In a row of smart 1930s townhouses in St John’s Wood, entrepreneur and TV personality James Caan’s house is elegant but unremarkable among the other properties on the street. In person, Caan reflects this reserved sophistication, his demeanour sitting somewhere between James Bond and Lord Sugar. His presence is so arresting that it caused Kathy Burke to request a life-sized laminated photo of him as her luxury item on Desert Island Discs.
Famed for being the most diplomatic among the stars of the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, he made his £65m fortune through business ventures and is chief executive and founder of Hamilton Bradshaw, a Mayfair-based private equity firm.
Born in Pakistan, his family moved to east London’s Brick Lane when he was two years old. He has lived in his current property in north London for the past 15 years with his wife, Aisha, and daughters, Hanah and Jemma Lia.
The surrounding area was extremely important for Caan when choosing his house. “I wanted to live as close as possible to my business,” says the entrepreneur in his signature measured manner. “I also wanted my home to be in a residential area. It had to be quite green and the roads had to be quite wide because it’s a home and I didn’t want to feel like I was living in an overly congested area.”
A stone’s throw from central London, the area assumes the mood and character of a well-heeled village rather than a district of one of the world’s busiest cities. “It’s the closest you can get to central London and still be very residential with a suburban feel,” Caan asserts. “You can go to the local high street on the weekend and bump into all your neighbours; it has a tremendous village feel to it.”
The quintessential Englishness of the road outside evaporates on entering the house. Caan acknowledges this. “The minute you walk through the door it’s quite vibrant. The house is very colourful, very bold.” In the darkened entrance a hand-painted human skeleton hangs in a glass case (a Damien Hirst) while vast Japanese vases glitter in the dim light. Two Persian cats, Bella and Coco, lie loftily on a nearby sofa, further adding to the image of luxury. The hall is an Aladdin’s cave, filled with the beautiful and opulent, the antithesis of an office environment.
Despite its striking and colourful interior it is obvious that there is a consistent decorative theme throughout the house. Caan soon makes clear his interior inspiration, which nods towards the origins of the property – the essence of which he has been keen to maintain. “Over the years I suppose we’ve done lots of different things: we’ve made it very personal and very much our own,” he says. “However, it’s a 1930s art deco property and we’ve retained the whole look and feel of that art deco interior.”
Caan attributes the house’s creative appearance to his wife. “There is only one decision-maker and it’s not me,” he says with a wry smile. “My wife is an artist; she paints, so she’s very much got that feel of design, colour and texture.” His wife’s passion for interior design is evident; several Kelly Hoppen catalogues lie strewn across a table and her creative flair can be seen in a nearby studio, which is littered with canvasses and paint.
Caan’s office has a more reserved feel than the rest of the house. It is formal but retains the sense of character that makes the house so disarmingly personal. A shrine to his achievements, the office is adorned with magazine covers featuring Caan. Islamic-inspired artwork hangs sparingly on the walls, a subtle reminder of Caan’s heritage.
As he reclines in his leather office chair, surveying the room, his BlackBerry is going into overdrive. As the chairman of the British Pakistani Foundation, his philanthropic workload has increased dramatically as a result of the recent flooding in Pakistan. He becomes uncharacteristically animated when discussing this topic. “For the past five weeks I’ve been working flat out raising awareness and raising money. When you look at the devastation that’s taken place it’s worse than the tsunami, Haiti and the Kashmir earthquake put together.”
He pauses thoughtfully, remaining unflappable through his palpable frustration, then continues: “They collectively affected the lives of over 10m people, whereas this one catastrophe will affect 13.5m people. It needs desperate attention.”
Philanthropy is something Caan clearly takes great pleasure in. He is involved in work with The Big Issue and the Prince’s Trust in addition to his own charity, the James Caan Foundation. He discusses his involvement in detail and expresses clear disdain for “chequebook charity”: “It really doesn’t appeal to me. I physically went to help during the aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Involvement at such a personal level gives you a great feeling of satisfaction and I think that if you just write a cheque you’ve missed a fantastic part of that experience.”
Caan devotes two days of his week to charitable causes but in the wake of the flooding he has spent extended periods in Pakistan. “The balance of my charitable work, business and family life fulfils me. If I was still doing what I’m doing 20 years from now I’d be pretty happy and motivated. I’m fortunate to have a balance of the things which really interest me. I have a job where I don’t do the same thing every day, and am in the incredible position to be able to give the gift of change to people in need.”