Masters & Muses
Interview by Jamie Sharp
Images from Simon Upton , James McDonald and David Oliver
Esteemed New Zealand-born UK-based decorator, Veere Grenney, is beloved for his timeless, classically elegant interiors and sophisticated, cohesive style. After decades at the top of design, Veere sits down with Cabana to reflect on his career journey thus far - from selling antiques to fund his first shop, to the homes he has curated around the world - and shares some of his greatest challenges, favorite fabrics and tips for harmonious living.
The most memorable trip I've taken:
I left New Zealand at the age of 21 and spent a great deal of time travelling from Singapore to London overland, which in the early 70s was a hippie trail and was the thing to do. I was very lucky, it was extraordinary. I travelled on trains and buses or hitchhiked and there was a camaraderie with all of the people you met when travelling. The world then was rural and very different to how it is now, it was an incredibly profound and important trip in my life. We were from a generation which didn't really have a trajectory. I had no idea how you got into interior decorating, a business where you service the lives of the very rich, but it's all I wanted to do, and experiences such as this shaped my understanding of beauty and were so formative in helping me achieve what I have.
The best party I've ever been to:
There are two types of good parties, either they are in the gutter or they are very grand - neither of which can be mentioned, but I’m sure the reader can imagine.
A moment that defined or changed my career:
In 1973 I spent nine months living in Morocco where I had always wanted to go. In my hippie life I was living in hostels and hitchhiking. I met an Englishman on the beach: a director at Colefax and Fowler, called Nicky Raymond. He was an avant-garde modernist decorator and had been employed to give Colefax a modern arm. He lived with his boyfriend, a man named Richard Tinewell, in one of Tangier’s most beautiful houses, Villa Leon L’African a Tanger, which was owned by Pierre Berge for a while. They asked me for dinner, and I was thrilled to find an English country house with marvellous pictures and layered rugs. I thought how wonderful it would be to live in this heat like an Englishman abroad, with such a free life. To live in an eccentric way abroad was everything I thought was totally on point and this really informed my work going forwards.
The greatest challenge I've overcome:
When I then came back from Morocco, I knew I wanted to do antiques or decoration, but my challenge was: how do you get into the world of decoration and dealing antiques? I was living in a squat in Kensington, so I got a job in the restaurant, Julie’s, to earn money to buy furniture, which I sold in a stall on portobello, then opened a shop on Westbourne Grove. The challenge was to achieve the life I wanted. By 30, I got my first real job with Mary Fox Linton, which was the point when I could say, ‘I am working in this world’.
I would describe my childhood as:
It was completely suburban! New Zealand in the 50s and 60s was like Surrey in the South Pacific: an easy and lovely place to live, a very Enid Blyton type of childhood. My mother was an early inspiration, she was wonderful at flowers, wonderful at decoration, social, a great hostess, very funny; I took on a lot of qualities from her. My brothers and sisters are all talented, one sister is a professional painter, the other is a landscape gardener, and my brother is very talented architecturally, so we all grew up with a want to find beauty. My parents were very liberal, I suppose that if you're lucky enough to be brought up in a free way, in that freedom you can express yourself.
An object I'll never part with:
I've always had beautiful things but I never minded parting with them. However, a wonderful vase I bought in 1980 from the Cecil Beaton sale would be very hard to part with; it's a marvellous Persian vase and is in all of the Cecil Beaton books.
The artwork I love the most:
Because of Tangier, I'm into orientalist pictures, as well as pictures of Tangier, so I'm very interested in Lavery and James McBey. Among all the artworks I own, the one that's most important to me was sold to me by Christopher Gibbs. Christopher was a good friend, and he wanted this painting to remain in Tangier. It is an enormous view of Tangier painted in 1680 by Van Hook and commissioned by Catherine of Braganza. The Portuguese owned Tangier and she took it to England to give to Charles II to say that if you marry me, this is what you'll get.
My favorite antiques fair or flea market:
The Battersea antiques fair, and the flea market in Paris where I’m going tomorrow. There's always something I find, invariably I then have to repaint, re-guild, re-frame.
My next weekend-away destination:
My country house, The Temple, a little Palladian villa built by Sir Robert Tailor in 1735 on a quarter mile of formal water. In two years, I will have been there 40 years, and almost every weekend in those 40 years I've spent at The Temple. It's so important to me to balance my busy urban professional life with quiet downtime with myself or with friends. As a house it's grand, but also small, and I have very laid back, relaxed weekends there.
The best gift I've ever received:
My divine lurcher dog, Rio.
I feel most confident when wearing:
A Richard James suit; I've bought my suits there from the day he opened. He cuts the suits wonderfully and they make you look tall and thin, which is what everyone wants!
I have worn Polo Safari since 1985 and there's not a week in my life where someone doesnt compliment it... [Am I a creature of habit?] If it's not broken, don't fix it. I hate shopping so once I land on something good, I stick with it.
My go-to recipe:
Cod with vine tomatoes, capers and lemon. I often do it in the country; it takes no time to prepare and is absolutely delicious.
My all-time favorite fabric:
Fortuny Tapa in bitter chocolate brown. I've used it in almost every house I've ever lived in. It reminds me of Maori Tapa cloth from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, and my childhood in New Zealand. Anything chocolate brown looks wonderful in a room, you have to have some dark brown in a room.
My ideal interiors in three words:
(David) Hicks. (Nancy) Lancaster. (Billy) Baldwin.
Distasteful interiors in three words:
Extravagance. Extravagance. Extravagance.
The person I call for good advice:
I always call my oldest friend, Johnny Rosza. He was a very famous photographer in London and New York. We met in 1973, and since 1987 we have been the closest of friends. We're completely different in every way: I loathe how he dresses; he's a Jewish Buddhist; I'm a Christian Sufi. Everything he loves I hate, and vice versa, but we’re the closest of friends. We spend every holiday together.
The person I call for a good time:
I can’t disclose.
My dream dinner party companion:
Well, I don't want to say, because they might not want to be sitting next to me. I only want to be in the company of people that want to know me too.
An exhibition that took my breath away:
After being so dismissive of great Victorian artists for so many years, such as Lear or Lord Leighton, I have changed the way I view them. I considered such work to be slightly 'chocolate box' art, but now I adore it; it's camper than anything I've ever seen! De Kooning and Freud are on everybody’s list.
A contemporary artist or designer whose work excites me:
Just one more thing...