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
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