The Romantic Perfectionism of an Overachiever
You hear that somewhat cringeworthy and hackneyed old phrase all the time. But what does it mean? What kind of person is a ‘national treasure’? Is it someone now famous, who is much admired for their extraordinary achievements? What about a woman who has confidently asserted her leadership in not one but several fields over several decades, even at times when it was more difficult for members of her sex? Or perhaps it’s a straight talking woman who is as strikingly beautiful as she is elegant, who will always arouse a passionate response – one way or the other – in anyone she meets. If it’s any of those then Anouska Hempel is most definitely a ‘national treasure’.
This year sees the long awaited publication by Thames and Hudson of an exceptionally sumptuous survey on her interior designs, ‘Anouska Hempel’ by Marcus Binney. On the face of it, Marcus – a distinguished architectural scholar, conservationist and archetypal man’s man – might seem an unusual choice as author of a book on interior design. As this book is such a resounding success, I would say he’s added another string to his bow. And as Anouska reveals in her exclusive interview with GDC Interiors Journal, her voracious appetites for design in several other key areas – including landscape design, couture and food and its presentation – will also be the subject of books that are in the pipeline.
Anouska is a woman of many firsts: The first boutique hotel; the first significant East meets West design; the first minimalist hotel in London; and a highly influential take on landscape design and food presentation. What emerges both from Binney’s book and also our interview, is a tireless and original talent, a Renaissance woman who not only thinks but also acts holistically; a ‘total designer’ in the mould of past masters who has both the vision and ambition to design complete environments. Anouska is a winner, and her success is no doubt partly owed to the fact that she is uncompromising – and one senses merciless – in her determination to fulfil any of her ambitions.
As everyone knows, she is also fun, mischievous and supremely Romantic in her tastes and creative output. As she explains: “Romantic places? I live in them all the time. Anywhere the trade routes have passed or the trade winds have blown – that’s my territory. I can dream myself into a desert playing footsie with Genghis Khan, or a military tent planning strategy with Napoleon. Wherever my imagination finds itself that’s where my rooms begin…. If a choice has to be made between style and comfort. Style wins every time.”* Anouska describes herself as an ‘intellectual Romantic’, and so she is, given that she has carved out several successful careers out of that particular drive.
Some may say that it’s all down to luck and privilege, and some of it surely is. It is so rare however that luck and opportunity favour the truly talented, so we are all fortunate when sometimes they hit their mark. We may not all be able to have our homes designed by her, stay in one of the many luxurious hotels she has created, nor have a wardrobe full of her gowns, but it’s undeniable that her talent has been widely influential. And yes her art is elitist, in the sense that she aspires to excellence in all things. But how dull and mediocre our lives would be if that was considered a worthy criticism.
*Quotation from ‘Anouska Hempel’ by Marcus Binney, published by Thames and Hudson
GDC Journal This is the first book on your interior designs. Why has it taken so long and will there be others?
Anouska Hempel I just haven’t had the time to work on a book before. In fact my husband commissioned this first book on my designs. What a nice idea and a nice surprise that was! A cook book is next. That’s half done as I’ve done all the recipes… so it’s on its way. And at some point this will be followed by a book on my couture work and following that there will also be one on the landscapes.
GDC Journal What are the places that have most inspired you?
Anouska Hempel Well, there are many places. I think that we can all be inspired by anywhere and anything. It depends on where you are and what you’re doing. The places that most powerfully inspire me are the ones with the impressive volumes. The Nanzen-ji temple in Kyoto for example is an amazing place with extraordinary volumes and openness. Part of the appeal of course is also the beautiful use of materials, including the detailing, like the metal banding that subtly decorates every column – all of which is completely fascinating to me.
The Far East has an enduring impact on me on lots of different levels, as it does on anyone who is lucky enough to have some experience of those rich and ancient cultures. Similarly I defy anyone to go to a pyramid for example without being completely blown away. I was lucky enough to see the truly extraordinary Aleppo and Syria before the tragic Syrian War. I was also impressed by the splendid classical remains at Palmyra. Going to Lebanon and the Middle East in general has had a strong effect on me, but unfortunately regional instability has shelved an exciting project I’ve been working on in Beirut (see the film below). I also love Istanbul which is such a magical and incredibly inspiring place, and I’m currently trying to fuse two cultures at that city’s historic and iconic Pera Palace Hotel.
GDC Journal On the whole your design mix seems to be more weighted towards Asian influences, but you do seem to be extremely comfortable with the Western architectural shell you normally have to work within.
Anouska Hempel Of course I am. But think about all the things I copy and overlay, for example Rococo and other styles… If you take me to Italy and leave me there in the 17th century, I’d be busy as anything with a gilding brush and a whatnot. And I’d be very happy rummaging around in Russia for all those extraordinary and exceptional fabrics and crafts that one could get one’s hands on in the old days. You take me to Istanbul I’d be doing the same thing. It doesn’t matter where I am. I just use my head and follow my nose, and try and get on with what I think that project – in whatever country it’s located – most needs. What I bring home to my work is always slightly different, and it isn’t always Asian. The idea of simplicity however – that I owe to Asian culture – is still very important to me. I suppose I am at heart an intellectual Romantic. I don’t really want to be in the picture that I’m painting. I get the most enjoyment from painting that picture for others.
GDC Journal What is it about Asian culture that makes it so popular in the West?
Anouska Hempel Well it’s been going for so damn long, before we even got started. I think I was probably the first one, in the modern period, to bring the ethnic side of things to the English. The French in particular have been doing Chinoiserie etc for years and they also loved the Japanese. So its been going on forever. From the point of view of the younger generation today, who have really taken to Asian styles, I believe that the appeal for them is that Asian styling is simple and easy to accomplish. I think it’s also very easy to take one flavour and stay with it. And the purity of the Asian way of life – which is less complicated than ours – makes it very much the direction for where I think we’re all headed.
GDC Journal What do you think of other styles that are not part of your work. Do you tolerate them, enjoy them or run away from them?
Anouska Hempel There are quite a few styles that I never work in, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy them. It’s just that I naturally play to my own strengths and particular interests. I can do Gothic but Nicky Haslam does it better. I can do rustic, but lots of other people can do that better than me. As for mid-century designs, I’ll have a go at it from time to time. It just doesn’t matter. I do tolerate all the other styles and really do enjoy them. I never run away from good design no matter what it is.
GDC Journal Which artists do you particularly admire?
Anouska Hempel Among modern artists I really like Lucio Fontana with his elegant slashed canvasses. As for the Young British Artists, I am not sure exactly who they all are, to tell you the truth. They may be cutting edge but they’re also rough. I suppose they’re an expression of our times, but the fact is I sometimes have to close my eyes to them. I am especially fond of the Romantics and also the Pre-Raphaelites including Burne Jones, who’ve always inspired me with the eccentricity of their romanticism at every single level.
GDC Journal As a designer who rigorously produces complete environments, do you identify with any of the masters of the past who were similarly motivated?
Anouska Hempel Of course like anyone I greatly admire the grandeur of designers like Robert Adam and William Kent and also the grand scale they worked on. I love the great exuberance that came into their work, their incredible skill, knowledge and talent. But those were different days. Who’s lucky enough to get commissions like those these days? More’s the pity. The fact is that few of us are able to express ourselves in that manner in the modern age. On the whole I would say that I’m particularly fascinated by Sir John Soane, and I can perhaps identify more closely with him, as he worked on a slightly more modest scale than some of the other great masters.
GDC Journal What would London look like if you had total design control over everything?
Anouska Hempel I’d certainly do things in a different way! I think it would be a rather grand and green sort of city, full of trees. I do regret the tragic disappearance of trees everywhere. I’d ensure that everywhere had a good mix of classes, rich and poor all together in communities, which may sound a bit utopian I suppose. On the whole my London, probably wouldn’t be a whole lot different to what exists now, but I certainly wouldn’t tolerate the terrible 60s and 70s buildings that have really scarred our landscape and cities. I am passionate about town planning and I’d love to get involved in it. We should of course really be thinking about affordable housing in a more intelligent way. I strongly believe that town planning on the whole should be focused on making life easier and more fun for people. I also believe in caring for our heritage, including many of the amazing buildings that we’ve inherited, in a far better way. Just think about the RAC or the East India Club for example. Those buildings are truly wonderful and we’re very fortunate that they have been left alone and no one has got at them. Leave the good things alone I say, and do better with the new things!
GDC Journal Have you ever considered film-making as a natural extension of your ‘total design’ ethic?
Anouska Hempel Yes I have and I’d be hopeless at it. I’d have to have somebody else doing it for me. I’d be worried that if I took my eye off for a minute then everything would go wrong. Quite frankly I don’t know that I’d be good enough with the discipline needed with the camera. But if I were to make a film it – and of course star in it – it would involve plenty of rustling, bustling Vatican skirts in some amazing bygone era. I’d be skipping down all the corridors of power, peeping in and out of everything!
GDC Journal Your own home (Cole Park) dates from the mid 16th century which you have had to greatly remodel. What was it about this historic building that stole your heart?
Anouska Hempel I am passionate about heritage and historic buildings and restorations, because of the romance and other evocative things, like the moat that surrounds my house for example. A moat is a very rare thing in Wiltshire and there really aren’t too many moated houses in our corner of the world. It was my job to put it to rights, add an Elizabethan and Jacobean collection and save the heritage for the future, and that was very important to me. The house also has a haha. I think they are the most important things to surround everybody and every thing with!
GDC Journal You have been championing British craftsmen in your work and often have everything made here, even when your project is abroad.
Anouska Hempel I have been with the same people for the last 20 years or so and I’m glad to say that they have actually got the hang of me. That’s how I like it and they also seem to like it as no one’s left in all these years! They know my drawings almost over the telephone. They don’t even need me to email them anything. All I need to do is to send a little old sketch and say, “do this, do that, remember the bed that we made for so and so, we’ll have three of those and four of the other, in a slightly different colour, and a metre shorter or longer. Good morning, good bye!”, and I can rely on my craftsmen to go through those notes and come back with something absolutely stunning. So we have a little workshop and I have wonderful people in all of the arts of England. Even in the couture years all the people were English, from the fitters to all the rest. We have absolutely incredible craftsmen here in this country, and if we don’t look after them, we won’t have any more left. So I passionately believe in supporting our crafts heritage!
GDC Journal You famously provide a manual for your clients at the end of a total design. Do you ever refer to any manuals in your own life or follow any belief systems?
Anouska Hempel Oh do you mean Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management! Joking aside, I do have strong spiritual beliefs. I do believe that there’s somebody, somewhere out there. Sometimes they’re looking after me and sometimes they’re not. Then I’ve got to behave and give something back again… so I’m a bit odd that way. It doesn’t matter what form that spirituality takes and I don’t mind finding it through a crucifix or a hole in the wall quite frankly. I believe that the important thing is that someone or something is out there.
GDC Journal An innate sense of harmony seems to be at the heart of all your work. Is that sense of harmony part of something bigger?
Anouska Hempel Yes I do hope so. I hope that I have something more important to give the world than just what you see on the level of where I’m living at the moment. I think my mission is to bring peace and harmony and a sense of enjoyment, and also to bring something special into ordinary every day life. I really have been very fortunate to have a little talent, and also incredibly fortunate to have had so many great opportunities. But I strongly feel that I am not the source of my own creativity, which must come from somewhere else.
Photography supplied courtesy of Anouska Hempel Design.
‘Anouska Hempel’ by Marcus Binney, published by Thames and Hudson