A decorator by royal appointment
08 DECEMBER 2015| By Elfreda Pownall
Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: the very rich are not so very different from you and me. “It’s the same in a palace or a cottage, people want to sit down comfortably and slop around,” says Robert Kime. And nowhere can they slop around in such comfort as in the homes created for them by this antiques dealer and interior decorator.
A new book, Robert Kime, by Alastair Langlands, the first ever published on his work, shows 12 homes he has designed since 1985. When the Prince of Wales took over Clarence House after the death of the Queen Mother, Kime was called in to redecorate, and his work is shown in the book. He was also the choice of Gela Nash-Taylor, co-founder of Juicy Couture, when she and her husband John Taylor, bass guitarist of Duran Duran, bought a 17th-century manor house in Wiltshire, which is also shown. There is an exquisite hunting lodge, decorated for one of the five dukes whose stately homes Kime has worked on, as well as a beach house in the Bahamas, and a Provençal farmhouse. Homes belonging to the Kimes are included too: a tiny Irish cottage, a tin house built from a former village hall, and his present home, a warren of rooms above his shop near the British Museum.
And it is here, sinking into a sofa of cloud-like softness, that you realise that the very rich are different – at least in the sofa department. “Palace or cottage – you just scale it up or down,” says Kime, flicking through the book. “I didn’t think I was the sort of person who wanted a book. And, though there are decorating principles here, it’s not a decorator’s book, it’s more a summation of what I do,” he says. He is right. It is not about the latest look or the “new” colour; it is more a design biography, showing a personal style he has perfected, using historical knowledge, and an uncanny ability to put a room together so it looks and feels right.
Born in Hampshire in 1946, Kime was first interested in antiques on a small scale. He collected coins as a schoolboy and speculated about their history. He left school at 16 with four A-levels and worked on archeological digs in Greece and Masada. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he was reading history when a sudden family crisis meant he had to sell his mother’s furniture to raise money. It was heart-rending to have to lose the pieces he had grown up with. “But selling them was how I learned,” he says. “It was vital to get the maximum price for every item.” To do so, he learned as much as possible about each piece, its ideal price and buyer. “It stopped me being an amateur,” he says.
It was also early training. He was soon dealing antiques to pay for university, even selling objects to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Undergraduates are usually moved to different rooms every year, but Kime persuaded the bursar of Worcester College to allow him to keep his room, so antique dealers would know where to find him.
After leaving Oxford, Kime used that charisma and confidence to attract the renowned scientist Miriam Rothschild. Within half a day of their meeting she had commissioned him to sell an attic-full of her family’s 18th-century furniture, and later helped him set up his first antiques shop. The extraordinary variety and quality of the furniture and objects in his shop, and later in a warehouse adjoining his home in Wiltshire, was a magnet for antiques dealers: Arts and Crafts tables, textiles from Ghana, Uzbekistan and Turkey, French farmhouse linens, metal lanterns, fossils, Iznik tiles, deep-buttoned Victorian sofas were all on view and wonderfully arranged in the warm and beautiful homes made by Kime and his late wife Helen Nicoll, the creator of the Meg and Mog children’s books.
Kime became an interior decorator by default, giving up his Fridays to design houses for people who, after seeing his warehouse and his home, asked him to make their home look just like his. He is considered the most erudite and prestigious decorator in Britain, yet it is difficult to discover just how he does it. There is a story of him turning up to help a friend who didn’t like her sitting room. He came armed with one mirror, two pictures and three strong men. All he did was re-arrange everything, and by the evening its owner said it was perfection.
“It’s not about the things,” he says, “they are far less important than how you live in the room.” But plainly the “things” inspire him: “Wonderful,” he says, grinning when he tells you where he found a particular chair or rug. “Most of my rooms begin with a rug,” he says. “And then you have your star piece, maybe a mirror or a picture, and it all just fits into place.”
Recently Kime has been unable to find all the antiques and vintage fabrics he needs, so he has copied some of his favourites. A typical example of his care with these new designs is one of the hand-embroidered fabrics. “For this yellow pattern I used four different shades, from nearly-green, to almost-brown to yellow, to pale primrose,” he says. “That way, the fabric looks lively, and it is the way the original vegetable dyes would have aged.” This is a man who has trained his eye since childhood, who creates calm, comfortable and eminently covetable interiors.
BOOK REVIEW: THE NEW ROBERT KIME
“A room should represent the absent owner, its arrangement is the owners memory”
In the newly published book by Alastair Langlands, Robert Kime reveals that he follows in the tradition Mario Praz ‘s Philosophy of Furniture and that his rooms represent the character of their owner. From this point of view, this beautifully produced book becomes even more fascinating. Not only can the reader observe the genius of Kime’s work but also take pleasure in attempting to gain insight into the character and personality of the owner.
The Dining Room South Wraxall Manor. Photographer Tessa Traeger.
Considering Robert Kime’s importance for many years as the undisputed King of interior decoration, this book is remarkably understated and discreet. Decorator to half the aristocracy, a plethora of rock stars and most importantly The Prince of Wales, this book provides a wonderful opportunity to see his work.
Beautiful cantilevered staircase created by Mary Lou Arscott, at La Gonette Provence. Photographer Tessa Traeger
From surprisingly humble cottages, to the gorgeous romantic fantasy of South Wraxall Manor, home of John Taylor and Gela Nash Taylor, we pass through Royal, Ducal, and palatial residences, via the Caribbean and South of France. To the discerning eye, it is possible to begin to distil a few of the elements of Kime’s genius and the magic that he weaves. The book covers a period of over twenty years and it is also notable to see how timeless the work is and how many of the ideas have been adopted by the mainstream over the years.
Bathroom, Royal Terrace Edinburgh. Photograph James Mortimer.
Famous for working on the “eye”, Kime began his career as a dealer, and when his CV is read backwards it seems it was almost inevitable that he would end up as decorator to the Prince of Wales.
The Sitting Room at Upper Farm. The Kime family home for several years. Photograph Tessa Traeger.
Following studying history at Oxford and an early break working for Mirriam Rothschild, Kime moved to Sotheby’s then back to Oundle to set off on his own - A career path that would eventually lead to becoming one of the greatest interior decorators of his age.
Robert Kime has worked with both of the great dealer decorators, Geoffrey Bennison and Christopher Gibbs, and throughout the book it is easy to see their influence on his work, especially in the magical arrangement of objects and his trademark antique and later own label textiles. This sensational visual vibration, between beautiful and sometimes disparate shapes and patterns, chosen and arranged on the eye, is the essence of his work.
Dining room at the Duke of Beauforts Maison du Plaisance, Swangrove. The owners presence embodied in the order of the garter flasks on the chimney piece. Photographer Fritz von der Schulenburg
The rooms created by Robet Kime and featured throughout the book by Langlands are not formally ostentatious, although they are very smart. Even when very strong pieces are used, as in The Garden Room at Clarence House, they are offset against other pieces of equal value, giving a sense of overall richness and wonder. The patterns and colours resonate against each other delightfully, with the subtext of visual harmony feeding the critical eye and distinguishing his work from his many impersonators.
Drawing Room, Royal Terrace Edinburgh. Photographer James Mortimer.
Overall, this book is not only a shining example of the literary eye of Alistair Langlands, but also a visual feast of exquisite works by Robert Kime, - definitely one for the festive wish list.
Robert Kime: Text by Alistair Langlands
Photographs by Tessa Traeger
Frances Lincoln Limited October 2015