The English country house style has had a massive impact on interior design since its incarnation in the 1920s. The Colefax and Fowler brand codified the look combining elegance and comfort during the Forties and Fifties, and by the Sixties its principles would become synonymous with luxury.
For some the style was a heavy influence on their own interior design. Most notable of these was New Jerseyan Sister Parish (born Dorothy May Kinnicut, 1910 -1994). Her granddaughter Susan Bartlett Crater and colleague
Libby Cameron founded Sister Parish Design in 2001 and according to them Sister Parish ‘encouraged bright colors, promoted the use of found items and family heirlooms, and insisted that rooms should center around what people truly enjoyed – not simply what “matched”’. She is well-known for her use of overstuffed armchairs, patchwork quilts, and varied patterns. Her style is beautiful yet homey, stunning yet accessible. All very much in tune with the beliefs of Nancy Lancaster. Her most ‘infamous’ project however was The White House (see the Yellow Oval Room, pictured). Sister Parish had already been employed by Jackie Kennedy in the 1950s and by the time the Kennedys moved into the White House in 1961 Jackie once again approached the designer to update many of the interiors. The two formidable women very soon came to blows, perhaps about payment but it has also been rumoured that Jackie dismissed Sister Parish when the latter reprimanded one of the Kennedy children for putting their feet on the furniture. However, all the ingredients for the English country house style are there; the striking colour, bold shapes, mixed furniture styles and neo-classical motifs.
Those active around the same time included Keith Irvine (1928-2011) and Mario Buatta (born 1935); their clients have all been to some degree elegant and charismatic. Remarkably, they were linked with fellow designers Sister Parish, John Fowler and each other as well as stars of the silver screen and popular culture. Irvine was a Scotsman who had attempted to start his career after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1955 by writing to John Fowler directly asking for job. He was successful, and would go on to assist Fowler with the interiors of Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s Buckinghamshire home and apartment in Eaton Square. Buatta would work with Irvine for one year in the Sixties, but they would grow apart. Buatta does not make it clear as to why the pair eventually became so indignant of each other despite his numerous interviews. Undeniably it was success which had a major role to play as competition for wealthy clients grew stronger and by the end of the Eighties, the two men would become part of a super-decorator class.
For Irvine, adopting the English country house style was simply the product of working with John Fowler. Irvine claimed he had been influenced by the look and had tried to incorporate it into his early projects – something which Fowler would find a little ingratiating, often remarking how his protegé could have tried harder in his imitation. Yet, the principles of the style were something Irvine would abide by and with which he would identify himself . Furniture had to look as though it had been used by several generations, there had to be mixed textiles and materials, upholstery had to show wear, curtains had to have faded edges, but the whole arrangement had to suggest glamour and ancient elegance.
Buatta, on the other hand has pointed to several sources as influence over his interior design. The brand of Colefax and Fowler was certainly one of these and Buatta admits to becoming aware of the style whilst working with Irvine. His affection for that ingredient most associated with Fowler however – chintz – was borne out of his appreciation of his Aunt May, “She had summer chintzes and winter chintzes.” He has long been known as the ‘Prince of Chintz’ by those in interior design and the fashionable elite. Of all the designers to have come out of the late 1950s however, Buatta still remains and his English country house style has been sought after by many famous names; he admits his most favourite client to have been Henry Ford II. Others have included the Forbes family, Barbara Walters, and Mariah Carey. His clients do offer an insight into how this style has come full circle since its incarnation in the 1920s, but then they also provide a snapshot of how luxury and taste have infiltrated a style which previously had been synonymous with making do and mending, restoration and alteration. Buatta even states that he prefers his clients to buy the best of everything, so long as it is decorative.
In its modern-day form, the English country house style has lost some of its kookiness and raw impulsion. The individuality of people like Nancy Lancaster, Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler has softened at the edges so that the resulting look has become too crisp and neat. Sure, it has influenced the shabby chic with its chintzy fabrics and scumbled paint effects but it this style is quite light and breezy compared to the heavier gilded appearance created by Lancaster in the 1920s and 1930s. The overall feel of these styles are different too, they smell different as you enter a room; shabby chic is airy and sweet with billowing fresh cotton drapery, the English country house style is metallic, of plasterwork and thick velvet drapery.
The position of Buatta or any modern interior designer who happens to be inspired by the English country house style represents a shift in the type of clientele and their demands. Buatta’s work on Mariah Carey’s New York triplex apartment could well represent this shift. It is plush, clean (even feminine), and definitely chic. If you were to describe a female A-lister’s New York apartment, this would be it! Each room has vintage and antique inspired pieces including a 1930s torchere, a coromandel screen, and Marilyn Monroe’s white baby grand piano. Carey’s apartment exudes sensuality while Buatta has skillfully drawn upon the symbols of traditional Hollywood glamour.
It would be wise to tread carefully here as Carey has had a great deal of imput – clearly Buatta knows how to support his clients as well as serve them. He has said, “I learn the way my clients live, and they are completely involved in what I’m putting together. I don’t like surprises or surprising people; the process is collaborative” This is what probably draws people to him and makes him so prominent an interior designer. While Carey’s apartment contains elements of the English country house style, Mario Buatta can absolutely pull off the perfect interior of which Nancy Lancaster would be proud and an internet search delivers up some fantastic images.
The key components of the style as envisaged by Lancaster, Fowler and Colefax still exist through classicism and comfort, humble elegance and eclecticism. The English country house style may only be 90 years old, but to some extent it has become quite versatile. It dwindled in the late 1980s when interior design sought anything flouncy and gilded, but survived this overindulgence. It has not been a style to suit everyone, but its use of fabrics, colours and textures have been adapted within several styles suited to even the smallest of houses. That ‘themed wall’ in your living room, with its bold wallpaper or dark paint owe a great deal to the English country house style.
Mario Buatta’s maxims of interior design from Elle Decor http://www.elledecor.com/decorating/articles/mario-buatta-s-color-secrets
On Mario Buatta and Keith Irvine http://mannerofman.blogspot.com/2011/04/mm-interview-with-mario-buatta.html
‘Fanciful’ English country house style http://www.architecturaldigest.com/architects/100/mario_buatta/buatta_article_042003
Obituary for Keith Irvine July 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/8566766/Keith-Irvine.html
Mariah Carey and Mario Buatta http://www.interiormanagement.com/imgs/MariahCarey.pdf