescapes”, in reference to his signature over-size objects arranged in small spaces, and highly curated compositions of curios and artworks in the vein of famed collector and patron of the arts, Marie-Laure de Noailles.
“He killed every flower in his soul,” quipped Min Hogg, founding editor of The World of Interiors magazine, in reference to the designer's well-documented antipathy towards chintz. “His was a rigorous, very tailored look. So much of it was about control. There wasn't a wrinkle or crease anywhere,” Hogg divulged.
"My greatest contribution…has been to show people how to use bold colour mixtures, how to use patterned carpets, how to light rooms and how to mix old with new.”
Hicks was prolific, dominating the international design scene in the 60s and 70s. This was in part due to his forthright character, whereby, if he found something ugly he would offer to redesign it himself; whether that be houses, hotels, restaurants, a yacht for King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, a nightclub on the QE2 — grey flannel walls edged in silver — or even, once, a hairstyle. Despite Hicks’ hatred of bland, uninspired design, underpinning his work was an inherent understanding of scale and proportion, as well as a predilection for symmetry and strong architectural elements, which served as a counterpoint to the more outré elements of his designs.
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, where purple tweed walls served as a backdrop to a collection of Victorian furniture, painted white and upholstered in magenta leather.
To refer to Hicks only as an interior designer is, perhaps, to do him an enormous disservice. For in his later years it was architecture that most interested him. Following on from the success of one of his favorite projects, the Palladian-style Vila Verde, on the Portuguese coast — for which he chose the site, designed the architecture, garden furniture, and even the doorknobs — he turned his attention to the landscape architecture of his own Oxfordshire home, The Grove, whose geometrically precise gardens became the subject of numerous articles.
Even to the end, he was a stickler for detail, planning his own funeral, designing the coffin (to be filled with his obituary notices), as well as the sort of hearse to be used (an ivy-festooned trailer attached to his Range Rover), designating the dress code and even going so far as to edict which Royals should receive an invite.
In his modestly titled treatise, David Hicks on Living with Taste (1968), he wrote: “My greatest contribution … has been to show people how to use bold colour mixtures, how to use patterned carpets, how to light rooms and how to mix old with new.” Hicks’ decorating schemes were pure theatre; bold, masculine, with no chintz and, in perhaps the greatest break with tradition, no hint of Fowler about them, having wholeheartedly rejected the English penchant for treating stately houses as mausoleums of safe, uninspired good taste.
David Hicks in Colour, the first title from Cabana publishing, couldn’t come at a better time. It will, hopefully, serve as inspiration for a bevy of set-in-their-ways decorators, still desperately clinging on to the dark ages of unimaginative country house style. For those who wish to see the very best of English design, David Hicks’ incomparable interiors are an excellent place to start. Ben Weaver, Editor-in-Chief, The London List.
David Hicks in Colour is available on the Cabana Bookshop. Order your copy here.
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