Per­fectly English

Af­ter 73 years at its premises on Brook Street in May­fair, the in­te­rior-de­sign, dec­o­rat­ing and an­tique firm Sibyl Cole­fax & John Fowler has em­barked on an ex­cit­ing new chap­ter in its his­tory. Ara­bella Youens ex­am­ines its piv­otal role in the evo­lu­tion of E

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The legacy of Cole­fax & Fowler

WHEN Nancy Lan­caster (as she was about to be­come) ap­proached Sibyl, Lady Cole­fax to buy her busi­ness in 1948, the con­cept of in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing was re­garded with no small amount of sus­pi­cion by many on Bri­tish shores. By the time she died, three mar­riages and 50 years later, to­gether with John Fowler, she had built a firm that sin­gle-hand­edly en­cap­su­lated and nur­tured what, to­day, we know as the coun­try-house look—as well as launch­ing the ca­reers of many of the coun­try’s top dec­o­ra­tors.

A Vir­ginian by birth and English by adop­tion, Lan­caster in­tro­duced con­cepts that were ground-break­ing in their day, such as com­fort, warmth, colour and in­for­mal­ity—all of which, in her mind, should be chan­nelled into that hith­erto very Amer­i­can of rooms: the bath­room.

‘Guests at her house at Ditch­ley were as­ton­ished by the com­fort­able en-suite bath­rooms,’ says Wendy Ni­cholls, manag­ing di­rec­tor of Sibyl Cole­fax & John Fowler, who has been with the firm for 40 years. ‘In­stead of long walks to icy-cold lava­to­ries and lino floor­ing, hers were warm and dec­o­rated with pretty pic­tures, bas­kets and lots of flow­ers. Un­der­stand­ably, no one wanted to go home.’

Among one of Lan­caster’s core de­sign tenets was that a room should never look dec­o­rated—any­thing that stuck slav­ishly to one pe­riod was life­less and noth­ing should com­pletely match. ‘This was highly un­usual,’ ex­plains Wendy. ‘Broadly speak­ing, grand coun­try houses would have been dec­o­rated in a very con­ven­tional man­ner, with tight cur­tains and draperies: all his­tor­i­cally cor­rect and, frankly, pretty dull.’

It was the alchemy that was con­jured when mix­ing her vi­sion with Fowler’s sense of colour and knowl­edge of pe­riod houses that ce­mented the fu­ture suc­cess of the firm. Most of the heavy lift­ing, Wendy is quick to point out, was done by Fowler, who was rec­om­mended to Cole­fax by Peggy Ward, Count­ess Mun­ster in 1938. ‘He was the one who worked; she in­tro­duced the

‘Nancy would leave chintz out in the gar­den to get rained on

clients. Nancy was the so­cial spark whose per­son­al­ity crack­led when she walked into a room. Their re­la­tion­ship was fa­mously stormy,’ ex­plains Wendy.

They opened their show­room at 39, Brook Street in 1944. In let­ters ad­vis­ing friends of their new premises, they wrote: ‘We have lovely old fur­ni­ture, bibelots, lamps and china, wed­ding presents at all prices, and, as ever, can do any jobs which we are al­lowed by reg­u­la­tions to do in war time.’

The show­room, which dis­played a se­lec­tion of care­fully cho­sen antiques, as well as fur­ni­ture and ob­jects of their own de­sign, of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate what they could achieve.

It and Lan­caster’s much-pho­tographed Yel­low Room, which she cre­ated af­ter mov­ing into a flat above the shop in 1957, have gone down in the an­nals of Bri­tish taste-mak­ing. Coun­try Life’s for­mer ar­chi­tec­tural ed­i­tor John Corn­forth went fur­ther when he re­marked: ‘A great many peo­ple must have im­proved their eye through go­ing there or just gazing through the win­dows.’

In the 1960s, while Fowler was work­ing for some of the coun­try’s grand­est houses, one or two other dec­o­ra­tors had set up shop, in­clud­ing Charles Ham­mond and Peggy Hancock. ‘But John was waspishly dis­mis­sive of what he termed “The Sloane Street dec­o­ra­tors”,’ says Nina Camp­bell, who worked for the firm for a few years in the mid 1960s be­fore set­ting up on her own.

‘I adored him—ev­ery­one did. He could be quite dif­fi­cult, but he was so tal­ented you didn’t mind.’ In his foot­steps, Nina was taught how noth­ing needed to be done for the sake of it—well-made cur­tains could be turned back to front, borders could be added to freshen up a look—and how rooms should never be fin­ished. ‘He said we should leave an es­cape route for adding last-minute colour. I of­ten think about that to­day.’

Un­sur­pris­ingly, for a com­pany of so many decades’ stand­ing, it has ush­ered trends in and seen (some of) them out again. ‘But the thing we’ve never done was a fussy look,’ says Wendy. ‘Many peo­ple in the 1980s went in for trim­mings, swags and tails and schemes that co-or­di­nated and matched things, but—con­trary to many mis­con­cep­tions—that just wasn’t us. When I go back to see projects done by any of the team, even 30 years ago, they still look great.’

De­spite the fact that the com­pany is now made up of a team of eight dec­o­ra­tors, the de­sign prin­ci­ples of the founders re­main at the core of their ap­proach. ‘There’s an ab­so­lute thread through that goes back all those years,’ be­lieves Roger Jones, who joined the firm in 1994 and is responsible for the an­tique-buy­ing side. ‘Nancy was ahead of the trend on many lev­els: she would leave chintz out in the gar­den to get rained on and, when it came to lac­quered fur­ni­ture, the less bright and shiny, the bet­ter.’

She was also an early cru­sader for painted fur­ni­ture and es­chew­ing tra­di­tional ‘brown’ ma­hogany for some­thing more faded—as well as for mix­ing pe­ri­ods. ‘Deal­ers look for prove­nance, con­di­tion and au­then­tic­ity— they’re im­por­tant to us, but we’re also in­ter­ested in the at­trac­tive­ness of a piece,’ ex­plains Roger. ‘We like to mix the grand with the not so grand so that rooms don’t look like mu­se­ums—it’s an ap­proach that chan­nels John and Nancy, just with slightly dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents.’

Hav­ing moved into its new home at 89–91, Pimlico Road, the com­pany is ready to open a new chap­ter in its long his­tory. The spa­cious new show­rooms, with their large pic­ture win­dows, of­fer an even bet­ter means of show­ing off its ap­proach to dec­o­rat­ing, be­lieves Roger. And as for its clien­tele, about which it is com­pletely dis­creet, there isn’t a sin­gle way to de­fine a typ­i­cal project in 2017, says Wendy.

‘We do what we’ve al­ways done, which is to find out who our clients are and where their in­ter­ests lie and try to ex­press that in the dec­o­rat­ing of their homes.’

Sibyl Cole­fax & John Fowler, 89–91, Pimlico Road, Lon­don SW1W 8PH (020– 7493 2231; www.sibyl­cole­fax.com)

The Pimlico Road premises, with its large pic­ture win­dows, brings fresh in­spi­ra­tion to the long-es­tab­lished in­te­rior-dec­o­rat­ing firm

Above: Nancy Lan­caster and John Fowler. Right: Brook Street in May­fair was the com­pany’s pre­vi­ous home for 73 years

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