Nicky Haslam is founder of the London based interior design firm NH Design.
A Lucky Life
How would you describe yourself?
I suppose I am stupidly fearless about doing things. I don’t panic if somebody says to me, “Do you sing?” I wasn’t panicked about going on stage. I am not stuck in any kind of mould. I am more prepared at my age to do new things. I am very Libra.
Would you say that you really are a free man?
Yes. Things have happened to me by chance. I never had a career or life plan. When I went to America with David Bailey in 1962 I wanted to start a nightclub. In London it was the days of the Twist that had started in Paris, and I wanted to know what the nightclubs in New York were. Bailey and I were with the Vogue people, and Alexander Liberman, who was the artistic director, offered me a job at Vogue. I was in the art department, and it could have lasted a long time as I became great friends with Diana Vreeland. But I was offered a magazine of my own called SHOW, and I was the youngest art director in America. That lasted a short time, the owner went bananas and sold it. Then I worked with Dick Avedon. Then I met Jimmy Davison. We took a house on Giudecca and had picnics organised by Harry Cipriani, going all around the islands and far away. I was friendly with Peggy Guggenheim and Lily Volpi and Anna Maria Cicogna.
And what happened then?
We knew we wanted horses. We went to see Jimmy’s grandmother in Arizona and bought a ranch there. We went to LA quite a lot and met extraordinary movie stars.
Who did you meet?
Dietrich, Garbo, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, King Vidor, Billy Wilder, Howard Hughes.
What was Howard Hughes like?
Tall and geeky. After six years in Arizona I went to LA for two years.
Were you already a decorator?
I had done my house in London’s Waterloo, my apartment in New York and Jimmy’s apartment. I never thought to do it as a career, I thought it was like arranging the flowers. In London in the late fifties I got to know Mick Jagger, who I have known for ever, and I got to know the Beatles too. When I worked at Vogue my father sent me a clipping about them, as he was from Liverpool like them. I showed it to Diana Vreeland and she said, “Get them photographed.”
How was London at that time?
I hardly knew it. I was the English boy in New York when it was swinging London. I was Mick’s sort-of-ambassador in New York. Another singer who has been my friend for ever is Bryan Ferry, and as you know Mick and Bryan had a long standing contest over Jerry Hall. I love Bryan, he was born the day before me. He is one of the great poets of the world, his lyrics are as good as Cole Porter.
So since the early days of your life you have made a collection of talented friends?
Yes. Min Hogg, who I have known since my time at Eton, started the magazine “The World of Interiors” so I have that sort of connection with the fashion world. She is a Libra too. My two great friends are Bryan and Min. I am born on the 27th September, Bryan is on the 26th and Min the 28th.
And you have met many famous people?
Yes, I met Cole Porter, Broadway stars. New York was a much smaller circle, it was more artistic. I made a film for Andy Warhol – “Kiss”. In America there was not a fixation about money and wealth, it was humorous and funny. Now I find New York the most boring place, except for a few people. I used to love to see Joan Didion.
You came back to London in 1972. Have you lived here ever since?
When I came back I did not have a proper job, the only thing I could do quite well was decorating houses. I had an American outlook that was different. I had luck and started up with one beautiful girl, and gradually got a bigger and bigger office. Then I got a house in the country, in Hampshire. I gradually made a bit of money.
Who were your clients?
The first ones were young bachelors like Nicholas Soames, Mark Shand and David Davis. And then it snowballed. The magazines sort of helped.
Did you keep on having an interesting social life?
Yes. As my friend Diana Cooper said, “The best advice is to go to a party. You can always leave.”
Has social life changed much since then?
It is sort of corporate now. It used to be more diverse. Now there are cliques, people don’t mix so much. The celebrity culture is boring. People are fixated on celebrities.
How do you find London today?
It is full of fascinating new people, but English people don’t integrate them. You rarely meet foreigners out to dinner. Everybody goes to restaurants, people don’t entertain at home like they used to, and houses are not made for entertaining. To a certain world country life is still alive, and shooting is very important. From May to October people talk about their shooting weekends. I am anti shooting. I think it is very odd to want to kill something for fun.
What about the Queen?
It is funny because they keep on stressing that Victoria is the Queen’s great-great-grandmother and it sounds a million years ago, but Queen Victoria was my mother’s godmother. The Queen is completely wonderful. She is so funny. She has such a sense of humour and brilliant choice of words. When she speaks she knows exactly the right word – she is very direct.
What are you doing at the moment?
After “Redeeming Features”, “Folly de Grandeur” and “A Designer’s Life”, I am writing a recipe book, the recipes that people have told me all my life, along with small biographies of them, and it will be published a year from now. I am doing lots of houses, lots of English work, I ran out of Russians. I just finished a house in New Orleans and an apartment in New York. I have a few American clients. I have been singing for a few years, doing cabaret at The Savoy, Annabel’s and Bellamy’s Restaurant. I did a season at St. James Theatre and I sang for a charity. I want to make a CD with a full orchestra. I am quite good.
Is it true that Tom Stoppard wrote about your book “Redeeming Features” that you are “the maestro of the memoir”?
He loved the book. When I sent the book to him he first thought, ‘O not another boring book about people.’ The book still sells very well, and it went well in America.
How is your love life?
I have had many long love stories, ten and more years each. I am not at all cruisy. I am not interested in porn films. I think that sex can only happen with love.
What do you feel about gay marriage?
I would have thought that the only point about being gay is not to be married! But now there is this universal feeling that you have to have a partner. I went to a conventional marriage not long ago and there were several, probably very clever, young men, and they were with hugely ugly fat friends and they all said, “Do you know my husband?” I cannot believe it, it is so embarrassing.
What do you look to achieve most in your life?
Style – in every sense of looks, wit and sympathy with my tastes.
You have lived through many changes. How do you find the world of today?
It is incredibly depressing. Nobody really knows what is happening and how to solve problems. They ruin the world by solving problems and I don’t think people think far ahead. They throw money about with no thought for the consequences, and politicians only care about being re-elected.
Do you still have fun?
Yes, but it is not easy as it was. I must say that I was lucky. For somebody with no dedicated talent I was always lucky enough to fall into places or be in places where people would make me be something. I really owe everything to the friends I have met over the years, they opened doors and my eyes. I also have a very good ear. I can remember conversations, and I can see people speaking or moving. I also have a very good eye memory. I suppose in the end I was lucky enough to have grown up among pre-war people, so that all the nuances and values and knowledge of these people informed my life, judgement and outlook. People have no memory these days. They hardly remember events or people for more than ten minutes. There is no interest in the past and no expectations.
10 September 2015
All images courtesy of NH Design.
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