06 May 2013

Girls on Top

Fresh back from Grand Designs Live where I gave a talk.....

i’m thinking blue, and other thoughts on interior design 

.....and assisted Kevin, alongside architect Phil Coffey, handout the awards we had judged.

As the girls came up on stage - Lucy Marston won Best House and Laura Dewe Matthews won Best Small Project - I couldn't help but think about the role of gender in the design of architecture, and if not gender per se then perhaps a gender-orientated approach. Could there be such a thing? 

It is a question I was first made aware of when I had an agency that represented architects and designers, "matching" them to clients, and discussed in a talk I gave some years ago now to the Nike European Women's Conference entitled (rather snappily I thought) "The Feminisation of a Man-Made World". 

Controversial territory perhaps. And perhaps a chance for some robust debating at next year's Grand Designs Live?


26 April 2013

They Could be Heroes: Architects and the Housing Crisis

The planning minister has bugged my studio: Nick Boles exhorted developers this week to build beautiful places. You heard it here first. Well maybe not, but that's my story. While the "housing crisis" is complex at least aesthetics have finally become part of the debate.

Here's quite an interesting article about the commercialisation of the architecture profession - watch out Portland Place - and the commodification of architecture itself:


Quite exciting stuff, especially in the week that Zaha Hadid won Business Woman of the Year (is there a Business Man of the Year???). The housing crisis presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for architects to be the heroes of the piece and quite literally save the country.

The Case Study programme of the post WW2 period in California is surely an inspiring template when it comes to revolutionising the way we think about the buildings we live in (and their location). At the same time we would do well to study the causes of this "crisis": population growth and social mores.

The more people, and the more people living singularly or in smaller "units", the more homes that need to be created, along with all the associated infrastructure.

As we are not the only creatures on this planet is it really acceptable to address the "housing crisis' from one end only, that of building more homes, and not to also think of creative, positive ways to manage what has created a pressure on housing in the first place?

Sadly it feels like discussion of the drivers behind population growth, and even the benefits of the family, though inextricably connected to the issue of housing, is mean spirited, smacking of xenophobia and social engineering. And yet a problem can only be throughly solved if it is thoroughly understood, as any designer or architect will tell you.

12 April 2013

buildings that break your heart

When I was 14 years old I spent what-feels-like-a-whole summer now, but was probably only 3 maybe 2 weeks, in a place called Abbotsbury in West Dorset with my Grandmother.


Those few weeks were amongst the most joyful of my "growing-up" and, on reflection, a kind of going-away party for my childhood. 


Abbotsbury is on the coast, in fact on the famous geological phenomenon that is Chesil Beach, and by any estimation is chocolate-box pretty. Back in 1981 it was still very much an agricultural village.

My grandmother had gone to Abbotsbury to live with her brother, my Great Uncle Charlie, a year or so previously. Both widowed it made sense for these two siblings, who clearly loved each other's company, to keep each other company. And they did, with much fun had on whist drives at The Swan and gardening in their allotment. 


Charlie had long past retired from his post as stationmaster at Abbotsbury Station, lost to Beeching back in 1952, and lived in a cottage in the village belonging to the Estate, that is the Ilchester Estates, owners of Abbotsbury, plus quite a bit more of Dorset, not to mention West London, namely Holland Park.


When Charlie died in the Spring of '81 it seemed like  a good idea that I visit that Summer: my Mother was doubtless glad of some respite from a teenager and my Grandmother ceased to be alone. At least for a while.

So the cottage I stayed in with my Grandmother was in fact Charlie's. Though in reality it belonged to "the Estate", whose rent was paid at the Estate Office in the village every month.

Living in East Devon now it's a short distance to Abbotsbury, and one of my favourite haunts, the Sub-Tropical Gardens, where even on a Winter's day you can imagine yourself in the Caribbean, at least if you're inside the plantation style restaurant. And maybe have a glass of wine or three.

Turning up in Abbotsbury recently my love and I made the usual pilgrimage to Rosemary Lane, the site of my Grandmother's cottage, and as we stood there the owners returned from a trip out. We explained why we were staring at their home and in turn they told us that the cottage had that day gone on the market for sale and would we like a tour. We of course accepted (lovely, lovely owners).

What followed was, well, I fumble for the words to explain that dreamy visit.

Arranged over two floors my Grandmother's home consisted of no more than 350 sq ft, 219 square feet on the ground floor with the rest upstairs. (This is but a third of the cottage now for sale, the adjacent and larger property having been connected to make one dwelling.)

With the bathroom - well loo and a basin outside - the kitchen was then confined to a section of the ground floor of mainly dining/living room, with massive fireplace. Upstairs were two bedrooms.

From the back garden you can see St Catherine's Chapel, far away on the hill, and to the right I could see in my mind's eye my Uncle Charlie's ridiculous, fabulous gladioli.

Tears inevitably flowed. 

Though my business is buildings it's amazing to me how powerfully buildings - even the simplest - grab our hearts....even for a lifetime. 

For a sneak peak at this piece of heaven go to http://www.primelocation.com/for-sale/details/28142711?search_identifier=d25cfcea0c446695b801d5a1f6a6578c

And do visit Abbotsbury for everything above plus The Swannery and a breathtaking Tithe Barn.






18 March 2013

What skills & experiences do the next generation of creative professionals need? - Naomi's keynote speech for the Design Ventura Conference at London's Design Museum 18/3/13

Open any newspaper these days and there will be yet another story about our education system. Amazingly, after 1000's of years of what we understand as education, since the days of Aristotle and Plato, we in the UK are still tinkering with the curriculum, which can only be a rather dangerous thing.

Recently there has been a lot of debate over the so-called E Bacc, with a focus on what have been described as core academic subjects. To someone of my generation, where we studied core subjects as a matter of course, it’s all a bit baffling. Why would you not want a child to study and become proficient in English, Maths, Sciences, Languages, history, geography etc.

During the debate there was pretty much uproar in the design community about the absence of a design course within the proposed E Bacc. I have to say I did not share this concern, though I was worried about any absence of a study of art.

For me design is a process that draws on many, many subjects – that’s what makes it such a brilliant job. To be really effective as a working designer you need a really good grounding not solely in design but in "feeder" subjects, such as those core subjects I just mentioned.

I have recently designed a range of taps that are informed by the anti-microbial properties of copper and copper alloys - so that's my Chemistry O level put to good use.

I have just designed some student accommodation where a study of astronomy influenced the design of a 14th floor common room.

I am currently working on a country house where the study of the history of vernacular architecture and even zoology has been fundamental to the devlopment of the design, where we are planning to incorporate a bat roost into new sections of building.

So to study “design” at school, at a cost to core subjects,  carries with it the same risks as a course in “media studies” i.e. intellectual strangulation. Did Martin Scorses take a course in "media studies"?

I’d also like to add that the opportunity to study subjects such as the sciences, languages, history and geography can be as short-lived as childhood itself and so should be cherished.

Further careers are no longer one-dimensional, especially in design. The portfolio career is common-place, as I know from experience, and can be both exciting and nerve-racking. I design interiors and products, I advise companies who sell products, I write books and journalism, I present TV programmes and films on design plus lots of other stuff. So again, this for me is another reason why young people now more than ever need a thorough education in fundamental subjects so they can fully exploit the vissiccitudes and vagaries of modern working life.

At the same time for young people to study “design” in school is an unmatchable opportunity to see how traditional academic subjects can come alive and be applied to real life, just as in my own projects and frankly any other designer's, and in so doing have a real experience of how the life of work, works.

What is also invaluable in any design education in schools is the opportunity to teach pupils problem-solving – a core life skill. When I first went to design college not only did I appreciate having a whole world of design and art opened up to me but also being trained in the process of design, a process that requires visual literacy, lateral thinking, collaboration, observational skills, invention, an understanding of context and the skill and confidence to persuade others of your ideas – or in simple terms, selling.

Even if children do not go on to be designers I cannot think of a better way of training children in such invaluable life skills and being part of and observing Design Ventura has made this crystal clear.

Further, recent economic disasters have proven that our society and the politicians we have elected and in some notable cases, not elected, have little grasp of only spending what we earn: projects like Design Ventura can teach children financial literacy too, helping them learn the importance of maths, statistics and risk management.

In fact the advertising guru Sir Martin Sorrell recently said “we are all mathematicians now” – advertising now needs creatives who can also respond to the data produced by the world of social media.

Creativity and visual literacy - an understanding of design, art, architecture and ideas - is a life skill that has benefits not only to the individual though but of course to our society at large.

I have written widely on the benign, confidence-boosting effects of living in a home that is redolent of our own creativity, that is tailored to the way we and our household want or need to live. At the same time, when I was making TV shows, someone told me they thought I was over-critical of people’s design choices in their homes. My response was and is that just as the integrity of the family has a fundamental effect on the wellbeing of our society so taking responsibility for our man-made environment begins in the home.

I see the architecture of a building and the design of say a table or a TV being part of the same conversation. The NPPF (the national planning policy framework) is forcing us to think deeply about the way we want to develop our country and yet the response is terrifyingly chaotic in the face of unsustainable population growth.

Perhaps with better design training in schools the next generation will be more fluent in what constitutes good design, from transport infrastructure to rural development and what constitutes genuinely ecologically sustainable design?

I was at EcoBuild recently and was horrified to see nearly 25% of this exhibition full of PV panels, mostly made in China. How can this be sustainable design when the products are made thousands of miles away, in dubious circumstances that result in an astonishingly ugly product?

Surely we can be cleverer than this? Which brings me back to my point about the importance of a broad education that inextricably links design and art with “academic” subjects, a relationship established around 600 years ago during the Renaissance and developed during the Enlightenment, over 200 years ago. If only the designers of those PV panels hadn’t only studied engineering but also art and architecture.

Visiting the exquisite Montacute House in Somerset recently I was reminded that beauty is an essential quality in sustainable design because if something is beautiful it will be cherished and it will last. Houses like Montacute are beautiful though because they are informed by a combination of maths, engineering, art, geology, history, craftsmanship, horticulture and many more – and it is this that is design, where breadth and depth of knowledge results in designers who can create the most valuable and enduring kinds of inventions.

26 February 2013

Newish Year, Newish Blog

So I've decided to start writing a "journal" (sounds so much nicer than "blog" which just sounds like "bog" or '"blob" - not sure which is worse) again, partly because I am discovering so many brilliant new things, so many I wonder if I'll have the time to write about them. Dammit! I shall make time. And so more to follow.

03 January 2012

"Top Tips" for 2012.

With the New Year I think it’s time to wrap up the story of my (today very storm racked) new home and summarise the lessons learned, this, after all, being the purpose of this particular exercise: to share and learn.

The biggest lesson has been to never trust a roofer. Even the firm recommended to us by one of the largest roofing systems manufacturers in the UK took 9 months to do a 9 week job, with works still incomplete. I suppose I could update you on the imminent vicissitudes through to final completion but, in all honesty, it’s simply too boring to even contemplate. I’m sure you will agree. In essence the “largest roofing systems manufacturer” has undertaken to complete but we are still waiting over a month after their site visit. Like I say, never trust a roofer. Or a man in a red sportscar. Or a man who likes cats. Or a man in a necklace. And definitely don’t trust a roofer, in a red sports car, wearing a necklace (or indeed a bracelet) and whose clothing is sprinkled with tell tale cat hairs.

The second biggest lesson is if you find just a small bit of asbestos in a building the likelihood is that there will be a whole load more in places you hadn’t thought there would be e.g. a bit sawn up to create an ironing board. This, in spite of the previous owner being part of the scientific team that established the link between asbestos and lung disease: such a pedigree is no guarantee of the absence of asbestos.

Likewise, where there is asbestos there is a strong likelihood of there being pitch fibre drains. As I have said in earlier posts this is another sadly suspect building products invention of the 1960s, and one that invariably fails within decades. Meanwhile the terracotta and stone drains of the Romans, a civilization not entirely unknown in this part of the world, are still going strong.

But enough whinging, especially as building wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without a few challenges. In addition to lessons learned are those things that I have been reminded of, the primary factor being engaging a really good contractor, and contingent to this is taking time to research firms, their references and even their financial soundness. In this we has some luck with N. J. Whittaker Ltd.

Herewith a few other “top tips”, as the shelter mags like to call them, that I hope will guide and inspire you in any renovation you undertake this new year:

- in spite of my comments above on roofers if your roof needs fixing, fix this first, so that all the new work you need to do inside is not ruined by the weather.

- if fitting new windows and glass doors be sure you are advised by a structural engineer as the window company will not always provide in this regard.

- always insist on seeing samples and look at them in situ. And don’t be afraid to change your mind if what you thought would look good doesn’t. We’re talking a home in which we hope you will live a number of years so it’s worth getting it right.

- never take just one person’s advice. Experts will nearly always have different opinions, which are often usefully free. Make your own informed mind up.

- do be nice to your builders. They are delicate flowers and need to be loved. The odd box of doughnuts helps, especially if you’re building through the winter.


- if you’re battling with a partner over decor decisions just think about whether you would want to save them from your burning home or your cushions: some things aren’t worth fighting over.

- always negotiate on everything, especially in these trying times. People want business and you’ve got the business to give.

- budget, budget, budget. Set up that excel spreadsheet and regularly check actual figures against those you’ve projected so you can stay on top. Always factor in 20% contingency in a renovation. And if you find something extraordinary – as we did with the asbestos and drains – be prepared to drop what could be described as an indulgence, in our case a green roof, and deal with it another time when times are less stressful.

- If you are renovating a property that’s been empty for 2 years or more you should only be paying VAT at 5% instead of 20%. Not many people know this and the VAT office isn’t exactly advertising the fact either. No matter what the circumstances of you and your property it’s probably a good idea to check your status with HMRC to see what benefits are available to you as a hard-working, responsible, law-abiding, tax-paying renovator. Good luck with that!

- only finalise your lighting and electrical plan once you know exactly what fittings you are going to use. Where you might indicate a single pendant you may in fact want a cluster if you find a particularly fetching fitting that would suit clustering. It makes things much more straightforward when it comes to the Scope of Works and the Final Account.

- liaise with your electrical contractor on your choice of appliances so you can be sure he/she has allowed for any special feeds.

- try to avoid transformers. They are a pain.

- keep lighting schemes flexible to serve infinitely variable functions. A rash of recessed spot lights or simply central pendant lights are often unnecessary in spaces other than kitchens and bathrooms, when you can have circuits of well placed table lamps.

- if your decorators raise their eyebrows at your choices this is, officially, a good sign. They will usually say how much they like your scheme at the end and this is nothing to do with the fact they are after their final payment, honest.

- decorators are not a fan of poncy paints, paints that are called things like "Mouse's Arse" or "Elephants Turd". And nor am I actually. Dulux offer a thoroughly comprehensive colour range, and will match any colour, and have loads of different finishes which decorators love to work with. Having said this I understand Little Greene is acceptable too. 

- the internet is your friend. Try not to worry about bum-spread as you sit at your computer for hours, sometimes days, as you trawl through its depths. I found a seagrass wallpaper for £25 per roll instead of the £250 per roll it was being sold for by Nobilis. Though I probably could have earned ten times what I saved in the time I spent researching, it felt like it was worth it.

- ebay is your friend too. Why buy new when the world is already so full of stuff? But we really need to do something about the excess of packaging! Also try furnish.co.uk. It seems to be much more discerning that mydeco.

- a home is not complete when you move in so do not fear if it doesn’t feel like home. Real homes need stuff, the flotsam and jetsam of life. I like to use an interpretation of the saying, “something old, something new......” when assembling rooms. Try it. 

- it’s the small things that can really count. Don’t settle for white plastic or brushed steel switches and sockets, or brushed steel door furniture: look for something different for individuality at all levels. I chose the bakelite rocker switches and sockets from Bromleighs. And bronzed steel door handles from SDS.

- don’t be afraid to consider recycling and repurposing fixtures, fittings and building materials. It will make for a much richer scheme and save you in landfill fees.

- don’t worry about trends or what others think is fashionable. Read my book, "The Joy of Home", or attend one of my courses to find out how to develop your own creative ideas into successful design schemes.

- I think that’s it for now. So enjoy! 

11 November 2011

The New/Old Cosy: sheets, blankets and a proper eiderdown.


Two eiderdowns in Liberty print tana lawn just arrived for a guest bedroom from www.englisheiderdown.com. Thank you Robert and Jill. Totally gorgeous and I know they will last for years to come.

27 October 2011

I am not making this up, and other tails.

So the man from Chubb came by the other day to fit the alarm and associated box. Though our house is ostensibly a single story dwelling, the lowest roof being no more than about 2.5m high and, let’s not forget, flat, yes – that’s right – flat, the alarm man was prohibited from getting on a ladder to fit the box somewhere less noticeable (these are not pretty things after all) due to health and safety. Apparently, if our roof had been pitched, though much higher, he wouldn’t think twice about whipping out his extending ladder.

As the red mist began to descend, and I thought of my grandfathers fighting in the trenches, I decided it was best to leave the scene and let Oliver deal with matters. We now have a nice arrangement of alarm box juxtaposed with boiler vent and motion detector. I call it “alarm box juxtaposed with boiler vent and motion detector”.


I can confirm no cats were involved. But I can report, instead, the arrival of a fox.

Foxy noxy Foxy noxy 2





26 September 2011

A spot of french polish, or how a sow's ear can be made into a silk purse.


We really must be approaching the end of this project. The Final Account is finalised, the lampshades have been ordered and Bob the french polisher is in this morning to see if our doors can be saved.

Now some may argue that such tender loving care expended on rather cheap doors is a step too far. But I say the honeyed patina of age is a precious commodity and should be cherished and preserved where possible, especially if it means minimising landfill.

It is also a treat to watch a true craftsman at work. I'll let you know how we get on.


01 August 2011

You're Never Alone

Some of you have very sweetly contacted me wondering why I haven't "posted" for a while. The answer is I simply have not had the time. When I am not working, ironically in the pursuit of designing gorgeous homes and other spaces for my clients, the gaps in between are filled to bursting with answering the door and then answering questions to and of the myriad tradesmen and delivery people that currently bless this house, for we are in the period known as "snagging".

Snagging can take an amazing amount of time - mostly because it is when the trades have to return to make any corrections and when trades are very busy, as they seem to be now, snagging is not top of their lists. Thankfully on this job, and as a result of the quality of Whittaker's workmanship, snagging has been minimal.

There has been some though.

After lots of shenanigans to do with utterly ineffectually testing various sealants on various bits of granite flooring I can now confirm that boiled linseed oil is, as I suspected but no one else believed me, the solution to most problems floor related.

As for electrics, the moral of the story is "avoid transformers", "don't go on holiday when expensive A/V cable is being installed, no matter how clear your instructions" and point out that all positions indicated on your electrical plan are not a guide but carefully considered decisions.

Then there have been the days and days Adrian the decorator has been here, meticulously removing all the paint spots from sanitaryware, brassware, window frames, woodwork etc. (he is still not finished by the way! Just as well he is a nice and very quiet man.) In this case I have two words. Frog Tape.

Finally the curtain track saga has, hopefully, reached a conclusion and the lesson learned here is never, ever buy a Silent Gliss track through a high street supplier because they won't have a clue what they are doing and you will end up screaming with rage, wondering how you can have been fleeced of nearly £1,500 for a stupid track and weeks of eye-bleeding frustration. Talk about "We saw you coming." 

And a top tip here, in case you didn't know. If your curtain maker doesn't ask you what kind of system you want your roman blinds on do ask them to tell you the options or you may end up with something you do not want. For example, it is quite likely you will not want white plastic pea chains with horrid white plastic guards screwed into your freshly painted walls.

All I can say is that this is another wonderful lesson I have learned on behalf of my future clients. How giving am I?

Then there are the things that are not actually snagging but are being done only now due to a) late deliveries and b) late decisions. Yes. I hold my hand up. I had ambitiously planned to design a wallpaper for our hallway. And maybe decoupage the walls to the small guest bedroom. Both of these ideas went up in smoke when I realised I barely had time to order wallpaper on line. Which I finally did and Nick the decorator installed just last week.....


....here in the hallway and below in the bedroom. 

IMG01288-20110801-1038 IMG01289-20110801-1038

Must admit I love this room - there is something so comforting about a pretty floral wallpaper and carpet in a small, girl-sized bedroom.

The hallway paper is Sequoia from Kuboaa, which I have loved for years. The bedroom paper is from Harlequin - so secret garden.

One of the last remaining items is the plumbing and here again I am partly to blame for the fact that the bath - and this no ordinary bath but a beauty from William Garvey - in our "master en suite" is still not functional due to the fact that I have been using my own bathroom as a testing ground for my new collection of brassware.


The final part is due to arrive today - please GOD!!!!! - and Mike the plumber will install tomorrow, along with the final rads, rad valves, and adjust the pipework beneath the bathroom basins so it all fits neatly behind the duct wall instead of poking out from it.

We have also had some furniture delivered. 


The sofa has just returned from upholsterer Andrew Shakespeare - if anyone should be on tele it is Andrew with a brilliant Dudley accent, sense of humour and clearly a descendant of Will - and it is perfect, at least in my eyes, though husband has commented he has given up expecting furniture in our house to be comfortable. Cheeky!

The floor lamp to the side we have had for years and only recently unwrapped it from sheaths of almost impenetrable clingfilm (???) to find that our West Indian packers had taken it apart and then just thrown away the all important fixings, same as they had done with a few other things. That's the Windies for you. I tell you, it made us feel almost nostalgic. Fortunately we tracked down the man, Henry Hay, who had refurbished this vintage dentist's light in the first place, and popped up to his holiday home in Somerset one weekend for him to fix.


If only he could source a top to go on our Guzzini lamp which I ironically lost when I was having the thing lovingly re-chromed just before we left for Nevis. Husband says it looks fine but I know it's missing its little chapeau. Here it stands next to a love seat from Conran - another thing I have coveted for some time - and an amazing Eames-type stool from.....Marks and Sparks. The yellow patch of velvet a harbinger of a yellow velvet seat cushion. Husband insists!


Andrew Shakespeare also reupholstered this wing-backed chair that we inherited with the house and I love it. The thing I don't love is the reading light husband has insisted upon. When I challenge him on how it looks like something he's ordered out of the back of the Telegraph Saturday magazine, alongside all the ads for stairlifts, he just comes back at me with something infuriating like "why would we want something in this house that actually works after all?". Hmmm. Things can (and do by the way) work and look good too you know! In every deamhome.........


We are both loving, though, our dining chairs. I picked up 8 G-Plan chairs from ebay for £500 - not bad - and then sourced a Josef Frank fabric called "Poison" - which naturally I thought v witty for a dining room - from Sweden. It's taking a while to get used to a mix of such strong primary and secondary colours but, as a celebrated Chinese female property developer once said, the best kind of design challenges our preconceptions.


I also bought my dressing table on e bay - for about £60. I hadn't planned to have a dressing table here but it was IMPOSSIBLE to find a decent chest of drawers. All the modern ones I found were either naff or hideously expensive. And all the vintage ones would have meant too much vintage bulk next to the vintage Danish bed - so we have a vintage dressing table which I may customise - or "upcycle" as we have to say these days.

IMG01297-20110801-1041 IMG01299-20110801-1041

Talking of vintage Danish I've had these beauties re-wired and they are back in action, both sets inherited with the house. The model on the right has black and white silk flex and mounted with proper brackets and on the left, bronze, mounted with a glue gun. Needs must.


I have found some good contemporary furniture and lighting though and a shining example is this slightly odd and very affordable storage unit from....Habitat. It really is so sad about the demise of this store, a pioneer of the "contemporary home" and "democratic design": Kathleen, my right hand woman, and I were reminiscing just the other day about how, when we were at school, how proud we would feel of our Habitat paper shopping bags. There was admittedly a little bit of swearing as husband and I put it together, he now officially the king of flat pack (I never thought I'd see the day but the day has indeed come). And it is marvellous and perfect for all my cook books.

Note lack of shade on the lamp though. Thinking of setting up a lampshade shop as am having to have 5 shades made as simply cannot find what I want. But then that goes for most things.

We are so far advanced we are even getting into details. I have invested in a French bread crock as my counter top compost bin (those plastic ones the council provide simply will not do)...


And as this is a chrome/stainless steel free home I have replaced all the little brushed s/s knobs around the place with these:


I also have my gravel drive - well almost. We just need 15 more tonnes of the stuff and we'll be finished. I'm told Kirsty has the very same stuff. Get me.

But in the frenzy to get the physical things complete I admit I am constantly questioning - for this is what I do in life - whether it all works, after so much labouring and agonising over the smallest details. And in this I must remind myself of the closing lines in my book. A real home accretes. Moving in after a build is not when your home is finished but when the home making begins.