ELLE Decoration (UK)
We celebrate Carolyn Quartermaine, the British designer who takes an artistic approach to life and work
British designer Carolyn Quartermaine’s home in Provence shows off her dreamy (uniquely British) work
Carolyn Quartermaine, as ethereal as her gossamer-like
fabrics, is hard to pin down. She is somewhere between an artist and designer, her life divided between her homes in London and Provence. She has been a constant presence on the interiors scene and on magazine front covers around the world for over 30 years, yet her style has never dated. It’s a style that was born of childhood memories of antiques-filled Regency Cheltenham houses and an early teenage passion for the romantic hazy photographs of Deborah Turbeville and Sarah Moon, illuminated with a spark of the postpunk anarchic energy that characterised 1980s design.
Quartermaine is at an age when she can look back and see quite clearly the thread that pulls her life and work together. She had a peripatetic childhood: her father’s work uprooted the family from Cheltenham to live in Holland and France, so that every couple of years she changed not only schools but languages. This disruption places a significance on the home and the stability it represents. She remembers her obsession with dolls houses: ‘I would create my own rooms on planks of wood. In a sense what I did later – making flexible spaces, moving walls, changing environments through textiles and colour – is what I did as a child’.
When Quartermaine was 17, the family moved back to England and she found the place where she truly belonged: art school in Cheltenham. Here she received a grounding in practical skills like welding and woodwork as well as applied arts. At the Royal College of Art she developed her trademark style of collage and layering, and after graduating worked hard to get her pieces seen. ‘ You have to tread the streets, and it’s tough – people aren’t going to come to you. I recall boarding a coach to Paris and lugging my work round all the beautiful decorating shops to ask them to look at it,’ she says.
A meeting with Richard Stuart-liberty in 1986 led to her being given an entire floor of Liberty to show her painted tables, neobaroque metal furniture and exquisite calligraphy fabrics. In the mid 1990s, Joseph Ettedgui, the late fashion entrepreneur, gave her a shop in his basement in Sloane Street, London. But her home has always been the most important creative launchpad for her work. The flat in Earls Court, where she has lived for thirty years, and her 17th-century house in France are like living moodboards, reflecting subtle changes in her art. ‘It’s never about filling a space,’ she says. ‘It’s about looking at a chair as you would a painting. I can’t bear “girly pretty” so I would put a stronger object like a rock next to the chair,’ she explains. This experimentation at home fed into designs for Donna Karan, paperweights for Baccarat, and packaging for Fortnum and Mason. There have also been interiors for hotels and restaurants – most notably the breathtaking interior of Glade at Sketch, a collaboration with former lover, Belgian artist Didier Mahieu. Next year a collection of her work will be on display at the beautiful Fragonard Museum in Grasse, France.
Since recovering from breast cancer five years ago Quartermaine’s work has become more reflective. ‘I may look strong and focused to the outside world, but the doubt is always there. The fear of something not being good enough, the desire to do something better. That’s what drives me.’ carolynquartermaine.com
From top Carolyn Quartermaine beside the pool at her home in Provence. This 17th-century house is the perfect backdrop to her canvases, fabrics and the vignettes of inspirational objects that decorate tables and shelves ➤