The transformative power of good interior design, on show to the world in Chelsea

Giles Kime reports from the WOW!house, and recommends a visit to see it at Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour, before it closes on July 1.

Anyone around in the 1970s and 1980s may remember the highly inventive, full-throttle style of that era’s greatest interior-design practitioners, including David Hicks, Roger Banks-Pye, John Stefanidis and Tessa Kennedy, as well as the early work of Nina Campbell who is still at the height of her powers half a century later. In following decades, decoration with a capital ‘D’ never really went away, of course; it was simply never featured in the slew of new interiors magazines that were cheerleaders for decorating that relied more on shopping than paint finishes, beautiful upholstery and carefully curated collections. In those days when the chill hand of minimalism had many of us in its thrall, others stayed true to the cause, like a hardened bunch of recusants continuing to secretly enjoy the comfort, colour, pattern and texture that classic English decoration affords.

If we have learnt anything from the past two years, it’s that hard edges and insipid colour palettes offer little succour in troubled times. A visit to the WOW!house, on show at the Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour until July 1, eloquently demonstrates the joy of the comfortable interior and reflects the focus of a new generation of designers on the possibilities of carefully conceived and layered decorating schemes. Working with brands that have showrooms at the Design Centre, such as Julian Chichester, G. P. & J. Baker and Morris & Co, designers have created a succession of rooms, including a drawing room, dining room, bathroom, bedroom and dressing room, especially for the month-long show.

The courtyard bedroom by Morris & Co. Photo: James MacDonald

It is the temporary nature of the rooms at the WOW!house, like those at the annual Kips Bay showhouse in New York, that speaks volumes about the transformative possibilities of decoration; in a matter of days, the designers taking part — including Emma Burns and Philip Hooper of Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler, Rita Konig, Bunny Turner and Emma Pocock of Turner Pocock, as well as Linda Boronkay and Brandon Schubert — performed that magic trick that never fails to impress an audience: they created something from nothing. Designers achieve all sorts of amazing feats, from the sensitive refurbishment of old houses to the addition of mood and character to new buildings, at the same time as juggling the hopes, aspirations and impossible demands of clients. At the WOW!house, they started with little but the dimensions of a notional space and a floorplan.

The event is celebration of a new confident approach to decoration that has gathered steam over the past few years. It’s not only the succession of beautiful, thoughtfully conceived rooms that has an impact on the solar plexus, but the details that lift them head and shoulders above the everyday: the lampshades hand-painted by Alvaro Picardo for the exquisite Colefax and Fowler drawing room, the Egyptian-inspired velvet on the walls of the Pierre Frey Salon by Linda Boronkay, the deep-red marble fireplace from Westland in Brandon Schubert’s Morris & Co courtyard bedroom, the Blow bookshelves in the Julian Chichester library by Turner Pocock.

The Julian Chichester Library by Turner Pocock. Photo: James MacDonald

With a wide range of stellar designers cherry-picked from the UK and abroad, the WOW!house could have felt jarringly disparate as visitors moved from one room to the next. In reality, both the quality of the rooms and the quiet confidence with which they have been decorated creates a coherence that ensures they hang together beautifully. There’s no hint of a trend here, only the sort of aesthetic self-belief that is the mark of every good designer and allows them to push the boundaries without scaring the horses.

Like the first ever cover of The World of Interiors, which featured the London home of the designer Anouska Hempel in 1981, they look set to be as smart and relevant in 40 years’ time as they do today. Rarely has the timeless nature of great interior design been quite so evident.

The Tissus d’Hélène bedroom designed by Joanna Plant for WOW!house at Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour

The WOW!house demonstrates many things; alongside the persistence and brilliance of those at the helm of the Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour it speaks volumes about what can be created with a heady mix of pattern, colour and texture — as well as creativity, wit and significant quantities of very hard work. What adds an extra layer of fascination is the fact that the spaces have elicited such an array of different looks from the designers involved, displaying not only the transformative powers of good interior design, but also that those possibilities are infinite.

WOW!house runs until July 1. Entry costs £20 (students £10). A portion of each ticket price will be donated to charity partner Centrepoint, in aid of ending youth homelessness. Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 (020–7225 9166, www.dcch.co.uk)

Schumacher Garden Room by Campbell Rey at Design Centre Chelsea Harbour. Photograph by James McDonald.