Nicola Harding is one of my favourite interior designers. It was her work that I referenced when I first noticed the importance (and joy) of bringing a disrupter colour into every scheme and she is also fully committed to being as sustainable as possible in her work. So I was thrilled when she agreed to be a guest on the podcast. You can, of course, listen here. Elsewhere in the episode Sophie and I dissect Princess Anne’s living room complete with the television on top of media cabinet and HRH’s foam cushion propping up the royal bottom as the springs have clearly gone in the sofa. We also discussed what to do when you have bought a huge mistake that you can’t return and have to live with it. I will be returning to that in a post next week but do listen if you can’t wait.
Nicola moved to the Cotswolds three years ago and oversees projects, both residential and commercial for Nicola Harding & Co from there. She was recently named one of House and Garden magazines top 100 designers and heads up a team of 16. Projects include not only her own house, but everything from a Notting Hill Arts and Crafts villa, a Thames-side Victorian mansion and a timber-framed eco new build in Surrey.
Of her own house she says it was a big project as it hadn’t had anything done to it for a long time. And points out: “It wasn’t like a client project where you have all the money to do everything all at once but it has been done in stages.”
So much like the rest of us then. In which case; just where do you start?
“Do a chunk at a time, but think about the whole masterplan so you don’t have to do things twice if you can avoid it.” she says.
“Think about the whole picture of the floor plan and take out the bathrooms and kitchen so you are just looking at the shapes of the rooms. And then ask yourself what your life really looks like.
“For example, it used to be that washing machines automatically went into the kitchen, but if you think about it most of the laundry is created upstairs so can you shoehorn a washing machine upstairs and a drier even in a landing cupboard?”
As a designer known for paying attention to sustainability, Nicola also advises re-using wherever and whatever you can.
“It is as much about what you buy as how much you buy,” she says.
“The biggest element of our carbon footprint is consumption, so if you can make better use of something or re-use it or avoid buying something new that is the best possible scenario. Turn on your inner granny – she would be horrified at how much we throw out. That philosophy is all about mend and re-imagine.”
And true to form she has re-used a pink bathroom suite that was in the house when they moved in rather than throw it on a skip – which many of us might have been tempted to do.
“We inherited a pink bathroom suite so we have moved it to another room and created a loo under the stairs. We teamed it with new reclaimed brass taps and handles for the flush and a much nicer loo seat. So now we have 70s pink sanitaryware against chocolate brown panelling and a lime green wallpaper off-cut from another project that was left over with peacock glazed floor tiles.”
Sophie by this point is swooning with joy as you can imagine. I would say cautiously that if that feels a bit much you can pare back these schemes in whatever way you want. Perhaps a more neutral floor – and paler walls to create a scheme where the pink loo is the the star of a scheme that marries it with natural wood and pale tiles for example.
When it comes to inspiration, Nicola cites movies and television as a big part of it specifically Mad Men and the more recent Queen’s Gambit with their “intoxicating” interiors sets. But she knows her historical references too.
“Set designers use colour combinations to take us emotionally to a place in history and to create an atmosphere and a feeling.”
When discussing plans with clients she always delves into their childhood memories. “It is very personal – you just keep asking the same question from a different angle and you will tease the answer out: what is your favourite holiday place, which time of year do you like, what was the best moment of your childhood, what did you want Christmas to look like and then you dive into that picture of the mood and colours.”
Talking to us from her pink sitting room, she mentions one of my favourite pieces of research; that pink has a calming effect on mood and that the Swedish prison service conducted an experiment painting some cells pink and found that prisoners calmed down, on average, 15 minutes more quickly in a pink room.
But, she warns, this shows you the importance of colour psychology and how you must use it correctly.
“I once painted a restaurant dining room pink once and it was a mistake because it was too calm and actually you want to inject a bit of dynamism and energy so slightly clashing colours has more energy [and is better].”
Running through the sustainable thread is the other much asked question of how you mix old and new successfully?
“Using vintage is a cheap trick because it immediately gives a room a sense of permanence by putting one foot in the past and one in the present. Getting it right is trial and error. I like things that don’t feel too perfect. I like something that is unexpected or clashing. Some things work better than others and you just have to try.
“There are rules, but the more you look at images of historic interiors you start to build an understanding of periods of style and you can see what pieces would have sat alongside each other and play with it. When a piece chimes with your values or has a history already it is bringing a story with it that isn’t just about how it looks but also an atmosphere and the value of that [in a space] is huge.”
But, of course, what if you don’t have period features to play with? What if you live with low ceilings, in square rooms with not a cornice or sash window in sight? You can still do it, says Nicola.
“Look at the things you touch – doors and handles – sometimes those can be lightweight in new builds so add couple of touch points such as reclaimed doors and handles.
“Panelling is a way of not just adding a layer of decor but in some the new houses the acoustics aren’t great as the walls are thin so by adding extra layers you are improving that aspect too.”
But, of course there are so many different types of panelling – can it ever work adding a large Georgian style panel to a new build flat? Yes, says Nicola but you just have to choose the right style.
There are so many different types – from grand large format to a more low key tongue and groove that would have been used in the smaller servants rooms at the back of the house so in a smaller property think about using a smaller panelling style, she advises. She also often uses a wider board and fits it horizontally as you see below.
“For me the matchboard panelling (tongue and groove) is my favourite as it’s cosy. In hotels, which have big grand rooms, it is almost always it is the smaller rooms that people like best because they are cosy. I relish those spaces.”
Finally, what about sustainability? As has been pointed out on these pages more than once it can be an expensive option.
“The process of undertaking work to your home involves a lot of purchasing and at that point you are a super consumer and that gives you a huge opportunity to use your purchasing power to affect some good. It is easy to give up before you even start because it can be so overwhelming and so you think, oh I can’t do any of it so I will do none of it, but even the smallest step does make a difference.
“It doesn’t need to be that you are buying some crazy chair made out of a hay bale, it could just be repurposing your granny’s chest of drawers. That is already doing a better job than buying something that you aren’t in love with and that you will end up replacing.
“Have that masterplan and don’t make knee jerk decisions and if you love it it will work – a piece of vintage furniture or a colour or the unexpected clashes of things going next to each other are fun.”
Does she have any decorating regrets: “I regret the things I didn’t do more than the things I did – should have taken more risks, had more fun and worried less. It’s when we try too hard that things can become a little awkward.”
Sound advice for anyone embarking on their own project I think.
All images kindly provided by Nicola Harding & Co of her own home and projects.
A point to note: clients spend large amounts of money with interior designers for their expertise and knowledge and while designers are often happy to share images of their work, it isn’t fair on their paying clients for their designer to reveal all their paint colours, fabrics and sources so that others may recreate the same look at no cost. For that reason I haven’t asked Nicola for any of those details but you can, of course, do your own detective work and we can all be inspired by her work and colour combinations.
If you have any questions or design dilemmas you would like us to tackle on the show then do get in touch via [email protected] and we will do our best to help out.