Irreverent designer makes opulence his business

Nothing is sacred to Nicholas Haslam, who will happily paint a good antique.

October 13, 2002|By Claire Whitcomb | By Claire Whitcomb,Universal Press Syndicate

In these practical days, opulence is not a word that's thrown around readily. But if anyone's entitled to throw it, it's Nicholas Haslam, decorator to royalty, celebrities such as Ringo Starr and society in general.

Haslam, who claims his favorite furniture finish is "glowering" (gold and silver rubbed together), has titled his new book Sheer Opulence (Watson-Guptill, $40). As you might expect, his look is luxe. Surprisingly, it's not over the top.

Oh, there may be a faux chinchilla spread on the bed. And the bed curtains may be made of creamy white taffeta. But look closely and you'll see understatement in a bedroom that is basically cream and white, from the upholstered taffeta headboard to the embroidered bed linens. The only pattern is found in wonderful wallpaper that has a creamy background and bursts of blue-gray flowers.

Haslam grew up at his parents' manor house in Bucking-hamshire, England, where "there was romance and drama in every room, but all was very restrained and pure," he says.

He absorbed the idea that interiors were "works of art to be lived in, not bland backgrounds to be taken for granted." At Eton he tested his decorating wings by doing up his study with fake leopard curtains and an artificial grass carpet. In his 20s he fell for steel, glass and black leather but found himself distressed by how the look was changed when clothes were tossed on the floor or a newspaper abandoned on a coffee table.

Since then Haslam says he's focused on "rooms that somehow absorb the necessities of everyday life." Judging by Sheer Opulence, that means rooms with ample upholstery, an unusual mix of antiques, faded Aubusson carpets (he dislikes Oriental rugs) and a few of his favorite things, such as "string-colored linen and painted wood that looks wrecked and lived in."

What makes Haslam's style interesting is his penchant for breaking the rules. He'll fashion a chandelier out of an old three-pronged anchor and make curtains out of lining materials or cheap linen ("they hold their folds and don't droop"). He'll apply brown corrugated paper to a wall beneath a chair rail and then paint and lacquer it.

If Haslam doesn't like a good piece of antique furniture -- he despises most English 18th- and 19th-century pieces -- he'll gladly paint it. In one dining room, he treated the Chippendale-style chairs to a coat of off-white paint. The move "took some courage," he admits, but was worth it to give the room "grandeur with a modern edge."

He has an excellent way with doors. If a grand dining room has just one door and he feels the room needs symmetry, he'll have a faux door crafted. But if a door distracts from the coziness of a sitting room, he'll cover the offending door with wallpaper so that it disappears visually. Or he'll turn it into a faux bookcase that swings open, just like in the movies.

Haslam believes in outfitting living rooms with flexible seating -- armless, upholstered slipper chairs on casters, stools that can be tucked in a corner and pulled out as extra seating or a place to park a tray of drinks.

In his own London apartment he has a quartet of stools covered in artist's canvas and painted by a friend. Grouped together, the stools create a single Picasso-like image. Separately they are intriguing studies in gray, black and white.

Though Haslam shares his techniques in Sheer Opulence, the process is not necessarily an open book when he works with clients. He maintains that in decorating, "there are things you just can't explain." His clients just have to trust him. "My philosophy," he says, "is to listen carefully and then do exactly what I want."

Design tips

Ideas on design from Nicholas Haslam:

* Create the illusion that outside skies are always blue. Line plain beige curtains with pale blue linen.

* Experiment with new materials. Haslam likes a sheer metallic fabric called Eclipse that's made to help photographers with lighting.

* Think pink. "Every room should have something pink in it," Haslam says. "It makes the other colors sing."

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