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The world of interior decoration is populated by a sometimes colourful, sometimes bizarre cast of characters; a fantastical menagerie of types and tribes, each jostling for attention in a jungle that is as fickle as it is fashionable; a place where trends sweep faster than rumours on Washington Hill. But away from the hubbub, at the farthest edge from the braying crowd, the careful observer will for 30 years have found one quiet, gentle man, Robert Kime — the creator of an extraordinary world of dreams, that is subtly different to anything else that we see in English decoration today.
Kime shuns the limelight but is revered as perhaps the grandest figure of English decoration. He has worked extensively for the Prince of Wales, for what feels like half the British aristocracy and for powerful figures in the world of music and film (and for many he has decorated not just one house but several). What makes him interesting, however, is not his blue-chip client list, about whom he will hardly breathe a whisper: his power lies in resolutely creating his own world.
It is a world, to quote Alistair Langlands’ eloquent introduction to a new monograph on the decorator, made up of “a medley of oriental carpets, arts and crafts tables, embroidered Indian textiles, a startling 19th-century photograph of Stonehenge, Queen Anne wool appliqué cushions with tears visibly mended, large metal Ottoman lanterns, Swedish mattress ticking, a silken version of Blake’s tiger, commodiously comfortable armchairs, coloured silk and cotton kente cushions from west Africa, wooden creatures from tombs in the Valley of the Kings, fossils, scraps of antique fabrics, golden screens; all a complex miscellany to be assembled under Robert’s direction”. We could add to that: William Morris, Ravilious china, the watercolours of Paul Nash, 17th-century Delft pottery and myriad other ingredients.
Today, you can visit this world in Kime’s London shop in Bloomsbury’s Museum Street, tucked under the shadow of a great Hawksmoor church and, appropriately, a stone’s throw from that greatest depository of all, the British Museum. Visiting is like entering an Aladdin’s cave piled with treasure. But in among it all, a quizzical, whimsical eye that is not afraid of the modern world. Asked what is the key ingredient of a Kime interior, he chuckles, without missing a beat, “Oh, without doubt, a television”. (He incidentally loathes a TV hidden away in a cabinet: “What on earth’s the point of that?”) Suddenly he strikes a more serious note: his heartbreak at the destruction of Syria.
What is extraordinary is that his interior world appears to have arrived in the world fully-fledged. The same themes recur like a steady drumbeat over a 30-year career. Almost every other great English decorator — John Fowler, David Hicks, David Mlinaric — is known not just for a “look” but also for great leaps across a spectrum of style, ideas and fashion. A Fowler interior of the 1930s is completely different from his late great work in the 1970s. Kime, by contrast, creates a world that in every house and for every client speaks a resolutely consistent language. The monograph opens with a small grey cottage in County Cork, in the far south of Ireland, that Kime and his wife Helen bought in 1985. Its interiors — with their deep Howard armchairs, upholstered in antique ticking, turkey carpets, Arts and Crafts mirrors, lamps, mochaware jugs of flowers — could have been assembled by him this week. Later, at their farm in Wiltshire, Robert and Helen created the same textured magic, and perhaps their most perfect interiors of all. The book closes with images of Kime’s current houses: a tiny cottage in Wiltshire, and his Bloomsbury rooms above the shop. With no leap of faith, we can envisage these being the first interiors he designed, and the last. The same pieces of furniture and pictures appear again and again, like old friends. There is something unique in such constancy — but perhaps also intimidatingly dogmatic? As Kime says, “The house always has the last word. But I always have the first word”.
Pressed to mention a favourite project, Kime hesitates then reveals that the Duke of Beaufort started their first meeting at Swangrove, his house in Gloucestershire, by saying, “You know what to do here. The only thing I want to know is what the fabrics are.” Kime had already shown him his samples. The Duke replied, “I like them all except that one. Get on with it.” The result is one of the most serene of all Kime’s rooms. He instinctively understands his clients — and the wisest instinctively understand him: that he is best left to his own devices.
Kime’s greatest love is for the antique. Realising, in the 1980s, that his stock of old textiles was diminishing and could not be replenished for ever, he set about (with long-time collaborator and friend Gisella Milne-Watson) creating, or re-creating, an ever-expanding range of papers and printed fabrics based on archive fragments. Where Kime cannot find something, he and Gisela create it. And if a fabric is neither an antique, nor created by him, then it is not for Kime’s world. He admits to visiting Chelsea’s Design Centre in west London twice in his life — and shudders at the memory. Asked if he would use a fabric by the legendary John Fowler or other greats of English fabric — Jean Monro, Claremont — Kime moves on quickly: “I love old fabrics. But I only use my own. I started life buying old curtains and chopping them up, and now I have to make them”. This, too, is what truly distinguishes Kime as a decorator: his creation of a singular vision. He is, in this way, perhaps not unlike his great mentor Geoffrey Bennison, antique dealer turned decorator, but unlike Bennison’s interiors Kime’s have a lightness of touch that is never without freshness. He is as much about a bunch of cowslips in a vase as a grand piece of furniture.
For someone with such a consistent style and powerful vision, Kime is contradictory. His work is ultimately anti-style, his demeanour gently but firmly anti-decorator. Despite or perhaps because of himself, Kime has created a style more recognisable than any of his contemporaries — yet the perfect Kime interior tries to betray no hand of the interior designer at all. You step into a world that had no wish to be touched by “design” but merely by time; a palimpsest, an imagined idea of the English interior which never actually existed but which contains a deep distillation of something truthful. The search for timelessness recurs in his conversation and his work. He is making a world where “nothing ever dates, because nothing is ever in fashion”.
Perhaps it is this quality which attracted the Prince of Wales to Kime so many years ago, and which, in the reordering of Clarence House when the late Queen Mother died, led to one of his greatest collaborations. Kime is modestly amused to recount the reaction, at the first visit after the work was complete, of a friend of the Queen Mother who had known her rooms well. “But I don’t understand what all the fuss is about! Nothing has changed at all”. Yet everything in the famous Blue Room was new: the walls, the curtains, the colours, the picture hang and all the furniture and carpets. It was a memory that Kime captured, distilled and re-created — and herein lies his alchemic genius. Kime shrugs off such labels lightly. “Oh,” he says, “Stop taking it so seriously. My advice to people: stop looking at things so much, just try and try again to make it work . . . and above all, rejoice in the ordinary, not the special”.
Ben Pentreath is an architectural and interior designer
‘Robert Kime’ (2015) by Alastair Langlands is published by Frances Lincoln, £40
Fritz von der Schulenberg/The Interior Archive; Christopher Simon Sykes/Royal Collection Trust; Richard Bryant/Alamy; Tessa Traeger; Christopher Simon Sykes; James Mitchell