When Penny Met Nicky

PENNY McCORMICK meets REDOUBTABLE INTERIOR DESIGNER, author and socialite
NICKY HASLAM to discuss paint, parties and Primark …

It’s about evolution rather than reinvention,” says Nicky Haslam, 79, who is dressed head-to-toe in Primark. “So convenient and easy to wear – all I need to do is change T-shirts,” he says of today’s outfit comprising a hoodie, sweatpants, high-top trainers and a Lonsdale rucksack. It’s not the sort of garb one expects of the society decorator and perennial party-goer, but then nothing about Haslam is expected. He qualifies his current sartorial choice: “I think the last great revolution in men’s clothes was denim. People hated it but now even old men, like me, wear it, or at least I used to. I believe athleisure is really the only recent trend that will continue.”

Ordering an espresso, white toast and apricot jam, he reclines into his seat in the Lobby Lounge at Claridge’s – a milieu he knows intimately. “One of the best parties I ever attended here was organised by Lady Elizabeth Anson for the Queen in honour of Charles and Diana’s wedding. I walked in to see all of the crown princes of Europe, plus Nancy Reagan, watching wedding footage on TV and comparing notes on outfits. It was wonderful. I danced with one of the Spanish Infantas and Freddy Ashton to Lester Lanin’s music,” he reminisces. Diana often went to lunch with Haslam, though he thought her dress sense “appalling” – I beg to differ but am enjoying the glossip. Haslam is one part Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, two parts Debrett’s Peerage and one huge dollop of fun.

Haslam’s creative talents extend to writing (four books – A Designer’s Life, Folly de Grandeur, Redeeming Features and Sheer Opulence), cabaret singing (he’s just finished a series of shows at The Pheasantry supper club) and cooking. For dinner parties, “I believe in a showy thing to begin with and usually serve mousse aux foie gras – which I make myself and put in a mould in aspic. The mousse lightens the foie gras and I serve it with kiwi fruit. After that I usually have something like sausages and mash. I always remember Lady Diana Cooper’s advice on what to serve for dinner parties – “Too much to drink and a chocolate pudding.” He recommends I read The Plagiarist in the Kitchen by Jonathan Meades. Indeed Haslam is publishing Good Taste – A Decorator’s Cookbook, which is being crowdfunded, and will feature recipes he has picked up from famous friends with accompanying anecdotes. I suspect the anecdotes will be more compelling than the recipes. “Have I told you my Gore Vidal story? Or about Jean Shrimpton and I turning up late for a party in New York?” His appetite for socialising is driven by his boundless energy. “I always get something out of an occasion. Even if I meet boring people, I collect their boring remarks.” His best parties? “The early Vanity Fair Oscar parties thrown by Graydon Carter [a personal friend] were magical – Old Hollywood actresses like Jane Russell were there; you never knew who you’d see.”

He has also attended numerous house parties in Ireland with Lady Dufferin at Clandeboye in Bangor and as a guest of Desmond and Penny Guinness at Leixlip Castle. His maternal relatives, I learn, were Ponsonbys, several of whom moved to Ireland in the 18th century, building properties including Bessborough House in Kilkenny (burned in The Troubles), Kilcooley Abbey and Bishopscourt. “There is a wonderful Ponsonby chapel at Fiddown with all of the family memorials which I asked James Fennell to photograph a few years ago,” he tells me.

More coffee is ordered … These days he isn’t actively seeking new interiors projects, though is constantly refreshing existing clients’ homes – popstars and oligarchs are on his roster. “Aspects of decorating have changed – now everything is online and people want things instantly,” he laments. “Very few are prepared to wait for rare, precious, bespoke things which I find such a pity. There are many competent installers but it’s rare that someone has an eye,” he adds. That said, Haslam admires the work of William Muir at Ballyfin though admits hotel decoration projects are not easy.

As for rules, Haslam believes houses have a voice of their own and elucidates: “A room should make you smile when you enter it. The point of decoration is to make people feel prettier and look comfortable.” No-nos include ceiling lights (“they make all men appear bald”), a central chandelier (“it begs for something underneath”) and bookcases either side of the fireplace (“try low bookcases all round the room instead”). Always have a pink bathroom – “a shell pink with mauve undertones gives a lovely glow to the skin”. He avoids clichés, and his flat in London is a homage to all things faux – from the marbling to the magnolia boughs. “I like rooms to be gay in the old-fashioned sense,” he says, and admits he is a huge fan of Dorothy Draper, citing Draper’s La Quintadina outside Rio as a favourite style steal.

For now he’s concentrating his energies on a second collection of environmentally friendly colours for his collaboration with Paint the Town Green. “I’m trying to create the perfect red – it should be orange-based rather than blue – as well as a kingfisher paint that’s neither blue nor green.” He holds no truck with deliberating over shades of white; rather time should be spent when working with strong colours, taking into account how colour reflections from outside impact on the shades indoors. Noted!

Although life has served up side dishes of debilitating illness, and personal ups and downs, Haslam is resilient. Many of his clients are friends; he’s definitely one of life’s “radiators” and is neither mawkish nor malicious. He’s just been aboard the QE2 as a guest speaker – distilled into humorous soundbites of “delicious food”, “I wanted to kidnap the Chilean butler”, “fog the entire way home,” “it took a week to reach dry land”. It’s easy to see why he’s everyone’s favourite guest.

This year he is hoping to record a second album and, having recently reviewed Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair diaries (for The Oldie), he acknowledges his autobiography Redeeming Features begs for an update. The problem is he doesn’t keep a diary, “I should just make notes and then embroider.” Spontaneously he comes up with a good title for another book: Seven Degrees of Decoration.

We finish by coming full circle; Haslam clarifies his sartorial choice is as much a mindset as a modus operandi. “I think it’s about being current, ensuring I live in the moment. It’s not just dress sense. I think it’s important to bring writing and language up to date too.” ^

www.nh-design.co.uk; www.paintthetowngreen.biz.

Penny McCormick

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