Saturday 27 May 2017

Interior designer to the stars Jo Hamilton shares her top tips for wall-to-wall style

She's decorated everything from her local pub to a Saudi spa, now interior designer Jo Hamilton - aka the Colour Queen - is bringing her gilded touch to Ireland. Our reporter gets some insider interiors tips from the grande dame of glamour

Gilded touch: Interior designer Jo Hamilton
Gilded touch: Interior designer Jo Hamilton
Plush pad: A house decorated by Jo Hamilton in London's Mayfair

Orla Neligan

We are just minutes into our interview on Skype when interior designer Jo Hamilton notices the bold print on the navy wall behind me. "Oooooh, I love that!" she enthuses. But then, this is the UK's 'Colour Queen' and Britain's most sought-after interior designer I'm talking to, with a portfolio of celebrity clients and projects that run the gamut from boats and jets to clubs, bars, hotels, spas and houses. I'm not surprised it's the first thing she clocks.

I'm quite chuffed with myself but dare not move my computer for fear of revealing the 'organised mess' below it. Jo Hamilton is about as far from an organised mess as is humanly possible: she is the perfect mix of demure and glamorous; taut, tiny, with a tumble of long, dark, glossy hair and a smile as wide as a movie screen. She is warm, funny and very relatable. Her feet, despite being permanently glued to a pair of six-inch heels, are very firmly on the ground.

All of that would be impressive on its own but then there's the fact that she hasn't just colonised the interior design world but is also making quite a name for herself as a respected public speaker (she's among the presenters at Grand Designs Live, a major exhibition born from the hit Channel 4 TV show), writer, furniture designer, broadcaster and consultant.

Jo is also an ambassador for House 2017, the second year of a new high-end event showcasing world-class interiors, art and design, which takes place in Dublin's RDS from May 26-28. Joining architect Dermot Bannon and interior designer Roisin Lafferty on the line-up, Jo will be giving seminars on each of the days.

Plush pad: A house decorated by Jo Hamilton in London's Mayfair
Plush pad: A house decorated by Jo Hamilton in London's Mayfair

Her interest in interior design was fuelled at the age of 13 following an awe- inspiring visit to the house of a friend's aunt in Kensington, London. She remembers it as though it were yesterday: "I was attending a christening at my friend's aunt's house. The door opened and it was as if someone had waved a wand," she trills excitedly. "I was absolutely transfixed by this beautiful house. It was like nothing I'd seen before and it really awakened something in me. I can still feel the excitement of that moment."

Even as a child, her pulse quickened at the prospect of a new interior. While her contemporaries were putting up posters of their favourite pop stars, she was rearranging her bedroom furniture and updating everything else her in her family home. "I moved my room around quite a bit," she laughs. "I was always painting things without permission and redesigning various rooms, much to my poor parents' dismay. I was the creative one amongst a sea of academics," she tells me.

After qualifying as a graphic designer, she went on to work in design agencies in London. Back then everything was hands-on, her time spent cutting, pasting and chopping for moodboards. As someone who loves getting her hands dirty, her passion for graphic design started to wane once everything became computerised, and she retrained as an interior designer.

Her first job 22 years ago was to redesign her local pub, a job that bestowed on her the title 'the Colour Queen' for her use of strong, bold hues. As she was young and inexperienced at the time, I wonder if she actually knew what she was doing or was it more about statement making? She laughs loudly and knowingly.

"Well, a little of both. I do look back and cringe a little but I've always loved colour and the impact it can make to a space. I did earn myself quite the title after that job but it opened up a lot of doors for me and afforded me the opportunity to open my own design business. I suppose, the difference between then and now is that while I still love colour, I use it in a more subtle way."

Is that what she's learnt most about herself in design terms over the years? "I enjoy stretching myself but I've learnt that it's not about me but about creating something beautiful and enhancing someone's life. Back then, it was about the 'wow' factor and being bold; now it's more about the client."

She considers herself a risk taker when it comes to design but not in a "frightening" way; it's more about experimentation. The worst advice she ever got was to play it safe, that it would guarantee a steady stream of middle-of-the-road-work. "But that stifles creativity: it doesn't mean you should go wild, but be brave." Is this the advice she'd give someone starting out as a designer? "Yes, be bold, be brave, allow yourself to make mistakes but believe in yourself."

For all her bold flourishes, she approaches her spaces with a good sense of discipline. When describing her own style, she's quick to point out the importance of accommodating others. "I try to stay away from imprinting my own style too much; it has to be about the client. I have become known for bold use of colour but it's more about punches of colour - that could mean a cool blue wall with a yellow chair. My style isn't too contrived, it's quite eclectic and I try to tell a story through it."

A fundamental axiom of any of her projects starts with understanding the client, their tastes, hobbies and journeys, and reflecting that in the design and interior of the house. Finding an 'anchor' is the foundation, one which forms the root of much of her work and the courses she teaches. A mood board, for example, starts with a statement piece; maybe it's a chair, a fabric, an object. She encourages placing colours and textures around it. It should be fun not complicated. "I talk so much with clients that inspiration usually comes from them. If they have a love of art, I look in art galleries, or if a client loves antiques, I'll root around in auction houses. I might sketch something, find a piece of fabric, or it could be something I see while travelling or out walking. Anything can inspire the inception of my design but I usually start with one thing and everything grows from that."

At 48, Hamilton's energy and focus is palpable. When she talks, it's measured, confident and modest, yet she displays an excitement that is both youthful and infectious at the same time. Despite her achievements and the obvious moxie she brings to her métier, she is the first to acknowledge when a client is right about something.

One of her favourite projects to date was for a billionaire Saudi client - but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. The client, who has since become a good friend, was a contradiction, in that she had a simple heart but her taste in design was decadent and typically Saudi. Translation: lots of gold. "Not in the end," Jo comments, with a deftness born of someone who is well versed in diplomacy and striking a balance of tastes.

Jo's role was to design a health spa over five floors. Every floor had to have a different design aesthetic and flavour. "It was hugely challenging. The concept was alien to me and she was very decided about what she wanted, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding projects because I had to park my own opinions and provide for her. I learned a lot - the most important thing being that what makes a good designer is being able to design for somebody else."

The topic of challenging projects brings us to the subject of jets. She has designed quite a few. I'm guessing they belong to celebrity clientèle. On this subject, Jo is reticent, having signed non-disclosure agreements and is thus unable to divulge any celebrity secrets - but let's just say, her portfolio is awash with luxury boats, planes and residences likely to be owned by Hollywood elite. "Jets are tricky," she muses, "mainly due to weight restrictions. The materials you use bear huge significance on the weight allowance." Boats are a little easier. Apart from the limitation of built-in furniture, it's not that different from designing a home for someone. "I start at the same place for all projects: how does the client want to use the space? Is it for work, family, entertaining? How many people will be using it? How do they want to feel in the space?"

I can't imagine there have been too many disasters in her repertoire of work but I push for something juicy. Apart from tricky lead times, a recent beach house proved "frustrating". The brief was completely different from what was originally discussed and the client wanted to accommodate a huge collection of heavy, ornate furniture from a previous house. "Not one piece matched another," she groans, putting her hands up to her head. "I understood that these pieces were sentimental but they didn't work in the new house. We had to have some difficult conversations. In the end, we made a list of the items they couldn't live without and the ones they could leave behind and we found a happy medium." Ensuring furniture is right for a space is, according to Jo, a common mistake people make when designing or buying for their homes. "People often bargain-buy instead of purchasing what they love or can't live without. They see something in a sale and buy it for value reasons without thinking about whether it fits or suits the space." Furniture is such an integral part of her process that it comes as no surprise to learn she is launching her own furniture company, with a branch opening in Ireland later this year.

Her relationship with Ireland is deep-rooted. Having an Irish mother meant childhood summers in the Irish countryside. She has had, in her words, something of a "love affair" with the country, perhaps one of the reasons she jumped at the opportunity to be ambassador for House 2017.

"House is going to be a really interesting event; I'm very excited about it. I'll be doing two seminars each day covering the principles of design: lighting, colour and planning; advice on how to become an interior designer, transforming spaces and lots more. I would encourage people to come and talk to me, ask me questions. I love being able to point people in the right direction and problem-solve."

I ask her to solve the common problem of marrying high-end with budget. It's a topic she gets asked about a lot and she is quick to answer. "Most of us don't have endless budgets so it's about basic tricks like ensuring curtains go all the way to the floor and ceiling; this gives an elegant look and then you can cut back on the fabric cost. Another tip is to have a statement piece - one 'wow' piece will set the tone and you can finish with cheaper items."

While Ikea has its place, it seems in recent years there has been a shift in the way people buy for their homes, investing more in craftsmanship and authenticity than factory-led furniture and objects. Hamilton agrees. Her understanding is that design has gone on a huge journey from people wanting the aspirational glitzy statement pieces (whether they like them or not) to a more pared-back authentic selection. "The design journey has also been influenced by the recession so the likes of Ikea is great for that, as we don't always have the opportunity to spend a fortune on great pieces but people really value how their homes feel and recognise it as an important part of their lives. We want pieces that are beautiful, that we can touch and hold and that have a story to them."

Her own home is no exception, with plenty of "storied" pieces; the one that stands out is an old temple door that is used as a coffee table. "It's a real talking point. It's always the first thing people ask about when they come to my house."

Surprisingly, it's not something for her home that she currently most lusts after, but it still has design aesthetic in spades - the Audi R8. "That car is a thing of beauty," she sighs. "I'm a tomboy and I love cars, so whenever I hear the roar of a powerful engine, it always turns my head." While we're on the subject, what else would surprise us about her? "That I'm a country girl at heart," she giggles. "People are so used to seeing me glammed up in heels but I love my wellies and hiking in the countryside." She's also good at fishing thanks to her dad, who is both fishing and environment correspondent for The Times newspaper.

With a schedule that involves frequent travel, public speaking, running her interior design business and courses, TV shows and various other engagements, switching off is something Jo has had to learn over the years. When she started out, she worked 18-hour days with very little time for herself. Nowadays, her favourite thing to come home to after a day's work is a glass of Malbec by an open fire with her husband and three sons. "That's home to me."

House 2017, Ireland's new high-end interiors event, runs at the RDS from May 26-28. Tickets from house-event.ie/tickets

Jo's top five design tips for the interiors novice…

1. Start with you - ask yourself how you want the space to feel.

2. Find something that you really love, that you can use as an anchor piece. It could be a piece of art, furniture, a lamp or a colour, as long as it excites you.

3. Pull out the colours from the piece and use them around the rest of the space.

4. Add texture in layers - linens, knits, silks, and so on. Mix patterns too. I always suggest aiming for a large, a medium and a small pattern so they don't compete with each other.

5. Think about how best to light the space to create the mood that you want - lighting is so important.

Two design elements that can make or break a house

Lighting:

I always say that the success of any scheme is 80 per cent in the lighting. I think it's not always appreciated how important lighting is. I did a beautiful, massive warehouse home in Islington, London, for a couple and the husband travelled a lot. He loved it but she grew to hate it because of what had initially sold it to her. It was fine during the day, but with her husband away a lot she felt unable to relax because it was so vast and it lacked intimacy. We redid the lighting to create darker, moody areas, so the space took on a new warmth. We also painted the ceiling a darker colour, which brought it down visually. Once we did that, she loved it again and yet the changes were so simple.

Colour:

Knowing how colour works, which ones advance or recede, where to use them, which ones work together, and how and why, can determine the success of a scheme.

What I'd do with…

€1,000: Accessorise with cushions, lamps, plants, sculptural pieces; you can really add to the feel of a room by accessorising well.

€5,000: A really nice art piece or two would be pretty high on the list. A beautiful painting is a great talking point for any home.

€20,000: Assuming everything is already fine structurally and no walls need to be knocked through, I might buy a new sofa, a statement armchair and/or re-do the curtains - and if there was anything leftover, then perhaps some more art.

Unlimited budget: I would buy a stunning Georgian property with lovely high ceilings and architecturally reinstate it so the original features, like fireplaces, stonework and architraving, are fully restored. Then I'd complement the classical base with some sharp, contemporary edges. Perhaps a glass box extension off the back of the house and a fire pit in the garden with cool built-in furniture.

Two-day spaces are available on Jo's next London interior design course on April 20-21 for £595/€686. Book at johamilton.co.uk

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