Ashley Hicks: new interior histories

Designer Ashley Hicks started his art education at the Bath Academy of Art and then trained at the Architectural Association in London. He worked briefly for his father, interior designer David Hicks, before starting his own design practice. Here Ashley tells us about his memories of Bath, the influence of his father and his own contemporary practice.

Ashley Hicks trained at the Bath Academy of Art and then at the Architectural Association in London. He has designed architecture and interiors in the UK, Europe and the United States, mixing private residential projects with larger-scale commercial work.

Q. You studied fine art at the Bath Academy of Art.What do you remember of this experience and what memories do you have of Bath?
I did a Foundation Course next to the lovely Holburne Museum in the city; and then a three years Fine Art degree in Corsham where I spent happy days in a studio in the old riding school making some appalling paintings that were rightly disapproved of by the tutors. I am sorry to say that none of the tutors had any influence on me; we rather loathed each other. I was a pretentious and confused youth and they sensibly wasted little time on trying to help me. I did love Bath and its beautiful buildings!
Q. Your father David Hicks has been described as, “the rebellious prince of English décor, who broke away from the traditional English style…”

Q. How did your father inspire you as a designer?
He had a very disciplined, graphic style and approach, always firmly grounded in traditional inspirations which he radically modernised. He started out determined to set himself apart from John Fowler’s regime of English prettiness, and that urge, combined with a desire to make photogenic, image-rich interiors to fill magazine and book pages, defined his work. His was a very simple aesthetic, boldly adventurous in colour and pattern, but always ruled by an instinctive sense of harmony. He had a clear, ruthless and singular vision, which I totally lack. I like a bit more confusion, layering and softness.

Q. Historic interiors have been a constant lure for you. When did this fascination start?
I grew up surrounded by them and my father spent a lot of time ‘training my eye’, teaching me to differentiate styles and periods of furniture and architecture from a young age. My mother is an avid reader and very knowledgeable about history. Between the two of them they fired me with a lifelong passion for the past.

I don’t much believe in rules! I do think that elements in an interior should not look angry with each other.

Q. One of your specialisms is creating bespoke commissions for murals and wallpaper based around historic themes – what gave you the idea to do this?
I have always loved trompe l’oeil interiors, again inspired by my father. When I took over his rooms in Albany in London I wanted them to feel like they were hung with tapestries. To achieve a contemporary version of this old idea, I pasted jute hessian on the walls onto which I painted grisaille views of Istabul, Greek statues, a giant eye… it made a rather fascinating effect, warm and atmospheric. For my partner Martina Mondadori I made a room in Milan with Piranesi’s drawings of the Greek temples at Paestum; for an Italian client’s dining room I painted Manhattan in 1937 – the day view on one side, the night on the other.

Q. The design of things – furniture, murals, wallpapers, fabrics, handles – seems to be your main fascination. How do you create a relationship between these individual creative elements and the vision of an interior?
I must admit that I don’t do it deliberately or thoughtfully. Stuff just sort of piles up! Because it’s all made with my own hands and from my own enthusiasms it naturally fits together – or at least I hope it does. I rather prefer spaces to look somewhat accidental and undesigned. I like rooms to feel not only lived in but as though their look comes not from design but from being lived in, full of objects collected with love and interest.

Q. You also have a range of printed linen fabrics. Where do the design ideas come from for these?
I call them ‘textures’ – they are all made very simply, one-colour prints on linen, from drawings I made myself, partly very simple small designs, partly patterns from the Italian Renaissance that I have drawn as if they were messy woodcuts. They are intended to look a bit rough and old, with a tactile quality despite being prints, hence the name ‘textures’ – a trompe l’oeil conceit.

Q. In recent years you have been making furniture and decorative objects by hand. What drew you to this?
I wanted handles for kitchen units 25 years ago and made one with polymer clay called ‘Super Sculpey’ which I had cast in bronze by a foundry down in Sussex. It built into a small collection which I sell online or through designers, although I am hopeless at marketing so the numbers are very small. They were the first things I made with my own hands and started me on a journey that has led to all sorts of carving and modelling. Most recently I made a vanity unit for a billionaire in San Francisco out of resin that I carved to look like fur, with a dark bronze finish and gilt lion’s paw feet, my personal riff on grand furniture of the 18th century.

Q. You have written a number of books including one about the interiors of Buckingham Palace. You are related through your mother to the Mountbattens, so did you know something of the interiors?
I had seen the Chinoiserie room behind the palace’s famous balcony as a child and was thrilled to be allowed to return and photograph it and some of the other interiors for a book published with the Royal Collection Trust. I have to admit my research was not very scholarly and the book is very much a potted history, although I did make a few small discoveries, like what Queen Mary had done with Prince Albert’s light fittings which Edward VII had chucked out, and that George IV as Prince of Wales bought French furniture from the Piccadilly shop of Dominique Daguerre, who supplied Marie-Antoinette before the French Revolution.

Q. David Hicks pioneered an eclectic mix of antique and contemporary furnishing, and this underpins your own interiors. What are your own design rules for combining them?
I don’t much believe in rules! I do think that elements in an interior should not look angry with each other. Modern and antique will mix more easily if their contrasts are not too jarring. Look for common features of colour or material, simplicity of line, anything that will connect them and form a dialogue rather than a shouting match.

Q. What projects and creative plans do you have in the imminent future?
All sorts. I’m helping an old client with a small villa in Sardinia, making some giant totem sculptures for a big resort situation, designing a special wallpaper for a stair in Chelsea. I just spent two weeks making a big grisaille painting from Baron Gerard’s drawing of 10 August 1792, when Louis XVI was suspended as king, a crucial moment in the revolution, to hang over someone’s sofa in New York. Jack of all Trades, c’est moi. And, I fear, master of none.
Ashley Hicks’s new book David Hicks in Colour is available from