One needs light and shade
7 lessons from the doyenne of interior Anglo-American design
In the long, claustrophobic months of winter, I threw myself into the study of English interior design. And in all of the many books and articles I read, one name kept appearing: Nancy Lancaster.
Over and over again, she was referenced as the person who put English interior decoration on the map—and who made it what it is today: a playful but carefully considered approach to spaces that respects the past and avoids preciousness and perfection. With her design partner, she established Colefax and Fowler, which is still regarded as the gold-standard design firm in the U.K.
But then I discovered that Lancaster wasn’t English at all: She was an American, and even more than that, she was a Virginian, raised on an estate a mere 30 minutes from where I live. Instantly, I felt this geo-psychic connection with her and had to know more. I read Robert Becker’s delightful, ramshackle biography of her life and was dazzled by her ocean-crossing, opulent life story.
Lancaster (born Nancy Keene Perkins in 1897; died in 1994) lived an extremely privileged life, both in Virginia and in the United Kingdom, with access to wealth on the level of a Kardashian, I’d suppose. In one example of her outrageous wealth, she notes that, in the late 1930s, she would ship her horses back and forth from England to Virginia so that she could always have access to her favorites. She rescued multiple castles in England from disrepair and became a formidable garden designer as well.
In any event, a large portion of the biography contains extensive interviews and anecdotes from Lancaster herself, so it almost reads like a thinly edited memoir. She has a delightful voice, opinionated and bold, and she sets forth her rules for interior design.
Nancy Lancaster’s seven rules of design are as follows:
In restoring a house, one must first realize its period, feel its personality, and try to bring out its good points.
Decorating must be appropriate.
Scale is of prime importance, and I think that oversized scale is better than undersized scale.
In choosing a color, one must remember that it changes in different aspects.
Understatement is extremely important, and crossing too many t’s and dotting too many i’s makes a room look overdone and tiresome. One should create something that fires the imagination without overemphasis.
I never think that sticking slavishly to one period is successful; a touch of nostalgia adds charm. One needs light and shade, because if every piece is perfect, the room becomes a museum and is lifeless.
A gentle mixture of furniture expresses life and continuity, but it must be a delicious mixture that flows and mixes well. It is a bit like mixing a salad. I am better at rooms than salads.
As our house slowly comes together, I am trying to keep her sage counsel in mind. (And am itching to see Mirador.)
Foreverland, Heather Havrilesky
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë