Friday, 20 November 2009

Nicky Haslam - 'The Alchemiser'

'One does interpret their life as well as their desire for beauty'

'Hi Society', a riveting BBC4 documentary about Nicky Haslam, informs you about the multi-dimensional talent and personality of a man who has brazenly kept himself in the spotlight for over four decades. It will also amuse you, touch you and possibly outrage you. An upper-class Englishman (and how), he is the only interior designer to have been profiled in Vanity Fair.

I highly recommend my British chums to watch it on BBC I-player here until 8th December and apologise to everyone else who cannot access this treasure house of tv repeats. Luckily, I have polished up my shorthandwriting skills to transcribe a few of many playful quotes and throwaway lines.

The reporter, who followed Haslam for a year of his hectic existence (there were assignments in Moscow, New York, the Home Counties; a star-studded ball he threw for Janet de Botton; up to five A-list parties a night..) concludes that he is an 'alchemiser'. (What's the difference between that and an alchemist, I wonder?) Clearly, cornices and sock drawers are only a fraction of the services on offer to his clients.

Now comes the snobbery and the condescension which Haslam himself only toys with to provoke and amuse. Actually he is too interested in and curious about people to put them down and his charm is intoxicating. But Christopher Gibbs speaks with the hauteur of old money as he explains that Haslam transforms his clients' lives utterly and 'introduces them to a world where they can wave at people they see in the newspapers'. I really don't like the tone of his voice. World of Interiors founding editor, Minn Hogg gives a patronising but jolly account of his role and you can't suppress a laugh here:

You're partly a shrink, I think, when you are the decorator. You are giving the wife such fun all the time and you are giving the husband the most terrible headaches. He doesn't know that the fringe costs £500 a metre .. a cushion a thousand pounds, are you mad?.. but it has to be a bit of give and take on that. In a way he becomes the boyfriend of the wife but that is safe because he's homosexual and the husband's jolly glad she's got something to do all day, and it's huge fun for her and he takes her around [...] giving her a marvellous time.

So far so good ? Now, what do you think of this? The reporter made an inventory over the months of all the things that Haslam deems 'common'. Splutter with outrage, mouth your apologies for committing one of these solecisms, feel smug you agree or just have a good laugh. After all some of it is simply pricking pomposity and much of it is bollocks and he knows it:

people who say their gardens have their own little micro-climate, swans, champagne flutes, Christmas parties, organic food, anyone Scottish, non-Russians with Russian girlfriends, film stars, complaining about the smoking ban, celebrity chefs, pronouncing the 't' in trait (it's a French word), pronouncing the 'e' in furore (it's also a French word), coloured bath towels, drinking cappuccinos after eleven, the Caribb_ean, Art Deco, scented candles, garlic on your breath, framed photographs of anyone non-Royal, Morocco, bottled water, not knowing the words of hymns, queuing at Annabel's, St. Tropez, relaxing, cufflinks, fur coat on men, three-quarter length trousers on anyone, tasseled loafers, jet-lag, wheat intolerance, sushi and above all, loving your parents.

See what I mean?

Love him or loathe him, the social butterfly Nicky Haslam has been friends with Tallulah Bankhead, Andy Warhol, David Bailey and god knows who else down the years. One of his ex lovers in the film suggested that his confinement to bed for three years with polio as a child, unable to move more than his eyes and his hands, explains his need not to miss anything now. His mother brought her exotic friends to his bedroom to amuse him and he accounts his terrible ordeal as rather wonderful. I imagine his memoir 'Redeeming Features' will be engaging, witty, teasingly snobbish and name-dropping to the hilt. But also poignant.

Images: Top, At the Prado Congo Art Party at the Double Club February 2009 (Photo Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

Below, from Nicholas Haslam here


  1. Can not wait- have been sleeping of to the W article- where he recounts the story about meeting SashaBCohen! He was horrified. The most recent VF piece did turn me off at first-then I re read it with the very take you have one it. G

  2. Another thing that Nicky H deems "common" is an interest in Food, or so I read in yet another interview. What sort of host does that make him, I wonder? Is it all about clustering famous people together, and nothing more? That does not equate with hospitality in my book. Minn Hogg's description of NH's role with the Client Wife could be applied to legions of male decorators.
    Sasha Baron Cohen could send up NH brilliantly. It's only a matter of time.

  3. It's basically that rule that you should never comment on the food at a dinner but how cruel to the hostess is that? Actually, I have very little interest in Food as a subject (apart from eating randomly) but then I was brought up in post-War austerity Britain!
    I agree about the male decorators. NH doesn't have a monopoly on that.
    He's a 'type' but he's fun, if you like that sort of thing.

  4. la - I would like to have seen the Sacha Baron-Cohen encounter.


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