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This is the fourth feature from the Afridi Gallery’s ‘in conversation’ programme, an ongoing series that explores our encounters with art. Shahbaz Afridi invites figures from the world of art & design to visit the gallery for a discussion prompted by the unique arrangements of furniture and objects found there. The Afridi Gallery is an exhibition space for ‘objects to inspire’, and these conversations arise when we pause and reflect on the aesthetic forms that surround us. 


IN CONVERSATION: Jo Lawson-Tancred, Shahbaz Afridi and April Russell

Arts journalist and critic Jo Lawson-Tancred and gallery director Shahbaz Afridi sit down with interior designer April Russell, to discuss achieving harmony, art collecting and how interiors can reflect a lifestyle. With over 20 years of experience, April is an interior designer who trained at London’s Inchbald School of Design and Sotheby’s. She started out working at Piers Westenholz and Percy Bass, and now runs her own studio in London.  


AR: Ronald Phillips had a stand at Masterpiece with a few Chippendale pieces. Actual pieces of furniture that you could actually sit on. David Linley and Phillips said in an interview that the manufacturing of the furniture was so good that it have lasted the test of time and in fact some of the mechanisms for designing these pieces can still be used today. I thought that was interesting because of course you have furniture designed for the gallery and I was thinking how deep does one go in the design of furniture? With a chair it’s so much more complicated. 


SA: The age old question of how you design a chair that is beautiful and comfortable. It’s been the ambition of great architects and designers alike to design the perfect chair. 


AR: Even this [Afridi gallery commissioned] chair here… I mean, less is more. It’s so simple yet so comfortable. 


SA:  April, that is the philosophy of the gallery to keep it simple.  There’s a lot out there already.


AR: If you choose a house for its architectural features, then you don’t need to dress it up. It speaks for itself. There’s the basic visual message and everything else should not overwhelm it but just support it. I always say, if you’ve got a wonderful art collection, don’t try to compete with it. Let it speak for itself. 


JL-T: What are the thoughts going through your head when you start a new project? Does a vision come to mind quickly? 


AR: It’s a bit like a puzzle. I go in and it’s not quite real at that stage because you’re meeting the client for the first time. You try to take in as much as you can to get a feel for the project.  They might be very much in control and you have to respect that and try and fit in with them or it could be someone very flexible and you have to keep pulling them in.  After that it might take a couple of visits to the house but once you get into the rhythm with the client it all comes together.  Anything that’s any good is not created overnight, it’s a nurturing and step by step process. You can’t come up with beautiful interiors in a snap because it takes soul, time and patience. That’s how you get an interior that’s comfortable, everything comes together and it says something. 


JL-T: When you work with a blank canvas are there elements of an interior that you always consider first and how do you build up the layers? 


AR: First, we look at the architecture. Second, we consider whether the client has an art collection, or are interested in art. Those are two major pieces of information that will help me understand the style that they’re looking for. The next thing is floors, if they’re old then we want to retain them and put rugs down. Once you’ve got the bones you start filling in. You know the colours, the mood, the shapes so the direction becomes clear. 


SA:  Are your clients becoming more involved in the process? 


AR: There’s a lot more available now, so often clients want to be involved. I hope people hire me because I can see beyond what they can and take the trouble out of it. Many clients have a great instinct but aren’t yet sure of it, so it’s wonderful to work together and see that blossom as they start to understand where it’s all going. If it’s your home then you want to be part of that creation. 


JL-T: You’ve spoken about client’s art collections. An interior is so unlike the typical ‘white cube’ contemporary art gallery.  Collectors must find it challenging to imagine the works in their own homes


AR: Yes, although going back to Masterpiece and even Frieze, many of the stands there aren’t looking just like galleries anymore. They are almost doing what we do and making it easier for the person who comes to the stand to visualise and feel what it’s like to have that piece. There is increasingly a collaboration between interior designers and art specialists or curators.


JL-T: In terms of achieving harmony in the interior, you don’t necessarily want any one piece to stand out because if you are feeling confronted by it it’s not necessarily the right fit. How do you use pieces to establish the character of a space while also adhering to the idea that less is more? 


AR: I think light is really important, as are the different levels at which you place things - that’s how you achieve balance.


JL-T: How do you establish the colour scheme? 


AR: It depends. I’m interested in texture but I would say pattern does not come into my interiors, maybe on the floor or into a painting but not onto fabrics for me. If the architecture is elaborate or there are a lot of objects in the room, then I would keep the upholstery and soft furnishings low key.  Vintage furniture from the fifties is understated. The contemporary artisan furniture that we often see at fairs is aggressive. They are statement pieces that are shouting something. 


JL-T: Perhaps the fair format demands from an object that it shout more, because galleries are competing for attention? 


AR: Totally. But say you are a hedge-funder living in Manhattan, then you need statement furniture that will suit that man or woman. It has muscle and it says who that person is. 


JL-T: What about mixing of old and new? I was reading an article criticising the exhibition of Yves Klein’s work at Blenheim Palace over the summer. 


AR: I saw images of that. What I think works better is what they do at [18th century] Chatsworth, where they integrate contemporary ceramics. I think it works beautifully. It’s light. 


JL-T: Getting that mix right is very trendy at the moment. Have you seen the New Art Centre at Roche Court in Wiltshire? The house has a glass extension gallery and there’s lots of modern and contemporary sculpture in the surrounding land. It works because there isn’t a clash, most of the objects are bronze or ceramic. It adds interesting new shape but it’s not too heavy. 


SA: It is all still experimental. Patronage continues at these houses, where it has a historic precedent. This keeps craftsmanship alive.


AR: Definitely. There was a boom of English companies making furniture in Portugal. They have fantastic artisans there, which is important.  As we lose good artisans we not only lose the trade but also the tools that they work with. I went to the Espirito Santo Foundation in Lisbon where they have about thirty artisans: furniture and cabinet makers, metalworkers and leather craftsmen. It’s about being tactile, and having a community in the studio. It’s incredible, and yet they’re hanging on by their fingertips. 


SA: It’s not about making furniture that’s easily reproducible and commercial. We have to trust artisans to create good quality pieces and not rush them.


JL-T: Do you yourself try to compare old and new? Traditional and contemporary? For example, I think in this room the round projections on this contemporary [Japanese vase] echo the shape of orbs in the border of this 19th century suzani on the wall. 


SA: I never noticed the affinity of shapes you mention. It’s amazing how different people respond to different things.


AR: Yes, and these objects speak to one another because their textures are well paired - glass against textile. 


SA: Is this the best way to display it? 


AR: I might lift the vase a little bit on a stand to give it more importance. 


SA: I’m more than happy for you to start moving things around. 


JL-T: Here in the gallery we have a constantly shifting context. Next year there won’t be any suzani on the walls. There’s no combination of objects that feels final.


SA: What have been the main influences on your career? 


AR: I would have to say my parents, the homes of their friends and their lifestyles. Everything that went with it. They always had wonderful little objects laid out on tables, with a story that went behind them. It’s interesting to see how my style has changed over the years because to begin with I was quite formal with all the trimmings, that was very eighties. Life has changed in every aspect, from food to the way we dress. My design reflects that. With each property that I’ve owned, it’s become simpler and simpler. I’ve gone back around but in a cleaner, simpler way. 


JL-T: Do you think your parents established the relationship between lifestyle and interior design for you? You design intimate spaces that say a lot about how we live our lives. When did you start making that connection? 


AR: When I was at school I wasn’t as academic as others, I was much more interested in the arts. It was always about style. My mother’s generation, they were chic, the way they dressed, the places they went to, how they entertained, their homes… everything was very beautiful!


JL-T: How did you come to work with Shahbaz? 


AR: Probably 30 years ago. We met through the interior designer Alidad, I needed carpets for a project I was working on in Glebe Place. Shahbaz has so many different things to cater to whatever I’m working on. It’s not just antique carpets, recently I bought a French piece from the forties that was just perfect for a project in Cheyne Walk. 


JL-T: You’ve worked in cities but also mountains and beaches. How does the location dictate your approach? 


AR: I feel very comfortable in New York’s Upper East Side, it’s so effortless for me. Working by the beach in Florida was all heat-inspired imagination, although funnily enough I bought most of the furniture from a dealer in Nottingham. I tracked her down and visited her and saw so many pieces that I loved - lots of ratan, plain linen forties chairs, an iron table with a seagull on it - and had them shipped to Palm Beach. I then had a lot of fun with the client shopping along Dixie Avenue in Florida, where all the antique shops are. For Aspen it was all about soft furnishings because I was working with a major art collector. Big pieces of furniture, typical of America out West - I had a big curved sofa made here and a template sent out so that the client could see it in situ. It worked. 


JL-T: It’s fascinating that you feel a different approach is needed for the Upper East Side in New York and for Chelsea in London. Why? 


AR: Well I dress very differently when I’m in Chelsea compared to when I’m in New York. I might be old fashioned but even within New York, it’s a totally different look for downtown than for the Upper East Side. Fashion and interiors both follow a trend, and the Upper East Side is formal - you dress to go to dinner, you dress to go out, and women are much more ladylike. It’s a culture. I am from New York so I slip into the shoes of where I came from.


SA: I’ve always admired your ability to adapt. I think it’s this flexibility that makes you a great talent. 


AR: With each project the environment is different, the client is different, the building is different, and when I walk in the space speaks to me. I’m not telling it. It's telling me.

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