Whilst other young men in the Navy were reading football magazines, Guy Oliver was poring over World of Interiors: a very different sort of career was calling. Meet the wonderful designer who runs Oliver Laws and whose projects include the State Rooms at 10 Downing Street, The Connaught, Claridge’s and more of London’s grand institutions:
Can you tell us how you got into the world of interior design?
I suppose it is a little in my DNA. My mother and father collected antiques and taught me to appreciate fine craftsmanship. We moved a lot, because of my father’s job and homes came and went and were redecorated. I found I had a knack for arranging space but had no idea I could earn a living doing such a thing. Through happenstance, I joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet when I was 17. They sent me to university where I took courses in History of Art and Architecture and each vacation period I was travelling, working in the fleet in far flung parts of the world. During that time I read World of Interiors, and there was an article about a man named Michael Player, who had been an apprentice and an assistant to John Fowler, the Mayfair decorator. I wrote to him and told him that I was a 23 year old naval officer and that I wanted to become an interior designer. He invited me to lunch and it went from there.
My first job was beneath Sylvia Lawson Johnston in Aberdeen then Imogen Taylor at Colefax and Fowler, followed by stints working for Sally Metcalfe (at George Spencer) and with Paul Dyson (on sets and installations) until I met David Laws, with whom I began running and eventually owning the business, Oliver Laws. Our practice celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
Could you tell us a bit about what it’s like to design spaces for London’s great hotels like Claridge’s and The Connaught?
I remember the first time that I walked through the exquisitely detailed entrance to Claridge’s, it was unfamiliar territory and I have to confess that I was more than a little self conscious and slightly intimidated.
My involvement with both hotels is part of a design legacy that dates back over eight decades. The late Michael Inchbald, (after whom the eponymous London design school is named), was my mentor and a close friend. He designed for The Savoy Group from the middle 1940’s until the late 1960s where work included the The American Bar at the Savoy (below) and Claridge’s penthouse. In turn, my former business partner, David Laws, worked on projects with the hotels from the 1970s to the 1990s and I was approached in the late 1990s and have worked with them for over 20 years now.
What makes a great hotel?
A hotel is as much about its staff and ‘culture’ as it is about the architecture and interiors. The former are the supporting cast and the later is the stage set and both should work together. There is no point designing a restaurant or a room without understanding how the service works, so that the guests can feel ‘at home’. Both service and design should be seamless / intuitive. Over the years, the hotels have come to feel like old friends.
We’re great fans of Maison Assouline in Piccadilly. What was your input there and are there any secrets you can share?
It is a special place. The building was originally a branch of the Midland Bank, designed by Edwin Lutyens and completed in 1922. Because it was a bank, for security, it has no windows on the ground floor and a double perimeter wall in the basement, to protect the enormous vault – which is now a cabinet of curiosities – from subterranean safecrackers.
It has beautiful listed panelling (but rather a lot of it!) and it was a challenge to incorporate display bookcases. I boxed the panels in certain places and set in bookcases that line-up with the enormous sash windows above.
Behind the bar (opposite the entrance) I set in a light box contiguous with one of the upper windows so it appears to be one and this brings what seems to be daylight to this level.
Under the mezzanine clock gallery is the last verse of a favourite poem, High Windows by Philip Larkin, which says ….
It seemed appropriate for the space (the first verse is a lot more racy).
The Assouline home collection rooms on the first floor have beautiful panelling – the former bank manager certainly operated in grand style – and are well worth a visit.
You also volunteer as a Creative Director for the Turquoise Mountain Foundation working in Afghanistan to restore the beautiful adobe houses in Kabul. Can you tell us a bit about your mission there?
Turquoise Mountain is active in Murad Khane, or the rather less glamorously named (soviet era), District 2 of Kabul. Some of the oldest buildings here date back to the late 18th/early 19th C although, almost certainly, the street pattern is older. In 2005 the municipal authorities were thinking about enacting a Soviet Masterplan to build a road through what had become an impoverished slum. Understanding this threat, the charity initially took leases on buildings on each corner of the site and a highly confused community were initially suspicious as to why a bunch of foreigners wanted to pay them to restore their neighbourhood. 15 years later, 120 buildings have been restored or rebuilt.
What treasures that you have uncovered in Kabul?
It sounds incredibly cheesy, but the real “treasures” were the artisans in the returning diaspora. Elderly master carvers, metal workers, potters, miniature painters and calligraphers who trained a new generation.
Of the physical “treasures”, my big love is what is now called ‘The Peacock House’ (above). It is the remains of a mid 19thC residence that was built for a wealthy Quizilbash Courtier. The building originally had three wings, only one of which survives today. It has a decorative antique cedar façade with stylised peacock motifs and was the inspiration for a suite that I designed for The Connaught hotel when I was leading the restoration there (below).
Over 200 cubic metres of rubbish were cleared from inside the house; decorative mud plasterwork was exposed and restored and missing elements of the façade reconstructed at Turquoise Mountain’s woodworking school.
When I first saw the interior, the upper rooms had a sticky black residue on the columns and panels. The locals told me that as the fortunes of the house declined, it become home to a Kabul confectioner who boiled great quantities of sugar in its elegant rooms to make sweets…..
How have you been spending lockdown?
Remarkably similar to pre. I drive or cycle to work now that the roads are silent and safe. The weather has been amazing and I keep the windows to the office open – there’s no pollution. It has been eerily silent.
Any coping strategies?
I find it incredibly important to have a routine. I stop at the supermarket first thing in the morning. Pick up items for vulnerable friends and then drop them off en-route.
Where are you most excited to go once Lockdown lifts?
The gym before work and a movie or a show or the pub after work. Sunday lunch at Perilla or Trinity with friends; a martini in the Fumoir at Claridge’s; a walk in the Palm or Temperate House at Kew; dinner at The Dove pub in Chiswick; quiet time in St George’s Hanover Square or Farm Street Church; going to Afghanistan, India, The Middle East, Tuscany, Paris, Scotland, Ireland, Devon, Norfolk, Chicago, New York, California, Rhodes…. I could go on….
Which building, street or place sums up London to you and why?
To me, Smithfield Market represents London. A vibrant melting pot built on trade, there has been a market here for over 1000 years (contemporary with Westminster Abbey) and it is still a lively trading place in the centre of our city. Part of it, the general market, was to be demolished to become offices. SAVE Britain’s Heritage (which I’m a trustee of) were central to a long campaign to save this important building, and now it is to become the new home of the Museum of London.