My fam­ily val­ues John Rocha’s rags-to-riches story

House Beautiful (UK) - - Contents - WORDS AMANDA CABLE

From a poor but lov­ing child­hood, John Rocha has gone on to be­come one of

the most in­flu­en­tial home­ware and fash­ion de­sign­ers of his gen­er­a­tion

Al­most 60 years ago in a tiny Hong Kong high-rise apart­ment shared by a fam­ily of 10, a young boy would curl up on the floor each night and dream of sleep­ing in an ac­tual bed. When he was 11, his wish came true.

John Rocha’s mem­ory of grow­ing up in poverty while sur­rounded by fam­ily and love, colour and chaos, spawned his ex­tra­or­di­nary ta­lent and re­lent­less drive. It turned him into a de­signer who con­tin­ues to in­flu­ence the way we look and live.

‘I was the fifth of seven chil­dren, and our apart­ment was 350 square feet. There were no bed­rooms, just par­ti­tions sep­a­rat­ing us from our par­ents and grand­mother,’ re­calls John, now 63. ‘We had one bunk bed, so the el­dest two chil­dren had a bed each – the ul­ti­mate lux­ury. I had to wait un­til I was 11 for one of my older sib­lings to leave home and I took my place on the bot­tom bunk.

‘I’ll never for­get that sim­ple plea­sure. Now, every night when I sink back into my bed, I con­sider my­self lucky to have such a lux­ury. I also take huge plea­sure in de­sign­ing beau­ti­ful bed­li­nen to make peo­ple feel pam­pered.’

It’s not the only mem­ory that’s in­spired John’s work. ‘I used to yearn for space, and now when I work on ar­chi­tec­tural projects, I love cre­at­ing that space,’ he says. ‘Also, un­til I left home at 17, I’d never had a hot shower. To wash, we sim­ply shared a bucket of wa­ter. Now, every evening I soak in a beau­ti­ful Ital­ian stone bath and I feel blessed.’

De­spite the poverty, John’s child­hood was happy and he cred­its it with mak­ing him the man he is to­day. Dressed in a trade­mark black shirt with his fa­mous long hair he’s in­stantly recog­nis­able, and his en­thu­si­asm for life and joie de vivre is in­fec­tious. It’s sim­ply im­pos­si­ble not to smile as he gushes over pic­tures of his grand­daugh­ter, and laughs out loud at how be­sot­ted he’s be­come.

De­spite the long years he’s lived away from his na­tive Hong Kong, his ac­cent is still ev­i­dent. A child­hood with noth­ing was a ‘gift’ that helped him learn. His grand­mother was a seam­stress and guided him on his way to fash­ion de­sign. ‘The Bea­tles changed my life,’ he says. ‘They were so cool and I loved their style. I used to buy ma­te­rial cheaply from the mar­ket and ask my grand­mother to make it into a shirt with­out col­lars.

‘I didn’t know peo­ple could make a liv­ing from de­sign­ing clothes un­til I flew to Eng­land on a £13 ticket at the age of 17 to train as a

psy­chi­atric nurse. I started dat­ing a girl who was a fash­ion de­signer from Paris, and she helped me ap­ply for art col­lege.’

John be­gan in fash­ion but branched out into home­ware, in­clud­ing crys­tal for Wa­ter­ford and bed­li­nen, fur­ni­ture and table­ware for De­sign­ers at Deben­hams. He also worked on prop­erty schemes in Birm­ing­ham and Liver­pool.

Fol­low­ing a brief first mar­riage that gave him daugh­ter Zoe, 32, he met his wife and busi­ness part­ner Odette, 57. ‘Our first home was an early Vic­to­rian house in Dublin. It cost £150,000 when we bought it in 1992. Ren­o­vat­ing the kitchen took us a year, but we learned to take it one step at a time, even­tu­ally adding a conservatory and din­ing room.’

By then the cou­ple had Si­mone, now 29, a fash­ion de­signer, and Max, 26, who works in the record in­dus­try. Eight years later, the fam­ily found a large Vic­to­rian house that had been di­vided into 11 bed­sits. ‘I knew in­stantly we’d be happy there – and we are,’ says

John. ‘I love the high ceil­ings and orig­i­nal cor­nices. It looks like a tra­di­tional Vic­to­rian house at the front, but at the back I knocked out a ceil­ing to cre­ate a mod­ern triple-height glass ex­ten­sion, where we have our kitchen and din­ing room. I love light and the ex­ten­sion and glass bal­cony al­low it to flood into the house. When I’m sit­ting down for din­ner I can re­lax and watch the sun go­ing down.’

Over the years the cou­ple have made ad­just­ments to their four-bed­room home. ‘We had Max’s bed­room sound­proofed and cre­ated a sit­ting room area for him out­side his bed­room,’ says John. ‘My daugh­ter had a bed­room, bath­room and sit­ting room on the ground floor with her own en­trance.

‘In the kitchen we used the same stone for the units and on the floor. We have a large is­land, a stone top and a sink for prepa­ra­tion, but also a smaller back kitchen be­cause I don’t like clut­ter. The main kitchen is where my wife loves hav­ing the fam­ily all around her.

‘When the chil­dren were younger, we’d al­ways eat to­gether at six for an hour. That fam­ily time was sa­cred. We’d also come

‘In truth, hap­pi­ness for my fam­ily is all that mat­ters to me,’

SAYS JOHN

to­gether at Christ­mas, and still do. Now we have a new ad­di­tion – our one-year-old grand­daugh­ter Valen­tine.’

John and Odette have kept the de­sign of the house open plan ‘so we have the sense of al­ways be­ing to­gether. The only doors are for the bed­room and bath­room,’ says John. He cher­ishes sim­ple plea­sures, such as real fires, as well as the more op­u­lent, in­clud­ing the mo­saic and black crys­tal bath­room he cre­ated for guests. ‘It’s an in­dul­gent sur­prise.’

Once a lit­tle boy who washed in a bucket of cold wa­ter, John’s great­est joy is his Ital­ian stone bath. ‘It was so heavy it needed a crane to lift it in,’ he says. ‘We had to re­in­force the floor. I can soak in the bath every evening and gaze out­side at the stars. It’s the ul­ti­mate way to re­lax af­ter a busy work­ing day.’

In­side, the walls are white. ‘Stark white is too cold, but this is Jas­mine, a warmer shade with a hint of cream,’ ex­plains John. ‘As I don’t like clut­ter, I don’t want hun­dreds of fam­ily pic­tures all over the place, al­though for Christ­mas I bought Odette a framed pic­ture of Valen­tine.

‘I mix fur­ni­ture. Our sofa is a de­sign I did for Deben­hams in 1995; it’s so com­fort­able I won’t re­place it. I de­signed our glass din­ing room table my­self in 1995, and I’ve col­lected fur­ni­ture from Kenya and New York.

‘I can’t stand tele­vi­sions dom­i­nat­ing a room, so we have a small TV. I’m a huge foot­ball fan and re­cently in­vited friends over to watch Eng­land play. They piled in and then couldn’t be­lieve it when they found them­selves crowded around a tiny screen!’

John’s de­signs have in­flu­enced the world of clothes and in­te­rior style for decades. So what changes has he seen in the way we live? ‘Life’s about con­ve­nience. Peo­ple want homes that are sim­pler to main­tain, and smaller fur­ni­ture to give them a sense of space. For younger peo­ple, WiFi is more im­por­tant than the kitchen and eat­ing,’ he ob­serves.

In May 2015 John’s beloved mother died, one day be­fore her 96th birth­day. ‘I’d just re­tired from the cat­walk shows that had dom­i­nated my life, so I was able to spend the last Chi­nese New Year with her,’ he says.

‘She was so proud, al­though she didn’t quite un­der­stand what I did. I go back to Hong Kong with my fam­ily reg­u­larly and I don’t think my sib­lings know what I do ei­ther. They see I’m happy, and that’s all that mat­ters to them.’

John pauses and flashes a joy­ous smile.

‘In truth, hap­pi­ness for my fam­ily is all that mat­ters to me too.’

John with his wife Odette

Their beau­ti­ful home in Dublin re­tains orig­i­nal fea­tures in­clud­ing the wooden shut­ters

Fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory, on the cat­walk

Light streams through large win­dows

Coral bed­ding adds colour

African-in­spired art­works

Neu­tral colours and pared-back de­sign

John col­lects mod­ern art

The glass triple-height ex­ten­sion is one of John’s favourite spa­ces to re­lax in

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