Obituary: David Hicks

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAVID HICKS was perhaps the "Dyvid Byley" of interior designers: the only exponent of that profession the man in the street might be able to put a name to. For nearly 40 years Hicks has been a household word - to many a household god - and his style a touchstone of good, mad, but never indifferent, taste.

His many books - the first, David Hicks on Decoration, published in 1966 - have been inexhaustible quarries of ideas and inspiration to the following generations of designers. His later work, with its massive overscaling and deceptive simplicity greatly influenced by his hero Sir John Soane - with frequent chapeaux to Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor - became the classical trademark by which he will be best remembered, but it was his early decors, so violently heathen to the cretonned hearths of post-Festival Britain that brought him instant recognition, a well-observed and edited transatlantic- stroke-French chic that propelled him up ladders so fast his "international fun-folk bobble shoes", as his contemporary Dominic Elwes noted, hardly touched the rungs.

That, and of course, his looks. Son of a distinguished but decidedly elderly Essex stockbroker - that his grandfather lived in the reign of George III enormously endeared David to his future father-in-law, that monarch's great-great-great-grandson Earl Mountbatten of Burma - and an intelligent and sensitive mother whose culinary skills were to be a boon to David's early bachelor life, he was born in 1929 and christened David Nightingale - perhaps the closest he ever came to natural modesty: he was probably correct in claiming that he alone had invented the profession of interior designer - as opposed to mere decorator.

He was educated at an unloved Charterhouse, followed by a hated but then obligatory stint in the Army ("smelly young men my own age") which determined him to be his own master, and he enrolled in the Central School of Art and Design in London. This led to contact with advertising agencies and photographers such as Terence Donovan, for whom he would frequently "and brilliantly" decorate sets.

At the same time he acquired the first of what was to be a series of ravishing country houses, the Temple at Stoke-by-Nayland in Essex, which he had often bicycled past as a child. Here he created his first decors, devised his first garden (the long dark canal before the Temple's facade would feature frequently in his own and clients' landscapes), gave his first parties, invited his first friends - one of whom remembers, "I'd put a slice of lemon in the gin and tonic. David was aghast. 'What do you think this is? A restaurant?' " Other friends were mainly of the more sophisticated world, headed by Bunny Roger, Arthur Jeffress, Barry Sainsbury and those veteran, inveterate matchmakers Chips Channon and Peter Coats.

In Hicks's incandescent glamour and vaunting talent, they saw vast potential. Some dazzling union must be achieved: a marriage of patrician wealth and raw ambition. It was. In 1958, joined by the equally brilliant young decorator Tom Parr (who went on to head Colefax and Fowler), Hicks and Parr opened in London on Lowndes Place, off Belgrave Square. No one who was there that first evening will forget the 27 metal African lances hung exactly five-and-a-half inches apart, horizontally, on one wall, or a thousand watts lighting, in relief, a vast baroque torso. The spare sparse energy, the space, the scale, were literally breathtaking. The David Hicks style had truly arrived.

So much so, indeed, that he moved into 22 South Eaton Place, where he and his mother would entertain - David's fantasies, her food. The decor became the cynosure of eyes. Carpets and curtains were banished. Books must be bound all white. Monotones prevailed - as Vere French confessed, "When Hicks and Parr said beige, who was I to lag behind?" The ultra-modern art hung frameless, the white flowers in lit glass tanks. Baths and beds bestrode the middle of rooms, David's pugs could only eat off Chinese blue and white. It was all very surprising.

But David Hicks could always surprise. In 1960, the announcement of his grand marriage to Lady Pamela Mountbatten amazed all but a very few. "Oh I don't call that grand," his friend Tony Armstrong-Jones remarked. (Five months and a title later revealed why.)

Henceforward Hicks's clients and life style took an acutely upward turn, the former providing the latter - a couple of beautiful 18th-century houses, one in St Leonard's Terrace in Chelsea, the other the near-stately Britwell in Oxfordshire, which his wife ran with exquisite grace and tact. Hicks joined the squirearchy, rode, learnt to shoot (extremely well) and allowed his never-over-repressed ego to blossom ("I'm very famous and clever and I'm married to a very rich lady") as well as bourgeoisie-teasing pronouncements: "Red and yellow dogs are fearfully common" (red was later applied to cattle with equal rigidity), "Daffodils are hideous"; and I remember a postcard from "the Rainforests. Another of God's mistakes" - an almost Firbankian comment.

Concurrently his fame and influence spread world-wide, his influence and hauteur making him a kind of interior dictator. One besotted client on the Iberian peninsula kept Hicks's room "as he left it" and would allow friends to glimpse the grail through a barely opened door. But clients became friends, always - Hicks's immense knowledge, enthusiasm and humour saw to that. He frequently invited Elaine Sassoon, who, when married to Vidal, had been among the first, and the intensely private Nico Londonderry Fame was a lifelong confidante. His talent for friendships echoed his temperament. His standards were high, he hated many things and people, but once in his pantheon he would never ever let them down. Hicks was too worldly to be cruel.

He was let down, himself, however, by a disastrous business liaison which wreaked unaccustomed havoc. Hicks, with his reserve of courage and that irrepressible ego, retrenched and reorganised, building and decorating in many countries, but concentrating now on garden design, at which he was perhaps even more talented and original. The best example of his new- found genius is his own garden at the Grove, the lovely house in a fold of the valley below Britwell, where Pamela and he lived their elegant, harmonious, rock-and-royalty life for the past 20 years.

Here he could indulge in forcing nature into the linear and geometric patterns he so loved to use indoors, and devise elaborate humours - a trompe church steeple was attached to a hay-cart so that he could instantly terminate a distant view. And it was here, his handsome family around him, that David Hicks left, in tranquillity, the life he had so exuberantly adorned.

David Nightingale Hicks, interior decorator and garden designer: born Coggeshall, Essex 25 March 1929; director, David Hicks Ltd 1960-98; married 1960 Lady Pamela Mountbatten (one son, two daughters); died Britwell Salome, Oxfordshire 29 March 1998.

Taste is not something you are born with, nor is it anything to do with your social background. It is worth remembering that practically anyone of significance in the world of the arts, whether in the past or today, was nobody to start with. Nobody has ever heard of Handel's or Gainsborough's father.

My passion for arranging masses of things together is part of the way I see objects and use them. It not only looks mean, but is visually meaningless, to have one bottle of gin, one of whisky, a couple of tonic water and a soda syphon on a table in the living-room, even though that might be perfectly adequate for the needs of one evening's entertainment.

It is perhaps I who have made tablescapes - objects arranged as landscapes on a horizontal surface - into an art form; indeed, I invented the word . . . What is important is not how valuable or inexpensive your objects are, but the care and feeling with which you arrange them. I once bought six inexpensive tin mugs in Ireland and arranged them on a chimneypiece to create an interesting effect in a room which otherwise lacked objects. They stood there in simple perfection.

I dislike brightly coloured front doors - they are more stylish painted white, black or other dark colours. I hate wrought iron. I loathe colour used on modern buildings - it should be inside. I do not like conventional standard lamps - I prefer functional floor-standing reading lights. Function is just as important as aesthetics . . . Function dictates design.

From David Hicks, Living with Design, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1979