Ben Pentreath: ‘The minute something is of its time, it will date’

At the heart of Ben Pentreath’s magic is his ability to reinvent the past, as Giles Kime explains.

My colleague Huon Mallalieu invoked Tancredi Falconeri in Lampedusa’s The Leopard when he wrote about the recent sale of a set of chairs specified by Sir Edwin Lutyens for Country Life offices he designed on Tavistock Street in Covent Garden: ‘Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.’

The necessity for venerable enterprises to evolve was a subject I discussed recently with Ben Pentreath and Amanda Jack of Johnstons of Elgin at an event hosted by Country Life at Decorex, the annual unveiling of new furniture, fabrics and lighting staged at Olympia in London. The two recently collaborated on a new collection of textiles, weaving together the combined might of 225 years of expertise, an inspiring archive and Mr Pentreath’s ability to create designs that are freshly contemporary, yet firmly embedded in Johnstons’s DNA.

It’s exactly the sort of wizardry that should inspire us all, not only the custodians of time-honoured businesses and institutions. ‘The minute something is of its time, it will date,’ said Mr Pentreath. He’s often credited with leading a revival of classic English style, but it’s a sentiment that rather misrepresents his enormous contribution to prevailing tastes; when you analyse the interiors he creates, they are no exercise in nostalgia, but instead a pared-back, colourful reinvention of the past.

Architectural and interior designer Ben Pentreath.

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It wasn’t ever thus. Scroll back to the 1990s and there was an avalanche of earnest books that offered everything you needed to live like a Georgian or a Victorian (but with the benefit of better plumbing). Houses in Spitalfields were turned into living museums and there were few Victorian houses that didn’t have at least one room in William Morris’s Willow wallpaper, brass bedsteads with floral eiderdowns upstairs that made them look like the set from Lark Rise To Candleford. It all changed in the following decade, when the aesthetic pendulum swung back to a dispiriting form of Modernism-lite that was all white walls and mid-century-style furniture.

The approach championed by Mr Pentreath offers the best of both worlds; the past viewed through a lens of the present that creates interiors that aren’t hostage to historicism (if the whim takes you, you’re allowed an L-shaped sofa, bright colours and contemporary paintings). It’s a happy marriage, in which the old serves as a foil to the new — and vice versa.