Interior designer, Nicky Haslam’s latest book offers a fascinating glimpse into a life of celebrity, good taste, and even better luck
When your life is as colourful – both literally and figuratively – as interior designer to the stars and ‘man about town’ Nicky Haslam’s is, it seems only fitting to put pen to paper. It’s not for the first time either; previous tomes include two sumptuous decorating books and a revealing memoir. The latest however, is a pictorial stroll through the decorator’s fascinating life: an elaborate scrapbook of lavish interiors, star-studded parties, early sketches and amusing anecdotes. ‘There’s only so much you can say about a room,’ says Nicky. ‘This book is more personal, it includes things I’ve admired and been inspired by, and thoughts and feelings about a place.’ It’s also an illustrative account of how Nicky Haslam came to be one of the UK’s most celebrated interior designers.
Born into an aristocratic family (his mother, Diana Ponsonby, was a granddaughter of the 7th Earl of Bessborough and a goddaughter of Queen Victoria), Nicky was an artistic child who came of age as London’s counter-culture came to life. Although he spent much of the 60s in America, the era’s cultural changes and influences loomed large. Having gone to New York at the start of the decade with his best friend, photographer David Bailey and soon-to-be supermodel of the day, Jean Shrimpton, long before they were famous, Nicky was part of a crowd who represented ‘Swinging London’ and was snapped up by Conde Nast’s Editorial Director, Alexander Liberman, to work in the art department of US Vogue. ‘To be English in New York at that time was wonderful,’ says Nicky. ‘I was the golden boy: I knew the Stones and The Beatles, and Diana Vreeland, the Editor, loved English houses and people, so it was useful for Vogue.’
Soon elevated to Art Director of Show magazine – an avant garde precursor to Vanity Fair – Nicky was working with photographers such as Diane Arbus, Peter Beard and Richard Avedon and dining out with the American A-list of the day. ‘I met Cole Porter and the old guard of New York,’ he says. ‘I’d go to visit a friend in California each summer, and Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant and the great Hollywood movie stars would be there. There wasn’t the paparazzi hounding them then so they were happy to come out to restaurants or parties and have dinner with you.’
Nicky’s love of decorating at that point was still just a hobby and his natural flair for interior design had so far only extended to his own apartments. ‘I’d always loved decorating and as a child used to pester my mother to put up ridiculous wallpapers,’ he says. ‘But the UK didn’t really have the great decorators that America had at that time. There weren’t any schools or colleges for it here then, so I didn’t really believe I could do it professionally.’
Things changed after a stint in Arizona. Tiring of life in the fast lane, Nicky decided to pursue a less heady lifestyle, so he upped sticks and bought Black Canyon ranch, near Phoenix with his then partner Jimmy Davison. ‘Who hasn’t wanted to be a cowboy,’ he chuckles. ‘I thought I’d be there forever. It’s lucky that circumstances changed otherwise I’d be a leathery old Englishman with bow legs trying to ride horses in the desert.’ Here he was able to unleash the full force of his creativity, mixing the rustic American Indian backdrop of the ranch with flourishes of his quintessentially English style. Nicky’s flair didn’t go unnoticed by the constant stream of well-connected friends coming to visit, and as well as the ranch appearing in American House & Garden, he was soon asked by Natalie Wood to decorate her home for a party she was throwing for her (at the time) estranged husband, Robert Wagner.
A short stint in California followed but by the start of 70s, and now in his early 30s, Nicky decided to return to London to pursue a profession. It was then that he started to make a name as an interior decorator. Mark Shand (Camilla Parker-Bowles’ brother) had loved the ranch and asked Nicky if he would decorate his new house. Nicholas Soames (Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson) also requested Nicky’s creative skills. ‘Young bachelors were the perfect clients,’ he says. ‘They couldn’t be bothered to choose their decor themselves, so they were happy to let me do it.’
Hitting his professional stride, the decorator set up Nicholas Haslam, his design company, in 1972 and slogged away on numerous projects before gracing the pages of Vogue with one of his more substantial interior schemes. It was then that rock royalty – many of whom were already friends – came knocking. Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Bryan Ferry and many others became clients. By now a new decade was dawning and the designer’s great friend, Min Hogg, was establishing The World of Interiors, a new magazine with a diverse mix of classical interiors and beautiful things, that furthered the concept of decorating and design in the UK. They ran a feature on Ferry’s Nicky-decorated home and the rest, as they say, is history – and an extremely fascinating one at that.
A Designer’s Life: An Archive of Inspired Design and Décor, by Nicky Haslam, £50, Jacqui Small Publishing, jacquismallpub.com