Leading Brits: My favourite place

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The designer: Sir Paul Smith

I've always been attracted to houses. When I was 21, my wife Pauline, who was teaching fashion design at Nottingham School of Art, would take a selection of her students (and me) twice a year to see the couture shows in Paris. In those days, unlike now, there would be 30 people in the audience, so we saw Chanel when she was still alive and the famous Yves Saint Laurent show when he did the homage to the Vietnam War. They were always held in these beautiful houses; it was my dream to open a shop in a house.

I was born in a small town just outside Nottingham called Beeston. My father had a very strong personality - very happy, always coming up with jokes, inventing things. Even on the beach, he would pick up a pebble and draw a picture on it with his pencil. There was always creativity around me, but we never discussed art, or my going to art school. When I got to 15, he said, "What do you want to do?" I just wanted to cycle - to be a professional rally cyclist. But he said, "That's not a real job" (which it would be nowadays); so I left school on a Friday and on the following Monday I started work at Cree & Fletcher, one of the wholesalers where he used to buy some of his draperies and shirts and things in Nottingham's Lace Market. I never had an interview, he just rang up Mr Fletcher. I remember I had to arrive with a grey overall, a pencil and a rubber, and I got paid three pounds five shillings a week. I was just a runaround boy, but I learnt a lot from that job, because it was a very thrifty company run on old-fashioned terms.

In 1967 Pauline and I got our first flat together. It was a fantastic place in a beautiful Georgian street in Nottingham called Park Terrace. We came to London once or twice a month; there was such an explosion of energy - Habitat had just opened. Around this time, with Pauline's encouragement, I opened my own little shop.

Finally we moved down to London: Pauline, who'd gone to the Royal College of Art with David Hockney and Ossie Clark, couldn't keep away any longer. At first we lived in a tiny one-room bedsit. Then later we got a little house in Notting Hill Gate, but we pretended it was Byzantine and painted it all white with a turquoise front door, and put down parquet floors. When we could afford it, we bought art. I remember going to Hockney's first-ever show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1970. They had produced a limited-edition print called Pretty Tulips, which cost £12. I decided we either had to pay the gas bill or buy one of these prints. They came to switch off the gas, but fortunately Pauline's smile came to the rescue. We now live in a beautiful square in London and we're very settled. But we've always loved Italy, and we have two houses there. One of them, in Sardinia, was built the year we met (1967) by an Italian architect from Turin; he'd died and his family never wanted t o go back, so they closed the door and sold it, complete with all the contents from that era: Joe Colombo chairs, Flos lights, tin trays from Habitat.

I also spend a lot of time here in my office, on the top floor of our London headquarters, a brick-built warehouse from the 1900s. This, as you can see, is where I work and where I keep lots of books, antique textiles, tin robots and advertising things. The desk at the far end was made by Gordon Russell Ltd in 1978 and, underneath the top, there is the original label crediting AT Harvey. But my real indulgence is art, and it's not any specific sort of art. It can be by a student or a very famous person. I have so much piled up and more downstairs; it's like an addiction.

The actress: Miranda Richardson

I love seeing how other people live. I think I'm like a big sponge. I take ideas and I think: how would that work in my life? Is that a good idea, or is it just pretentious? When I go into a place I do look at the books, but I also look at their pictures, and I'm likely to look at chairs. I love chairs; they don't have to be practical, they can just be objects of beauty.

Because of the transient life of a young actor, I was quite old before I got my own house. I walked in and I thought, "I can breathe here." It was my toe-hold on to the property market and stood me very well for 10 years until I realised that I was going to have to bite the bullet and move. I thought if I spent any more money on that house I wouldn't get it back when I sold it.

Moving to Notting Hill Gate was absolutely terrifying. It was the largest outlay I had ever made. My priorities when looking for a property were light, and an incredible atmosphere. Sometimes you walk into a place and you're hit by a kind of dead air: it feels like the life's being sucked out of you. Preferably the street has to "speak" to me too - some streets have bad feng shui. I thought I was looking for a loft, which this absolutely isn't, but the owners had opened up the ground floor so that it felt like it could be a loft. Then it went up to three normal floors.

It's an impossible thing to ask a bit of rockwool and plaster to be a repository for all the things you want out of a home. I view finding a new home as a way of moving on. There's something defined and rather sexy about it. You're saying: I'm allowed this. I can do this. I can spread myself here, and I'm grown up. I can move between rooms: I can cook dinner for my friends. It feels like a civilised life, and anything might happen.

The thinker: Jonathan Miller

My first flat after I came down from Cambridge in 1956 was a dampish but rather nice basement flat in north London. I was a just-married medical student, and later I became a doctor. Then, in 1961, I made a little money out of Beyond the Fringe and I bought this house in Camden Town, and I've been here ever since. It was all rather bare to begin with, but without being aware of it we slowly acquired our second-hand furniture. We never decorated anything; for a long time we didn't even paint the walls. Then we painted them white and they've been the same colour for 30 years. It's acquired a sense of decor now; people coming here are rather startled by the way it looks. I don't know what they expect, but I suppose it isn't a "designed" house. Eventually we had to buy some couches and some old carpets.

This drawing room on the first floor is just such an accumulation of artworks and artefacts, put together year after year. Among the things on the mantelpiece is a large Hispano-Moorish plate, a Balinese shadow puppet, some medical models of the brain, and a cow bone - and the little portrait is, of course, Rembrandt. I don't think that I became visually aware until I began taking photographs in the 1960s. I also began collecting enormous amounts of what people would call junk in those days. Now the house is absolutely crammed with objects. I'm very interested in what I call declassification; you pick something up and put it together with other things, and suddenly they become much more than the sum of their separate parts - there's a rapport between them. If I see a shoe last, I'll think, hang on - that's a very beautiful sculptural object. I don't make a distinction between works of art and works of beauty.

The explorer: Benedict Allen

My house is a nest; it's where I come back to from my expeditions, where I can write my books and put my experiences - my adventures - to bed. But it's also my launch pad. It's immensely cosy; I love the slight sense of decay and disorder. The house is as you find it. Inside, the disorder is mine; outside, it has a weathered sense of permanence. I bought it seven years ago. Up to then, I'd been living in various people's spare bedrooms. Finally I thought, "Oh dear, at last I'm going to have to buy a house." I took an enormous gamble, but I have managed to stay here and keep up the mortgage payments. Finally all my books that had been following me about were unloaded, along with my objects: the fossils I'd collected as a child. I'm very lucky - I know that once there were 10 people living in this London house - but none the less, I do feel I sometimes need to stretch. I would like a bit more access to living, breathing things; a bit of rough ground. I miss a place to grow vegetables and a bit of jungly garden.

I have never thought I want to come back from a journey with something. What I have come back with is that experience, and a few token little things I have used: a wooden bowl that was given to me with water in it by the Mongolians when I walked across the Mongolian desert by myself; bows and arrows that I've hunted with. In my drawing room (right) I have an old family desk where I've written all my books. On the right is a collection of arrows from New Guinea and on the left, one of two war shields that were given to me in Western New Guinea to settle local fighting. On the table is an Iban head and a hunter's shield, the stool is from Papua New Guinea and the rug is Turkish. I still have all my fossils in a broken cabinet on the left of the desk.

In my bedroom I have a wall cabinet filled with some of the half a dozen hats that I've worn on different expeditions. They were with me day and night - I slept against them, there is a bond. I've also kept some of the things my father brought back to me when I was a little boy: a red mask from Central Africa, a drum from Kenya, and I still have a snake in a jar and a tiny stuffed crocodile. There are binoculars that survived the First World War, and a Shaman's box of "magical objects" rests on a painted chest that was given to my great-grandfather by Rudyard Kipling's father.

The aristocrat: The Duchess of Northumberland

I remember the first night that we moved into Alnwick Castle so well, sitting in the dining room with my husband eating dinner. It was a chop that was really tough and it stuck in my throat. I remember thinking, "God, I don't think I can bear this." Nobody had even rung us up to ask what we'd like for dinner. I'd always done my own cooking for 16 years and suddenly there we were with butlers coming out of our ears. I thought, "I can't complain, it's my first night: I mustn't let my husband down." But I knew that if I'd been at home, in our beautiful Georgian farmhouse only about half an hour away, I would be eating a plate of garlic prawns in front of the fire. My husband saw what was happening and he said, "Look, don't worry; it isn't going to be like this forever. I promise you we can change things."

The castle had been run as a museum. There was linoleum on all the floors and it was grey and it was depressing. We lived on the top floor, which was the nursery corridor. Six of us were sharing a tiny, tiny bathroom. The children were distraught at leaving their lovely house just down the road. At first I didn't know where to start and I didn't have a huge amount of confidence at that stage, so we went very slowly and we really started again from scratch.

Ten years later, people say that what they love about Alnwick is that it feels like a family home. We only live in the castle now in the winter, but I always leave the children's things in the library (above) - drawings, silly Christmas presents - so that it looks like we've just left the room, but we'll be back. The library is one of the most beautiful rooms in England and houses approximately 14,500 books, with the earliest published in 1475.

I love things that take your breath away; an experience where you stop and you think - wow! But one of the first things I did was to make a room where we could live as a family, so I made an enormous kitchen, directly below the library, which is modern and all open, with a huge billiard table at one end and a sitting room at the other, and an Aga. It used to be the servants' quarters - a lot of little rooms. When we opened up some places and removed doors, I could see the wonderful honey-coloured stonework behind it all - huge great blocks. The castle dates from 1309; how can they have plastered that over? So I asked the builders to get rid of all the plaster, and they did. Then I got very modern lighting and lit the stonework - and it works. At that point I realised that you can actually do anything if you know what you like. It also taught me that experts are not always right, and that you shouldn't worry about what people think of you.

My husband is not remotely interested in furnishings or clothes, or even himself. He's an outdoor man, interested in the countryside. So it was clear from the beginning that Alnwick was my job.

Extracted from 'Home' by Stafford Cliff, published by Quadrille, priced £30. To order this book at a special price call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 - free p&p on UK orders

Comments