Designer, writer, paint colourist or singer? Why all four, of course! Victor Smart meets the indefatigable Nicky Haslam
Now in his late 70s, Nicky Haslam’s talent for reinventing himself remains uncanny. As an aristocratic socialite who graced the Tatler gossip columns in the days when it was society debutantes who ‘came out’, he should by rights have been left marooned. But he is no relic of high taste and old money in a brash new world of celebrity. Far from it. Haslam has adapted to the times, with even socialite Paris Hilton inviting him over to raid her fridge for cookies.
And at 77 he is now adding two new careers to his already varied CV of interior designer, writer, and artist. One as a cabaret singer and the other as paint colourist, a role that brings Haslam to the Earlsfield studio of craft paintmaker and decorator, Paint the Town Green.
Nicholas Ponsonby Haslam made his name as an upmarket interior decorator famed for his impeccable taste, and his clients, through the years, have included Princess Diana, Rod Stewart, Rupert Everett and the Dorchester hotel. His signature style could be dubbed “exuberant”. Indeed the New York Times wrote of his Cromwell Road ground-floor flat: ‘Decked out with a grand piano made of rosewood, an SUV-size chandelier, a 16-foot-high faux marble fireplace and four giant portraits of himself, Haslam’s apartment is a visual homage to HASLAM. The place looks jazzy, irreverent and poised.’
It’s a bit wacky but not tacky: all that craziness is offset by calm off-white walls, white wood floors and so on. A typical Haslam décor may incorporate a few ironic, faux pieces. But Haslam says that an interior design is all about flattering the client. Making his interiors both flamboyant, yet somehow liveable seems to be key to his evergreen list of well-heeled clients.
Nick Haslam, left with Paint the Town Green founder Phil Robinson
His gossipy, though rarely cruel, memoirs, Redeeming Features, published in 2009, catalogue the hundreds of famous people whose paths have crossed with his. Among whom are painters, literati, glitterati, Hollywood A-listers, rock stars, wide boys and hangers-on. Names like Lucian Freud, Mick Jagger, Charles Saatchi, Bryan Ferry, Francis Bacon, Princess Diana, Joan Didion, Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol and the Duchess of Windsor. And, of course, Paris Hilton.
Over the years Eton-educated Haslam has deftly morphed from being a member of the English upper class, where one had friends called Binky, Bunny or Bunty and where the code was to sleep with anyone one chose so long as they weren’t outside of one’s own class. Today he is perfectly at ease with modern times and new money; many of Haslam’s most daring interiors are commissioned for the mega-mansions owned by wealthy Russians in Moscow, London, New York and Paris. They don’t have “aesthetic prohibitions”, which suits Haslam just fine.
Haslam is supremely equipped to talk about the state of gossip today, but seems a bit disappointed in these days of clickbait.
“Gossip,” Haslam avers, “is much more visual than it used to be. No one is interested in the subtleties of gossip anymore, who was related to whom and how a scandal started.”
And snobbery – how are we faring as snobs?
“Nothing wrong with a bit of snobbery,” he muses. “But England is not at all snobbish, though it is obsessed with class – even if no one is upper class any more, sadly.
“Americans are the most snobbish nation in the world. Of course, those people who think that Trump is so ghastly will become the worse snobs.”
But what about that ostentatious gilt in Trump Tower, I ask?
“Louis XIV loved gold; potentates always do,” he says. The President’s Florida residence at Mar-a-Lago is reportedly rather attractive, he adds.
Haslam says definitively that “one couldn’t live anywhere else” but London. Still he does like Toronto which is “like New York when I first went there in the ‘60s – thrusting and fun.”
And he is planning to return to New York to further his new career as a cabaret singer, the most important thing on his horizon at the moment. He has a gig at cabaret venue The Pheasantry in Chelsea and then hopes to perform at the Café Carlyle in New York, where Woody Allen famously plays clarinet.
He also has two more projects quarrying that store of celebrity anecdotes. The first is a flipbook using the literally hundreds of photographs of himself with the rich, famous, talented and notorious. And his publisher has also asked him to rework his memoirs which, he admits, “rather tailed off”. He hopes to weave in more narrative around the somewhat episodic telling of his endless encounters with people.
Another thing to savour will be a recipe book with dishes or cocktails shared with him by his many celebrity friends.
“How Cary Grant liked his bacon and eggs, that sort of thing. Or with Cole Porter, I think it’s his favourite drink,” he says. Then adds self-deprecatingly: “It’s another way of dropping names.”
To boldly go...
Colour is back and so is pattern. Time to be brave! That in essence is Haslam’s advice on choosing home décor today. And a range of bold new colours is on offer thanks to his collaboration with Phil Robinson’s Earlsfield painting and decorating company, Paint The Town Green. The two met after working together on a project for Lord and Lady Heseltine.
Called The Stones, the palate Haslam has devised comprises six hues. Phil, who used to be a musician, likes his range names to have musical connotations and Nicky was inspired by gemstones and minerals.
“Our new paints are colours I have always loved – they are kind of tough and work well in English light,” says Nicky.
He describes one called Peridot as “a pink that is not girlie”, while Tiger’s Eye, a deep yellow that would be at home in a Renaissance palazzo, is like the “sheen on brown silk velvet”.
Peridot by Nicky Haslan and Paint the Town Green
“Don’t be afraid of colour – we need to get away from bland beige,” Haslam exhorts us.
“If you look at the interior design magazines today they are full of strong colour. These work very well with fabrics like chintzes, with patterns that are coming backlike mad.”
Discerningly chosen colour, Haslam believes, can be used even in the smallest of rooms. If you are a bit daunted, offset it with white picture frames, he suggests.
“It’s all about having confidence to allow your personality to choose your colours. But never ask your friends what they think first and never show them anything unfinished,” he insists.
Phil founded Paint The Town Green in 2007, soon after becoming a parent.
“The company used to be me and a bag of brushes. The chemicals from the paints used to be really unpleasant. So now all our paints are water-based and there are no nasty vapours once you have finished, something doubly nice when you have children around.”
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