IN CONVERSATION WITH

HUGH HENRY &
JO LAWSON-TANCRED

This is the third 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.

Arts journalist and critic Jo Lawson-Tancred sits down with interior designer Hugh Henry to discuss domestic design, mass-production and the importance of materials. Hugh Henry studied Interior Design at Glasgow School of Art before moving to London where he worked with David Mlinaric, eventually setting up MHZ Ltd, the London-based firm at which he still works.

JL-T: Could you tell me a bit more about how you came to interior design?

HH: I think it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. I come from a little place in Scotland called Kirkcudbright, which was very picturesque and filled with artists who I’d visit. When I was about 6 my mother used to make me choose the paint colours for the rooms at home and Kirkcudbright had a wonderful junk shop, it really was a junk shop, but occasionally we used to find marvellous things there. I was always interested in drawing and painting so went to art school in Glasgow, where I specialised in interior design.

JL-T: When you joined the school, did you know that’s what you’d specialise in?

HH: I wasn’t sure then but I did once have a criticism about a composition and the teacher said,‘this person doesn’t know whether to be an artist or a decorator’.That was very funny and I’ve always remembered it. I knew I wasn’t going to be the new Leonardo but I was always interested in old things and making things look as nice as possible.

JL-T: Were any of the artists in Kirkcudbright particularly memorable?

HH: There was a wonderful Hungarian artist called Anna Hotchkiss. I also remember a very decorative painter who illustrated books, she was called Jessie M. King and quite highly considered. She lived at the Greengate, a house where she painted all the windows and doors green.The artists were all very willing and generous with their time.

JL-T: When you start a new project and you visit the space, do you get a vision quite quickly of what you want to do?

HH:Yes, well you’ve got to listen to what the client wants but also respect the architecture. If they ask for a room to be a family-sized kitchen with dining for twenty-four people, you’d have to say that it isn’t possible.You’ve got to be logical about the space so that the rooms remain practical.

JL-T: Say you were working with clients who already own a heavily patterned carpet, how would that inform your design decisions?

HH: Even if you think the carpet is hideous, you’ve got to make it work.You usually can when you put your mind to it. I don’t think purple walls and a tartan carpet would look very good but I’m sure there’s a way around it. I like to give my clients confidence that I’m respecting what they’ve already got. It’s nice when somebody has lots of things, because then you can pick and choose whereas if you’re starting from scratch sometimes even after van-loads of stuff have turned up the house still looks empty.

JL-T: Here at the Afridi Gallery, there’s so much to display that the arrangement has a language that offsets pattern with sculptural presence.

HH: Exactly. I personally don’t like it if it gets too cluttered, I find it quite claustrophobic. If you have something that’s very strong then maybe the objects around should be plainer, still beautiful of course, but plainer. It’s usually people’s homes that I’m doing and everybody’s lives are so frantic, the traffic in London is terrible, emails are always catching up with you, so I think it’s quite nice for a home to be quite calm. Perhaps dining rooms or guest bedrooms can be more heavily decorated, because they aren’t used so often.

JL-T: Do you consider some aspects of a room first?

HH: No... I consider the overall look. Carpets are pretty important, and in a sitting room the upholstered furniture must be comfortable but a good scale for the room because everyone loves sofas that are very, very deep. Often when I work with couples the husband is very tall and the wife is quite small, but I want it to be comfortable for both so I try to work out how they will use the room, will they sit on the sofa or where else might they sit?

JL-T: How do you coordinate multiple rooms in a house?

HH: It’s important that everything works together. It’s quite obvious when you walk around a house and they’ve only made an effort with some of the rooms. It’s much nicer to have a balance.When rooms are enfilade you can make them work together, which is not to say that they need to all be beige, it could be that one room is electric blue because balance works by contrast as well.As long as there isn’t something that jars.

 

JL-T: You’ve been working with Shahbaz Afridi for over 25 years. Do you feel there have been shifts in your practice over that time?

 

HH: Of course, and I started in 1968 so I’ve been working for 50 years in total. I think finding beautiful things is much more difficult nowadays because so many more people are aware of interior design and there’s so many magazines. People want things that look modern so are less interested in traditional brown furniture, which I think is a great shame. I recently read that it might come back, as people grow tired of flatpack, grey, mass-produced products. I always aim to make the homes we design a bit different.You can’t just go to Ikea and buy the same things that everybody else has got. I must admit I have done a job where I choose sofa and armchair covers only to discover her best friend, who I worked for as well, has the exact same colours.They managed to have a good laugh about it, and the colours worked perfectly in each room even though each room was totally, totally different. I do have favourite fabrics that I show to multiple clients, but I’m still no Ikea.

 

JL-T: Ikea is indeed almost metaphorical for this phenomenon - the way that everything is stored in a vast warehouse, with multiples of the same design. It’s interesting that you began your career in the 1960s. Thinking of 1950s New York, Abstract Expressionism was very much about brooding and impulsive artists, and then 1960s Minimalism was the point at which art began to merge more with design and fashion. Someone turned up to ‘Primary Structures’, an 1966 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, wearing a white box dress that was inspired by the art. The look quickly got picked up my magazines and artists were trying to move on to the next thing quickly before their work could be commodified and mass- produced.

 

HH: My school was very academic and I don’t think contemporary art had really reached Glasgow by that stage.When I finished I thought I was God’s gift to interior decoration until I went to an interview and asked if I could do an invoice, well I didn’t know what an invoice was... So I was very fortunate that I worked for David Mlinaric but I was interested in a fairly traditional look.

 

JL-T: Were actively resistant to Modernism? Do you remember a scene that was very influenced by mass-production and the introduction of plastic? I’m thinking of Peter Ghyczy’s 1968 Egg Chair, which was a legitimate design object.

 

HH: I think when I was young the thing that was interesting was Habitat and Conran, and then the wonderful classics like Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer. I always thought they were incredibly smart.

 

JL-T: What do you like about Le Corbusier?

 

HH: I think the pieces of furniture he designed were incredibly sculptural, he had a daybed that is very uncomfortable to sit on but wonderful.Then there are his block-like chairs, the Grand Confort, also very uncomfortable but unique and really something that made you look. Bauhaus interiors with this style of furniture are beautiful, but too bleak really for me. I remember in the 1980s I went to New York where I stayed at Morgans hotel which had been designed by Andrée Putman and it was very chic, one of the first boutique hotels. Part of my work there involved mixing paint colours so I had a nail brush to clean my hands, and remember thinking it looked awfully out of place.That’s why I think it’s terribly important for people to remember that interiors are for human beings, sometimes they think they’re for robots who don’t have... any things that they quite like. I think that look photographs much better than it feels to be in. Purpose has got to come into the equation.

 

JL-T: Even if they aren’t relevant to your practice, are you inspired by these images of very sleek, bleak interiors?

 

HH: Of course.When you get older you realise you need a lot less.At a certain age you want everything but then you think gosh, it’s marvellous what you can live without.

JL-T: What have been enduring influences on your work?

HH:There are lots of people. Billy Baldwin, a decorator from New York, has always interested me.Also Colefax and Fowler and theYellow Room [designed forAmerican heiress Nancy Lancaster] at 39 Brook Street.

JL-T: Do you work with hotels or restaurants? How do you approach non- domestic spaces?

HH: Sometimes but not often. I did a restaurant in Italy in an old building which had been the local school. It was part of a larger project in a village called Figini where I renovated the castle and a hamlet of eight villas.We then thought it would be nice to have a restaurant, so those renting the properties could dine out.The question was how to not over-furnish the space and still make the sound alright because they had a terracotta floor and noisy restaurants can be absolutely ghastly.You need to be able to hear the other person speak. I wanted to introduce some softness, something to absorb the sound, so we did some banquettes and curtains.

JL-T: You must have a very expert understanding of materials, not simply for how they look but how they function. Usually when I hear people speak about material its for arguably quite frivolous reasons, so I love the idea that materials work together not simply on a visual level but on a practical level.

HH:Yes.The banquettes are covered in what I call ‘bus fabric’, it’s very strong with a beautiful colour but doesn’t look too industrial.The chairs have seats in leather, which just gets nicer as it gets older. Nobody is going to thank me if every time someone sits in a chair it gets marked. People can be very extravagant about decoration and treat it like a fashion, but I think it costs too much to do things beautifully for it to not last a bit of time.

 

JL-T: With old or delicate objects, how do you display them without it looking too museumy?

HH: I think you can put plates on a stand in a bookcase, or flat as an ashtray or with a bit of lavender inside.When you have a very beautiful object it’s nice to be able to see it, rather than putting it away in the cupboard.You can buy a plate at Peter Jones or Ikea, but sometimes it’s better to have a very beautiful, decorative plate.Why not have one from 14th century China?

JL-T: Do you believe that form and function do on the whole co-exist? That there’s no reason not to make what we use attractive?

HH: Yes, I think it’s very important to.Teacups are an example, people have got very trendy about teacups.You can have a beautifully shaped teacup and as long as it has a sensible handle you can use it.

JL-T: I suppose culturally we see tea as something superficial or extraneous so the teacup is an inherently intricate object. It’s quite easy to treat it that way. For other objects, form and function tend to be kept more separate.

HH: It’s very nice to have tea out of a beautiful cup. But I suppose if you are in need then an Ikea cup would do just as well. I remember reading a description by Hermann Hesse of people drinking wine out of little terracotta tumblers and it just sounded very nice. I think you can take something meant for something else and use it in a different way. Generally, I think things being bought to be used on high days and holidays is not a good idea. If you buy something that’s beautiful than use it and if it gets broken then it gets broken.

JL-T: How do you come across new objects?

HH: I’ll go anywhere, even junk shops, though one day I was driving past the Afridi Gallery in a taxi and saw something in the window that I loved. I thought it was a huge bit of rock crystal and came in to investigate but it was a glass structure made in Murano by the Japanese sculptor (Ritsue Mishima?).

JL-T: I know the one, quite ice-like. And you’ve kept it for you?

HH: Exactly. I tell everyone it’s an ice sculpture and I’m having a party...! But when I passed it I immediately thought it was really beautiful so yes its mine.The worst thing in my work is that you see so many things you really like and you have to decide if you can live without them.

 

JL-T: There’s been a lot of debate recently about cultural appropriation. Do you believe that style is culturally specific or are you more interested in cultural exchange?

 

HH: I’m not one to think a look has to be totally purist, so I will mix English and European furniture as long as it looks coordinated.With Oriental or African objects I’ll also use whatever works as long as it blends in and doesn’t cause people to think ‘oh you’ve gone ethnic’. It’s got to work as a whole.A beautiful object could come from anywhere, even Scotland...!

JL-T: Has anyone tried to label your style?

HH: I think there’s so much nonsense about interior decoration at the moment, so much said about it, if someone’s being nancy I just say: “Ach, I’m a house furnisher!”