Peter Kent

Interior designer of elegance and subtlety
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Harcourt Kent, designer: born Watford, Hertfordshire 30 April 1956; died London 26 June 2005.

Designers of interiors, unfortunately, along with designers of virtually everything from fashion to forks, from chaise-longues to charabancs, have become fodder (or at least canapés) for the ravenous world of celebrity. As a response to the question "What are you wearing?" we have learned to feign unsurprise to hear, not "trousers", but "Dior". To the enquiry "What on earth is that?" we are told, not "a can opener", but "Starck". In stark contrast, the recent loss of Peter Kent has surrendered a master of discretion, whose work as a designer, as elegant and subtle as its creator, was devoted to appropriate solutions rather than self-promotion.

His exemplary ego, driven by curiosity and empathy, was thoroughly opposed to the half-baked. Having a constant sense of the ridiculous and a pin-sharp clarity of purpose, he was far more interested in others and their needs than his own. It made him greatly in demand as a friend and an imaginative designer of shops, from the phenomenon of Next, in the 1980s, to Wedgwood, whose world he re-envisaged - beginning with their Regent Street shop in London - in the last two years whilst he fought the cancer which killed him.

He treated his illness with the sang-froid and composure of a 19th-century duellist, returning to his life after successive bouts with a Cary Grant detachment and good-humour (albeit also blond) that left all who knew him simply gasping in amazement. Yet it was the same spirit in which he would assemble images of inspiration for a presentation to a difficult client. So too the certainty of comfort in quality, of food, surroundings and the civilised pursuits of English life, even when practised abroad (in Tangiers say), or just playing cards at his country place in the Cotswolds, brought him repeatedly, and in every sense, back to life. Peter Kent had the ability to make you see and feel life a little more vividly. And sometimes to regret one's own transparency.

Colour was one of his great talents. He introduced it in his work to telling effect, such as the bright red "Boulevard" he made to transform the display of underwear at Galeries Lafayette in Paris, but he used it not just intrinsically but to lend an often nostalgic éclat to the spaces he designed. At home in London in Palace Gate, his studio apartment in one of the most important early buildings of the Modern Movement in England, one felt the subtlety of his approach, letting the architecture outperform his discreet re-arrangements of space, colour and texture.

Home was important to him, as an idea and as a goal. Born to a peripatetic life, he followed his father's naval and later MI5 postings from Norway to Kensington. He was educated at Pangbourne College, but his response to school life as a naval cadet indicated that he was not cut out for the regimented life of the armed forces. Instead, he had inherited his artistic genes from his grandfather, the artist Leslie Kent, and it was as an art and design student at Kingston Polytechnic that his creative talents took flight. After art school, he went to Milan, then the design capital of Europe, before returning to London, where he joined Conran Associates.

In 1981, he left to work as a freelance designer with David Davies, a fellow Kingston alumnus. It was with Davies that Kent developed the highly influential concept for the Next stores that was to redefine the retail landscape of the period. In 1990, he established a design partnership with the interior designer Louise Hosker and the architect Peter Moore. Hosker Moore and Kent (now HMKM) was to have a global reach, with projects from Rome to Manhattan to Rio to Melbourne and clients including British Airways, Valentino, Harvey Nichols and the National Museums of Ireland.

At Christmas 1991 Kent met Hamish Bowles, a complementary and equally talented man, then Style Director of Harpers & Queen. Theirs was to prove an enduring relationship that grew only richer with the years. They were amongst the first in London to have their partnership formally acknowledged at a ceremony in the Mayor of London's new City Hall. Anyone who shared the riotous event, complete with poems and contributions from numerous friends, saw life being lived, acknowledged and celebrated unforgettably to the full.

However, perhaps his greatest achievement, however strange it may seem, and the crowning event of his too brief life (he died at 49) was the manner of his leaving of it. It was not bravado that made the last two years of his life, by his own acknowledgement, two of the most rewarding of them all. Not only did he pursue his work with an unexaggerated but heightened effectiveness, but he spent extraordinary energy and time on the emotions, however exhausting they must have been, of the people around him. In skilful conversations, he prepared, translated and salved the sadness of the situation into positivity.

As things deteriorated he repeatedly found an Ortonesque comic resource and in the end we realised that this apparently mild and unruffled, elegant, calm man had the kind of guts that elevates struggle to a point where inspiration replaces suffering. As is often the case in retrospect, one can feel that a life curtailed is nevertheless the right shape for the one who is living it, however cruel the truncation is for the living. And perhaps this explains in part why he always seemed to be so unimpressed by his own achievements, even as awards and honours came with time.

Patrick Kinmonth

Comments