Roger Banks-Pye: Obituary

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The Independent Online
"Roger Banks-Pye is the most innovative talent working behind closed doors this century," proclaimed Louis Gropp, Editor-in-Chief of America's House Beautiful magazine, when discussing interior designers a few years ago.

Banks-Pye was the interior design director for the decorating division of Colefax & Fowler. At first glance his work appears quite traditional because of his predominant use of antiques, old pictures and accessories, but in fact he was always re-inventing so that conventional elements could be revitalised and seen anew.

Working for Colefax & Fowler had been Roger Banks-Pye's firm ambition even as a student, but it was not until 11 July 1977, on his 29th birthday, that this dream was realised. It was also some time after joining the famous decorating firm that his exceptional talent began to emerge. Unusually for an aspiring designer, he was put in charge of the antiques department, an appointment which lasted two years. He then transferred to the decorating team of Stanley Falconer and later that of Tom Parr, where he learnt the mechanics and grammar of decoration in the grand Colefax manner.

In recent years he was in much demand as a decorator. The very graphic and theatrical way he treated architecture exhibited a bold disregard for what others would treat reverentially. He used walls and floors as blank canvases, eschewing academic correctness for original effects, which were often ironical and teasing.

The delight of the end- product was what made his work so fresh and comfortable. He used torn paper collage on walls, appliqued squares of fabric and even napkins sewn on to curtains. These quite extraordinary solutions, along with vigorously grained woodwork, came at times surprisingly close to some three-dimensional evocation of Synthetic Cubism.

Banks-Pye was born in Sheffield in 1948, where he grew up and attended the grammar school, spending much of his time in the art department. Drawing was a key factor in developing his eye. He always maintained that taking a photograph of some detail taught you next to nothing. "You have to draw to understand and remember clearly, especially when you need to re-use what has aroused your interest," he said, and he drew beautifully.

At 18 he moved to London to study Interior Design at the North London Polytechnic. After four years he acquired an Honours degree along with his tutor's disheartening observation that his capriciousness made him unsuited for a career in interior design and that the theatre might be a more suitable choice.

After a period of unemployment, he was fortunate to work for Ewan Macleod, a gifted architect specialising in the restoration and adaptation of traditional domestic-scale buildings. This experience fuelled his inclination towards decoration, and with a financial partner Banks- Pye Designs was launched.

Combing London antique and junk shops also became part of his routine and one that persisted for the rest of his life. He was never much interested in what was generally considered fine in antiques, his taste being for the strange - those odd pieces that 20 years ago most people passed over. Scale, form, pattern and colour were the essential qualities he looked for and it was this graphic aspect of things that ultimately shaped his work.

At Colefax & Fowler the opportunity that enabled him to develop his style was the promotional aspect of the firm's work for which he was made responsible. This covered designing and decorating the window displays in Brook Street, Ebury Street and, as the company grew, Fulham Road and elsewhere. He took charge of the promotional photo shoots, and exhibition stands such as the Decorex trade fair. He also designed and dressed grand tester beds, curtains and other accessories in the Brook Street and the Fulham Road showrooms.

It was the window displays in particular that became a talking-point. Their flair and spontaneity were sufficiently outstanding to attract acclaim. This success encouraged him. He experimented with the detail of curtains, upholstery, trimmings and a wide use of accessories. In dressing the windows he sometimes used the cheapest of props such as painted picket fencing, trugs planted with moss and bulbs, charmingly elaborate slip covers over the backs of tatty iron garden furniture. It was his ability to evoke atmosphere in the confines of a small window space, coupled with a meticulous eye for detail that fascinated all who saw them.

Roger Banks-Pye had taught himself through his passion for fabrics, which he used in the closest way a decorator has come to the couturier. Nobody since John Fowler in his heyday had approached this aspect of decorating with such confidence. It is hardly surprising that both Sir Hardy Amies and Valentino became devotees of his work. Their rigorous standards and pursuit of perfection enabled them to appreciate the effort that Banks- Pye made on their behalf.

In his taste for the modest he was close to John Fowler, whom he only knew in retirement. The objet trouve and off-the-shelf items of apparently little worth gave him immense pleasure, but they were always chosen for their clarity of design and the visual contribution they could make to a room. This contrasts sharply with other decorators working today whose inclination is for the rare and the important artefact coupled with the finest-quality materials to underwrite their work and lend authority to it.

A certain sense of morality can be detected behind Roger's Bank-Pye's creativity so that his interiors achieve a purer beauty that does not rely on a deep pocket. In his own very subtle way he could circumvent the world of social pretension and material excess.

Roger Banks-Pye, interior designer: born Sheffield 11 July 1948; died Compton, Wiltshire 25 August 1996.