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From rock stars to royalty, Nicky Haslam discusses 'A Designer's Life'

Nicky Haslam Q&A: 'Taste is what you are born with. Style is looking, learning and refining'

As adept at sumptuous louche grandeur as he is with classic English style, it’s no wonder that famed British interior designer Nicky Haslam is a favorite of both rock stars and royalty. Born in a Buckinghamshire manor and educated at Eton, he worked for Diana Vreeland at Vogue and raised horses in the American Southwest before returning to England and beginning his career in earnest during the glam-tacular ‘70s. Lavishly illustrated, the new book "Nicky Haslam: A Designer’s Life" ($55, Rizzoli) covers his early days, the inspirations that shaped his style and the timeless designs that are his trademark.

You've designed and organized many glamorous events and parties; what's your favorite way to entertain at your own home?

My favorite way to entertain is without constrictions. A dinner for six may morph into 10. Just have an expandable showy first course (say, mousse of foie gras) and a simple main course — any form of sausage and plenty of potatoes and salad will do. I like having parties that just go on and nobody bothers with food. Most of all, I like to eat outside whenever possible.

Can you briefly explain your view on the difference between taste and style?

Taste is what you are born with, though you may not know it. Style is looking, learning and refining.

Is there a room or place that you consider the most beautiful you've ever seen?

The hall at the Sanssouci Palace [in Potsdam] is a masterpiece of colors, finishes and false perspective scaling. And Cole Porter’s tobacco brown library in his Waldorf Towers apartment in New York, designed by Billy Baldwin, took my breath away every time I drank Gibsons with Cole there.

You often repurpose items in unexpected ways. Can you offer some guidance on how to do that?

As a rule, almost anything that’s meant to be outside looks good inside. The opposite is, I fear, not so. Indoor things rarely work outdoors, unless you’re edging toward the surreal.

The '70s have returned to the fashion world — and now to home decor. What should we look for in the attic or the second-hand shop from that period?

People have always admired the best of '70s design. Recycling the more kitsch stuff is a fun fad. Dig out those pagoda-shaped lampshades. Use that hostess trolley of your mother’s. Keep an eye open for plastic pineapple ice buckets. And spray them white.

Are there any design trends you wish to see or make a comeback?

I wish designers would pay more attention to ceilings. I love plasterwork more than life itself. And of course chintz. I wrapped columns in Claremont chintz recently. Stunning. You have to find un-traditional ways to use it.

By the same token, what's one design trend or look you hope never to see again?

Philippe Starck furniture. Cheap “painted” chinese wallpaper. Leather floors. Orchids.

What makes for a great party?

Too much to drink and a chocolate pudding, as my friend Lady Diana Cooper believed.

You grew up in a manor and have designed many other grand residences; how can the owner of a more humble dwelling add a touch of grandness to their home?

Bold moldings around doors. “Stopped” cornices. Colors that gently lead the eye from room to room.  Over-scale the furniture and fabrics, especially in small rooms. Wide floorboards. Simple curtains. Touches of scarlet and black.

Are there any go-to colors you often incorporate into rooms?

The color I like best I call “grove”; it’s a gray/lilac/brown, the color of the shadows that make the design "pop" in old French chintzes. Then I like a brown-pink, exactly the color of the old fabric Band-Aid — the most flattering shade in the world. And coffee-colored lacquer.

You’ve rubbed elbows with so many legends — from Picasso to Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol to Peggy Guggenheim. Would you share a memory about any one of them?

I remember Peggy lying on her bed in Venice with the great Calder mobile behind her, and putting on earrings that were miniature versions of it. And once she arranged a birthday dinner for me in a restaurant near [her home] Palazzo Venier dei Leoni; all the guests were astonished when she paid the bill herself, as she was notoriously frugal!

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