Help! What’s my interior design style?

© Franz Lang

“Good taste: you’re born with it!” I’ve heard people say. Often, that may be the case, but I say it’s a skill that can be developed, like any other.

But what is taste, anyway? Just about the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that it’s subjective. De gustibus non est disputandum, runs the Latin maxim: there’s no accounting for taste. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; chacun à son goût and so forth.

“For my part, I read only to please myself and like only what suits my taste,” said Voltaire. When it comes to decorating our homes, I am with him: a truly interesting and timeless interior should project the identity of its inhabitants and nobody else.

But then, designer Guy Goodfellow, a former colleague of mine, suggested a different maxim to me: everybody needs a second opinion. Which is why, when faced with the requirement to spend their hard-earned cash furnishing their home, many employ a designer to help them discover their style and make educated decisions — an insurance against wasting money, as it were.

Without a professional, how do you approach this task? Especially when, thanks to Instagram and Pinterest and countless interiors magazines and TV shows, we are bombarded with different styles and tastes all the time. Maximalism? Yes please! Country house style? It’s in my blood. Modernism? In the right context. Minimalism? A little soul-crushingly sad, for me, but for others: absolute nirvana. But a room — or even a whole house — can’t be all those things at once. Sarah Morris of McWhirter Morris warns of “sweetie shop syndrome” — too much of a good thing means the choice can be overwhelming.

So, before you get started, ask yourself the following questions: who, what, where, when and how — or, in fact, several hows. It’s a common structure but I find it applies when you’re trying to work out your style. Firstly: who am I (or “we” if decorating a family home)? What am I decorating? Where will things go? When do I need it to be ready? Then, how will I use it? How can I afford it? And how do I want it to make me feel? Once you chip away at the bigger picture, the task becomes less daunting and choices start to make themselves.

Begin with the “who” bit. Designer Lucinda Griffith suggests starting by examining your wardrobe. What you wear is a good indicator of what you’d like to surround yourself with. One beloved client of mine only wears navy in the summer and brown in the winter: very tailored clothes, no frills. Likewise, her interiors are considered, pared back — not minimal but no excess baggage. Griffith also says — and I agree — that interiors are like the world’s best farmers’ market. Everything is delicious, but not all at once. She compares choosing interiors to picking from a menu. Once you’ve decided on the chicken pie, it becomes easier to whittle down what else you’ll have: “what goes well with chicken?”

woman stading at the foot of a staircase
Emma Burns at home in Oxfordshire

It’s far too easy to be seduced by what you see other people doing, so it’s helpful to have rules of engagement. Houses like the glorious Charleston in East Sussex, former home of Bloomsbury Group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, illustrate so well the joy of an intensely personal interior. The first time I went, I was overwhelmed with delight at the painted decoration on the walls and furniture, and dug out my watercolours to emulate the embellishments on the bookcases at home. My then-husband was less than impressed and followed with a J-cloth, wiping away my attempts. Harsh but fair: ours wasn’t that sort of house.

My number one rule is suitability, suitability, suitability. Philip Hooper, my co-managing director, has a Georgian house in Somerset decorated in the country style — after all, our company forebears John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster are credited with inventing the look: comfort, antiques, good curtains and dollops of chintz. But as the sole occupant of his London pied-à-terre, a former school conversion, he has entirely reconfigured the double height room so the whole space flows together and decorated it with angular Modernist furniture. Marvellous for the city, it would be unsuitable, uncomfortable and unconvincing for a country home.

Next comes “what”. Whether you’re putting together a single room or a whole house — or even just buying a bedspread — thinking about the scheme as a whole is a tremendous help when trying to work out your style. Layout, scale, proportion, volume: these are all more important, in the first instance, than colours and fabrics. As dull as it may seem, think practicality first and taste will follow.

So, plan your room carefully. Mark out where you intend everything to go. Make a mood board for yourself, review your ideas and see if they gel together. Timeframe is also important, as this may curtail design decisions. Delivery time of sanitary ware can be up to 16 weeks. Fabrics can be out of stock and need to be specially woven. This means it can be up to 14 weeks before you can get it to the curtain makers and they in turn may have a turnaround of 12 weeks.

I’ve also learnt over the years how useful it is to get into a dialogue: with your designer, your friends or whomever you share your home with. Airing thoughts and bouncing ideas about is the best way to sift down and identify what you want. When helping a client I like to know how they want to use their room or house. What do they need from it? How many people do they want to be able to sit around the table to have dinner, for example?

The corner of this salmon pink living room is furnished with a pink sofa and the walls are covered in a display of architectural prints
A pink living room by David Hicks © Fritz von der Schulenburg/The Interior Archive

General view of dining room with Modernist design
Modernism ‘in the right context’ at Ernö Goldfinger’s 2 Willow Road, London © James O Davies

Of course, where you begin also depends on what you’re beginning. Say you’re starting from the ground up: a completely vacant entrance hall. Think about the hard finishes first. Are the floors to be stone, tiles, wood or carpet? Your taste might be parquet, but kids wheeling bikes through the house might dictate more practical tiles. There are some fantastic wood-effect porcelain tiles available — et voilà, a happy combination of taste and practicality.

Being honest about how much you can spend is another dull but helpful way of honing your taste. You might be lusting after brass for the bathroom fixtures. Brass is beautiful, but only when it’s top end. Is budget a concern? If it is (and let’s face it, when is it not) you’re better off buying chrome. Swags and tails not only demand tall, elegant windows but an experienced curtain maker and a large quantity of fabric and trimmings, so simple curtains on poles, or Roman blinds, may suit your windows and wallet better. Images saved on Instagram or torn from magazines are an archive of incredibly useful information, but mustn’t be followed to the letter. Sift through these and you can immediately ditch half as they won’t be suitable for the building or the budget you are working to. There will, however, be nuggets of information and ideas that you will keep coming back to.

Let’s fast forward: say the big decisions have been made and you’re less than thrilled with the results. At this stage, it is so easy to be seduced by what you see other people doing — a friend might have a rug you think is so much more interesting than your own; or a room on Instagram might have the perfect coffee table.

fully furnished living room
An apartment by McWhirter Morris © Dean Hearne

First, remember that the grass is not always greener, and that copying a look lock, stock and barrel is not going to be a good reflection of who you are. Also, not everything needs to have the “wow” factor, or be decided at once. My colleague Lucy Hammond Giles says the job of a great decorator is to create a home that doesn’t look like it’s been decorated at all; it should look like it has evolved and reflect the people within.

The most successful interiors are ones that develop over time, where it doesn’t matter if you move things around or change things. I love the story about my all-time hero, David Hicks, installing a room. It being May, he arranged Lily of the Valley in a pretty jug. Returning to the house in the winter, he was astounded to see a bunch of the same flowers. Remarking on this, he was told “Yes, it is difficult to get them year-round but we thought they were the only flowers permitted.” The point being, sticking too rigidly to a formula is silly, and the smallest changes can make the biggest difference.

Now, my experiment with hand-painting my own furniture might have been a failure. But it did teach me something valuable: paint is one of the most inexpensive and impactful ways to reflect your taste. It’s also one of the best ways to pep up a room if your choices have erred on the side of “safe”. Committing to a paint colour by way of a postage stamp-sized daub or because you’ve seen and loved it in someone else’s home is an easily avoidable pitfall. Instead, paint large pieces of lining paper with two or three coats of the colours you are considering. Put these up on the wall and review at different times of day. In your own setting and surrounded by the furniture and objects you love, is the colour still as seductive as it was on Instagram?

A bedroom designed with a sunflower motif
A bedroom Emma Burns designed for a client with a ‘penchant for sunflowers’ © Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler

Finally, when it comes to influences, think about who or what you are taking inspiration from, and why. Each King Louis of France thought their style of furnishing was exquisitely good taste. But when the next Louis appeared, that would all be dumped, and the generation of “exquisitely good taste” would follow. I’ve worked on many houses for a French client in London and France. She has always impressed on me that she doesn’t care what anybody thinks about her taste, it must just please her, à la Voltaire.

As a result, the houses we have worked on together are sublimely confident, elegant, witty (just like her) and loved by all lucky enough to visit. Not everyone would have the nerve to install a bright pink rubber floor or cactus-shaped radiators, but these things are completely at home because she loves them. Likewise, for an American client with a penchant for sunflowers, I created a bedroom homage to that cheeriest of flowers, complete with embroidered bed canopy and drapes. As Winston Churchill said: “My tastes are simple, I am easily satisfied with the best.” But what is the best? And, when it comes to matters of taste, does it really matter? Here we go again!

Emma Burns is joint managing director at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler

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