High-end interiors specialist William Samuels discusses the rebirth of traditional English interior design and how he creates exclusive properties in Prime London that embody its very unique philosophy.
“Quintessentially English” is a term that is bandied around fairly loosely in the interior design world. A pleasant turn-of-phrase with little specific meaning, it has come to encapsulate types of residence in England ranging from the stately country piles described so vividly in the works of early twentieth century author P. G. Wodehouse to the compact, gaudy London apartments inhabited by James Bond and Mick Jagger aspirants during the “Cool Britannia” period of the late nineties.
Over the past decade or so in London, the concept of the iconic English abode has gained an especial celebre, as increasing numbers of wealthy buyers from the Middle and Far East have come to the city in search of not just a property but a unique cultural experience unavailable anywhere else. It raises the question of what exactly these buyers are looking for: what is “quintessentially English”?
The error many interior designers commit when contemplating the question is that they first think in terms of specific design features, like English oak flooring or woollen coverings, when they should be thinking more philosophically. To create a home that is truly traditionally English, one primarily needs to understand, as far as is reasonable, the underlying themes behind English culture – be it artistic, architectural or literary. This provides a foundational set of characteristics upon which the home can then be designed.
On this basis, I would argue the three key characteristics that make an English home are balance, composure and understatement. Of the three, understatement is particularly important.
European interior design tends to focus on heaping’s of creative flourish, either harking back to the Renaissance or pushing forward the bounds of modernism, while American interiors are typically big, bold and bright. By contrast, the traditional English style is more subtle, focusing on a logical layout with one or two well-placed impressive features.
The idea is not to force the taste or the wealth of the home-owner upon the viewer/ visitor, but, rather, to let them appreciate the property in their own time. In doing so, it reflects well on the home-owner by suggesting they possess the self-confidence and taste to not need to make an overt display of wealth and identity.
I find this concept – of display through understatement – is a big draw on buyers from the Middle and Far East. The luxury properties they are used to purchasing are big, glitzy and in constant competition with one another. As a result, many of these buyers find it refreshing, and perhaps a sign of a higher taste, to step away from this cycle of competition and own a classically English residence. In its modest yet refined design, these high-net worth buyers see themselves as buying into a culture and mind-set that no amount of glamour can replicate.
For example, at one of our new developments in the Little Boltons in Chelsea we divided the house’s “formal” and “informal” living space between the ground and lower ground floors respectively. We created an elegant dining area on the ground floor, as well as a refined rear-facing living area which offered views of the surrounding Boltons neighbourhood.
On the basement level, we took a more social approach, opening up almost the whole floor as a kitchen-cum-casual living space, leading onto a secluded landscaped garden complete with fountains and perfect for late-night soirees. It’s this controlled and subtle balance between formality and fun that makes the home so utterly English: the layout quietly acknowledges that there is a time and a place for everything, while avoiding getting carried away with itself, despite its location in one of the most expensive areas of London.
We find that the best way of creating décor with a distinctly English character is to buy English and use English. When Wilben were commissioned to redevelop a listed Georgian property on Chester Square in Belgravia, we hired specialist English craftsmen to restore the home’s fireplaces, cornices and staircases using the same materials and tools that would have been used to first create these features around 100 years ago. It was not the simplest way of redeveloping the home – and certainly was not the least expensive – but it allowed the home to keep the features that made it an epitome of nineteenth century English architecture.
To be sure, traditional English design is not for every buyer and doesn’t suit every postcode (for instance, the style wouldn’t quite fit right by Harrods!). Indeed, over the years, my brother and I have developed a variety of interiors to suit a range of tastes and locations and I have no doubt we will continue to do so – it’s what makes our profession so varied and challenging. However, there is no doubt the Prime London property world especially is entering a period where English interiors are back in vogue. Maybe it’s Brexit, or maybe high-net worth buyers are just looking for a design that spirits them back to a more pleasant and refined era.
William Samuels is director of boutique luxury development firm Wilben, which he founded with his brother, Benjamin, in 2009.
Words by: William Samuel