Design: Beyond fashion with John Rocha

John Rocha built his reputation on the catwalk, but, as Aoife O’Riordain discovers, he’s got an eye for interiors, too. Photographs by Crispin Rodwell
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John Rocha throws open the front door of his house, barefoot and beaming from ear to ear. A gigantic crystal chandelier twinkles above his head, while at his feet a chocolate-brown dachshund barks hysterically. Standing at the door with his long flowing hair, the designer cuts quite a distinctive figure in his adopted hometown of Dublin.

Rocha in many ways embodies the classic rags-to-riches story, and the large elegant house that he calls home is in one of the city's fashionable neighbourhoods. It's a far cry from the cramped 11th-floor apartment where he grew up in his native Hong Kong. He and Odette – his wife and muse – moved into the handsome, three-storey, end-of-terrace redbrick four years ago with their two children. "When we found the house it had 11 bed-sits and was a complete wreck," he says shaking his head, recalling the horror. "There are two reasons why we loved it so much. First, I can walk to work and second, the fact it was so run-down was a licence to create a space that fits the way we like to live."

The Victorian exterior certainly belies the dramatic transformation that has taken place beyond the hall door. Inside, a large, light-flooded room dominates the ground floor with a mezzanine giving views through double-height, floor-to-ceiling windows on to a small zen-style garden. Despite little Rufus, who is still barking, an atmosphere of tranquillity pervades. "This is where I like to relax," says Rocha as he lounges on the sofa puffing on a Café Crème cigar.

Rocha is, of course, no stranger to ambitious design projects. He won British Designer of the Year in 1994 and in 2002 was awarded a CBE for long-standing services to the fashion industry, yet his has been a natural progression beyond the catwalk. His far-reaching empire now extends into jewellery, eyewear, menswear, five diffusion lines for Debenhams, theatre design and a collaboration with Waterford Crystal. And since the overnight success of his interior decoration for Dublin's Morrison Hotel in 1999 – the developers approached him when they saw a feature in Elle Decoration on his home at the time – his interiors expertise has been much sought after. There have been the L3 apartments in Liverpool, a large development called The Beacon in Dublin and current schemes include the Orion Building in Birmingham and Vigyazo Ferenc, a development of luxury apartments in Budapest. "I never set out to do interior design, I just do what I do and some people come along and want me to work with them," he says modestly. "We always have a couple of interiors projects on, but fashion design is still very much my full-time job."

As well as doing up their home in Dublin, Rocha also turned his talents to the family's other house in the South of France and his flagship store on London's Dover Street, which opened last September, and where he keeps an apartment above the shop. "Between Ireland, France and London I always tend to use the same philosophy and furniture, so I don't feel like I am in a different house, just a different part of the world," he laughs.

In this sense, the backdrop for Rocha family life is an airy, pared-back environment in a soothing palette of neutral colours – whites, blacks and greys – set off by shiny walnut floors. "I like to create a simple space and surround myself with things that I like to look at," he says. Rocha's idiosyncratic style and love of form and texture, abundant in his designs for the catwalk, are also very much in evidence here. The objects, collected on his travels, are dotted around on lacquer, glass and stone surfaces; there's plenty to keep the eye wandering.

He points to an ethereal white object sitting on the coffee table, actually a ceremonial hat picked up in Kenya two years ago while on safari. "This works in much the same way that I approach fashion – I like using handicrafts but in more modern forms," he explains. "It's made entirely from beads, but at the same time looks very modern and can fit into a contemporary setting."

The couple's passion for art is also very much in evidence, with walls adorned by the works of artists such as Lucian Freud, William Scott and Sean Scully. Pride of place goes to an exquisite, black-and-white cut-out of a goat by Picasso that hangs over the fireplace, set off by an elaborate gold frame. There are more Picasso ceramics on the first floor, while the living room houses a large sculptural piece by one of Ireland's most talked about artists, Guggi, a close friend of Rocha's and sometime collaborator in his design projects.

Rocha clearly takes immense pride in all his diverse creative outlets. He serves a glass of water in one of his Waterford "Black Cut" tumblers, which I suspect was not just dusted off for the occasion, and much of the furniture that dots the house was conceived for Rocha's projects: the low, solid, black-lacquered coffee table, say, or a glass console table displaying a pair of rudimentary stick men bought in Hong Kong. The only unrestrained note in this paean to tastefulness is the guest loo with its black polished stone and walls entirely encrusted with hundreds of small crystals. "Waterford, of course," he giggles as he shuts the door.

Given Rocha's Chinese/Portuguese heritage, it's not really a surprise to discover that an Oriental simplicity prevails throughout much of the interior. Downstairs, a monochrome kitchen with a large limestone-topped island features a simple Rocha-designed glass table with wooden benches and views on to the garden. "We open the doors in the summer, so it's like being inside and out at the same time," he says, peering out at the unpredictable Irish weather.

On the first floor, the master bedroom is another study in Rocha's finely honed decorating style, where less is definitely more. Draped over the bed is a luxurious velvet bedspread like the much-coveted versions in The Morrison. "It's quite handy sometimes," he says with a conspiratorial chuckle. The adjacent bathroom has a huge pale tub with sky views and in every room he can roll off where each piece comes from, whether it's an ornate headboard from Bali or a bedside lamp bought from a market in Paris. Rocha's eye, it seems, never takes a holiday.

Despite the undoubted demand for a Rocha-styled home, he has no plans to venture into the private residential market. "It might be a selfish choice, but I find it quite difficult to design for individuals and prefer the distance of larger schemes," he explains. "It's the same reason why, as a designer, I don't do wedding dresses," he adds.

All the same, you wonder how even the testiest of clients could break Rocha's unfaltering good humour. Even when Rufus throws up a very un-Rocha hue on the walnut floor, he jumps up, apologises and disappears downstairs to get a cloth, muttering good-humouredly about the housekeeper's habit of feeding the dog too much rice.

As it turns out, this year is a bit of an anniversary for Rocha: it's his 30th year living in Ireland, where he arrived to pursue his dream of fashion, having left behind a nursing job in England. Even after all those years on the fashion frontline, he's proved that he can turn his hand to just about anything – and his own home is evidence of that most of all.

John Rocha, 15a Dover Street, London W1, 020-7495 2233, or see