‘What an earth would make this nicer?’ Cecilia Neal asks herself when she walks into a house. And somehow something always spring to mind; a wider staircase, removing a ceiling, a mural? ‘Practically every project I’ve done becomes my favourite,’ says Ms Neal, who has been transforming interiors for the last 25 years, ‘Apart from my own house ? I never have time to do anything about it.’
But Ms Neal spends infinite time on her other projects, working on some houses over several years. She considers every last detail; the fire surround, the knives and forks, a hand made dinner service. ‘I have people phoning me up afterwards saying “Where can I find the magimix,”‘ she laughs. There are two factors to consider when assessing a new project, she explains: ‘The client is telling you what he wants and the house is telling you what it needs.’ But according to Ms Neal, people are becoming more experimental with what they want her to do; ‘they’re coming out of boring beige and want ethnic objects to warm it all up.’
So off Ms Neal goes – to auctions and antiques fairs across Europe, sourcing Persian rugs, urns, lamps. ‘You get desperate sometimes,’ she admits, ‘But the dealers are nice and will always take things back if they look wrong and the carpets arrive in a van and can go straight back into it.’ Nowadays she employs a professional draftsman to draw up her visions , ‘simply because he knows more about building regulations.’ Once you have the drawings, you can see the room, Ms Neal maintains, ‘the room has got to come together.’
Her biggest problem is ‘ghastly shaped’ rooms. ‘If you can convince the client to alter a room structurally that is great but if you can’t it is really maddening.’ Ms Neal has opened up staircases, removed ceilings and replaced them with glass panels and reconfigured bathrooms.
Only the most skilled craftsmen make it into her contacts book. Lighting experts install spotlights on the ceiling and floors to illuminate specific details of paintings and a printer hand makes wallpaper to compliment the furniture. Often Ms Neal commissions hand made rugs, ‘Usual rugs depend on the size of the loom in Persia or Turkey,’ she explains, ‘I arrange for copies to be made in the perfect dimensions for the room.’ But despite her penchant for painted silk wallpaper and inlaid cherry wood floors, not everything Ms Neal designs costs a fortune. The addition of simple chicken wire behind the glass in the hand made kitchen cabinets creates a soft effect and existing curtains and furniture can be incorporated into the plans.
Eighteenth century furnishings and design are her favourite; ‘because of the symmetry’ but Ms Neal’s projects are rarely of Georgian dimensions. The walls of her office at Meltons in Bruton Place, London are lined with hundreds of box-files, archiving residential and commercial projects internationally, as well as within the UK. She is still finishing off the renovation of an early twentieth century country house and has also enjoyed working on an historic house in the Edinburgh New Town as well as a Plantation House in America, built by the 30’s Architect Stanford White.
Visiting historic houses and reading architectural journals provides inspiration (Ms Neal used to teach History of Architecture) but Cecilia Neal’s projects are very much rooted in the present day. ‘Panelling can hide all the new technology ? but you’ve got to have it!’ she says. Plasma screens, surround sound, mood lighting and massive showers are all included in the designs but secreted carefully away so as not to detract from the particular style of a room. ‘It’s a question of horses for courses – it’s a process of getting to know what the client wants a 100%,’ she says.
Needless to say there have been a few disasters: water spouting all over a freshly painted bathroom mural for example. But Ms Neal relishes the demands of each different job. However she is keen to point out that a project will be finished much more quickly if the client is not in residence?
For more information on Cecilia Neal or to arrange an appointment please telephone +44 (0)207 629 3612