Today is a house tour with a designer who may not be a household name – yet – watch out for him on the next series of Interior Design Masters (as the judge for the hotel episode) but Guy Oliver is responsible for both the Claridges and Connaught Hotels. We interviewed him for the podcast and it’s such a wonderful episode as Guy is a born storyteller so if you like a good story but don’t normally listen to podcasts then this may be a good one to start with. As long as you keep this open nearby in case you need to look at a few pictures (and they’re in no particular order so no need to scroll up and down – anything relevant is in the captions). And to make it easy you can listen right here.
Guy, of Oliver Laws Studio, is a former naval officer, from a time when you could be court-martialled for being gay although, he says, once his Admiral discovered how good he was at dressing the ship for parties, there was never any question of him being in trouble. The navy is also a lot more tolerant now and there are also many more high ranking women since he came out (of the Navy) some 20 years ago.
In addition to his interior design work, Guy is most excited about the work he does as creative director for the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, working with artisans in Kabul to restore the old adobe houses which have been destroyed by the war. He says taste is experience and “I absorb so much though my life travel and study”.
Guy lives in a mews in west London and has been there for 20 years and lived in lots of houses as a child – in common with many other successful designers who have often had peripatetic childhoods and it’s no great leap to see why they might later choose to work in a field that is all about creating beautiful homes.
He signed up to join the Navy at 16 – the youngest cadet. “It was all a huge mistake. The Navy were supposed to do a talk somewhere else and they got lost and turned up at my school and they decided to do a talk there instead. The Admiral said to me ‘You’d make a perfect naval officer’ and so I said yes and off I went.”
It was a weird move for him. It’s a tight community. “I don’t know how they didn’t know I was gay – at the time it was a court martial offence and a dishonourable discharge but they didn’t do that. Instead they put me in charge of the parties and events.
“One time we came back from the Falklands (not the war but we had been on patrol) and we had to go to the West Indies and I was asked to set up a party. I wanted to make it amazing so I took six guys ashore and we brought back palm trees and I built a waterfall with rocks and ponds and we had real fish – all on the flight deck and the captain loved it.”
When it comes to his design style, Guy says: “My mother had an antiques business and things were changing all the time. so I don’t get attached to objects. I’m happy to move them around and sell them on. My house is very much a reflection of my life and travels rather than being one fixed design.”
Some designers use their home as a branding showcase but Guy’s is a real home and a retreat, Sophie pointed out. To which Guy, rather intriguingly, said: “Some interior designers use other interior designers to do their homes and I’ve done that too. I’ve been employed by an interior designer to their house.” Sadly he was unforthcoming on any more detail.
His own house is clearly a space of stories and memories; paintings by old friends and from childhood bedrooms jostle for space with furniture picked up on his travels and that he has designed himself. “My grandfather didn’t believe in buying shares and always said ‘buy things you can touch and see’ so I have always collected paintings and furniture and objects.”
The garage (for all tiny mews houses have them) is almost as big as the rest of the house and, with his love of the flamboyant party – in pre Covid days – Guy would spend three days decorating it: “I rent tables and chairs, drape it with fabric and greenery and borrow paintings and really dress the space. It would take three days to get it ready. I had a friend who lived opposite who was a chef and he would cater for me.”
Guy’s passion for craftsmanship and design shine through this house and he comes alive when talking about Turquoise Mountain, the charitable foundation in Afghanistan which he helped set up to work with artisans and promote their work.
“Later I was doing the restoration of the Connaught Hotel and I worked with them on one of the suites up in the eaves. I wanted the Afghan carvers to work on it so we flew the wood back on a Hercules air force plane and that room became the most popular room in the hotel.
“When I wanted to do it the chief executive asked why are you creating an Afghan room in a Mayfair Hotel and the answer was simple: “In the 19th century people collected interiors and they went round the world and might have had an Indian room, or an African room and it was a similar idea and, he adds what is clearly a well-trodden line: “Everyone from the king of Malaysia to the Kings of Leon love that room and the hotel gives a percentage of the profits from that room back to the charity.”
Guy’s home is clearly not a showpiece and he’s not one for interior design rules but what he does believe in passionately is that spaces feel good when they tell a story and there are layers of objects. “Good design is sometimes unnoticeable because it feels like it has always been there and that is a mark of its success.”
“It’s not just colour and paint it’s about the story you tell with it”
With huge thanks to Guy for letting us look round his house, to Geberit for sponsoring the show and to Feast Collective for producing.