Having started his life working on projects for the likes of Mike Jagger and Eric Clapton, it is little wonder that Hugh Leslie’s interior design schemes are a luxurious blend of character and style
Words by: Jacky Parker
‘We don’t have a have a fixed house style,’ says interior decorator, Hugh Leslie. ‘It varies depending on the project.’ That said – the designer who came to London from his native New Zealand 27 years ago – is admired for his bold use of colour. ‘I love abstract art and artists such as Patrick Heron and Roger Hilton and their expressive use of form and colour, which is unexpected. So I love to use different fabrics and to incorporate different styles and periods, but what we do depends on the client and how they want to live as well as the property they live in,’ says Leslie. ‘We do comfort ¬– schemes that are both physically and visually comfortable – and that work.’
Arriving in London in the late 80s on a working holiday, after completing a diploma in Interior Design, Leslie landed a job at the esteemed interior design company, Colefax and Fowler, where he was fascinated by the antiques and decorative arts he discovered. ‘I loved wandering around the showroom and their antiques department at lunchtimes,’ he says. ‘Growing up in New Zealand we didn’t have those references, so it was wonderful to see so many different aesthetics, from the elegant lines of Regency pieces to the simplicity and utilitarianism of the Arts and Crafts movement.’
The rich variety of influences that surrounded him, began to inform Leslie’s own work from detailed joinery to colourful lacquer finishes and following a stint at John Stephanides design practice he was offered a position as design assistant at Mlinaric, Henry and Zervudachi. Known for their world-class interiors, he worked on high-end projects for an ‘A’ List clientele which included aristocrats and rock stars. ‘It was so exciting and a great privilege to be part of a team working on schemes for people like Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger,’ he says. ‘I learnt a lot about listening to clients and building strong relationships too.’
Having raised through the ranks at Mlinaric it was 2006 before Leslie set up his own interior design practice in Chelsea, where he had settled. ‘It was a natural progression,’ he says. ‘Clients I had worked with previously were seeking me out so it felt like the right way to go.’ Although clearly an opportunity for creative freedom, Leslie has avoided being pigeon holed into a particular look and is usually led by the architecture of the property he is decorating. ‘It is often the starting point,’ he says. ‘I love modern design but most of the buildings we work on are period properties so our challenge is to make them relevant to our client’s modern life whilst retaining their essence, and if listed, adhering to some strict regulations.’
With a team of six including two in-house architects, Leslie handles up to ten projects at a time.
‘When you can link the scheme to the interior architecture and the fabric of the building it becomes more complete, so most of our projects are refurbishments,’ he says. ‘Rather than just decorating, we’re choosing where a wall, door or new bathroom should go for example. It creates more of an impression and is ultimately more successful.’
Leslie’s work also includes designing and crafting bespoke pieces of furniture. ‘There is a desire for gadgets and we need to be able to incorporate air conditioning, audio visual and other high-tech elements into period homes,’ he says. ‘Anyone can go shopping for furniture but what sets us apart as that we will come up with things that are unique and fit for purpose.
Leslie has applied the same ethos to his own home; a Victorian flat, also in Chelsea, where he has cleverly mixed bespoke modern cabinetry with antique and vintage pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. A treasured carved table by Sir Edwin Lutyens sits comfortably beside a mid-century classic chair by Hans J Wegner and contemporary built-in bookshelves, while modern art covers the wall. ‘It’s designed so that it can be added to,’ says Leslie. ‘It’s not a static look. Life changes and so it’s great for a room to be able to develop.’
This blending of cherished heirlooms, favourite pieces of art and bespoke or antique furniture is apparent in Leslie’s schemes and brings out character and depth in a home, which can sometimes be missing from other luxury interior design projects.
‘It’s a great privilege to be able to work on people’s homes as it’s something that’s so personal,’ says Leslie. ‘We develop a relationship so we get to know what our clients will like, even if it is something they’d never have thought about. The ultimate compliment is when they’re blown away by the end result.’
29 Thurloe Street SW7 2LQ; hughleslie.com