“Dear Ben,” read the email I received recently from a friend of mine (who has very good taste). “Congratulations on your marriage. How wonderful to have found someone you can spend the rest of your life with. I hope you have the same taste in interior design and architecture — ‘S’ and I do, and it makes the WORLD of difference.”
Marriage was a deeply — and unexpectedly — exciting and profound moment, even if Charlie and I did tie our knot with the smallest number of witnesses, just up the road from where we live at London’s Camden Town Hall — a wonderful 1930s neoclassical building whose registry office is sadly decorated in the style of a 1970s dentist’s waiting room, complete with ceiling tiles and red plastic flowers.
We were unified in our scepticism at the flower arrangements, but do we share the same taste? Of all the questions that I’ve been asked, time and again since I was introduced to, and fell in love with, Charlie last year, that is the one that comes up most frequently: “ . . . but Ben, can he cope with your interior decoration?”
I’ve lived by myself for 20 years now. Quirks become habits, which turn into deeply ingrained traits. We all, I suppose, have specific ways of doing things, but combine that with the fact that for the past 10 years I’ve used my flat in London and my parsonage in Dorset as experimental places to try out lots of decorative ideas — some more, some less successful — and I suppose I can understand why people are asking.
I think that there is a school of thought that decorators and architects are secretly tyrannical, who will brook no criticism in the pursuit of perfect dreams. I’ve never quite thought of myself in those terms, but I’m beginning to wonder if others might do.
Most of the clients of my architectural and decoration practice seem to divide responsibilities; there is still an unsettling degree of truth in the cliché that wives tend to choose and husbands tend to pay. I wonder sometimes if a great deal has changed since the hazy days of Edwardian Britain, when, deprived of power in all other realms, women ruled the home. Although perhaps it is merely simpler, or more honest, to run with an old stereotype today (that wives actually are better at design).
Yet even in famously aesthetic couples — I think, for instance, of the late Gervase Jackson-Stops and his friend Ian Kirby — you tend to find zones of separation. At The Menagerie in Horton, Northamptonshire, Gervase and Ian created one of the most extraordinary paeans to English classical style of the 20th century. Gervase restored a remarkable, crumbling 18th-century folly; Ian created a romantic garden around it. Not for nothing were their nicknames “House & Garden”; they each had a territory. The combination was sublime. In other relationships the lines seem more blurred, but we can still determine spheres of influence.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Ronald and Nancy Tree (she later remarried to become Nancy Lancaster) created their masterwork of English country-house style at Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire; Ronald bought the furniture, Nancy chose colours, fabrics and arranged things. One of our great London decorators of today, Veere Grenney, has an impeccable eye for furniture and textiles; his partner David Oliver (founder of the superb paint company Paint & Paper Library) has a wonderful understanding of colour. Their strengths are different, but merge brilliantly.
So it must have been with some trepidation on both our parts that Charlie moved in with me last summer. The initial changes were small, but profound. For a start, it was a new experience to come home to a house that was warm, with the lights on. A few weeks in, the microwave disappeared. Canned soup and tinned tomatoes vanished from the larder, to be replaced by a burgeoning array of herbs and spices, oils, coconut sugars and baking goods. The kitchen is never now without a large bowl of avocados or lemons. Victorian teacups and saucers have started filling the cupboards.
Elsewhere, fresh flowers, or bulbs in beautiful china bowls, appear without warning. Postcards and thank-you letters, which I would previously have read and filed, make their way to shelves or the mantelpiece, to be cherished for a little while longer. Wine or champagne corks that would have gone in the bin are collected. Slowly, subtly and in tiny imperceptible ways, my house turned into our home.
“I think we’ve got to change the bedroom,” said Charlie when I got home one evening in our early days, “it’s claustrophobic.” The bedroom is, to be fair, tiny and dark. When I had moved into my flat in Queen Square two years before, I’d run with a rule that I sometimes suggest to clients as well — that rooms that are naturally dark and small are best painted a rich dark colour. I had picked the darkest shade of fig, “Brinjal” from Farrow & Ball. The tiny space was filled by a 19th-century four-poster, a family heirloom that somehow had come my way and has been my bed in London for the past 12 years. Somewhat rickety, and a trifle narrow, it was hung with Turkish embroidered suzanis. The lampshades were plum-toned ikats from Robert Kime; the walls densely hung with pictures and prints from floor to ceiling. I looked into the rich, gloomy space. He was right.
Charlie chose a beautiful, fresh, emerald-green wallpaper from one of our favourite shops on London’s Pimlico Road, Soane Britain. The four-poster was moved to a guest bedroom in Dorset, where its rickety enveloping charms seem more appropriate. The coloured bed linen from Olatz in New York (that I had loved for a decade or more but whose number was up) was moved to the bottom drawer of the linen press, and replaced with crisp white linen. It was all unexpected, and I’m not sure it’s what I would have done on my own, but it’s as if an enormous fresh breeze has swept through the flat. I love it.
I don’t think we do have the same taste — and I’m glad about that. Charlie generally remains sphinx-like on these matters, but he has a knowing smile when he looks at some of my projects as if to say, “this is all very well, Ben, but don’t think it’s the only show in town”. And what is taste, after all? I’m depressed by too much taste, and I loathe too much good taste, where we kill the character and life of what we cherish. I’ve always hated that peculiar trait where we assume that some ideas are innately better than others. Modernist and classical architects fight endless, tiresome battles with each other, as if one or the other camp holds all the answers. How absurd. Real life is more complex. I love classical and modern buildings; can’t we accept that both have something to say?
I love change and variety in life; and for me the most exciting part of getting married is twofold — a sense of the unexpected, and a feeling that decisions no longer need be taken alone. They are shared. Sometimes this is called compromise, but I prefer the word collaboration. Without doubt, the best projects in my life are collaborations. I’m thrilled to have worked with such wonderful clients, makers, builders, landscape architects, and my own colleagues in the pursuit of things that, just sometimes, combine in a way that feels truly magical. Now I have a new collaboration in life — the most exciting of all. I came down to Dorset tonight to find hundreds of paint charts open on the kitchen table, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. The purple dining room, for one, is about to go.
Ben Pentreath is an architectural and interior designer
Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw; John Spinks; Jason Ingram