Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Monday, June 29, 2015

LONDON: A Little List of Design Delights and Secret Destinations

So... there's good news and bad news. The bad news first: My recent England trip (which seemed to come and go in a wet blur of windy May days, quick meetings and blink-and-miss photoshoots) was long on London's usual dignified loveliness but very short on spring gardenalia.

Kynance Mews (left) and the Dior scaffolding (right)

The houses of Canning Passage (left) and the popular Orange pub in Pimlico (right)

England's spring came very late this year and most of the flowers weren't yet in bloom. Even the walled gardens seemed to be tucked up in their hibernated state. It was all quite underwhelming. So I'd like to apologise for not posting any roses, peonies, perennial-filled borders and other petalled delights but the sad fact is that—excluding the Chelsea in Bloom windows (above)— I didn't see many!

Some talented photographers managed to duck the rainshowers, bitter winds and grisaille-y grey days in order to capture the first of the aliums, the last of tulips and a few brave little bulbs poking their noses above the soil line. Jenny Rose-Innes' images of both Chelsea and a selection of country gardens were sublime — — while Naomi at Coulda Woulda Shoulda did a witty recap of the show here — (I missed Chelsea this year due to work, but grabbed some pix of the Chelsea in Bloom windows on King's Road, above.)

Paradise pub (left) and Designers Guild china (right)

A Chelsea florist (left) and Ralph Lauren (right)

The good news is, I was in London to finish shooting a future guide book and catch up with some business contacts, and the inclement weather couldn't prevent the city from looking grander and more glamorous than it's ever done. From the newly opened apartment of architect and collector Sir John Soane at the Soane Museum (which has been locked up for 160 years) to the profusion of petals and pretty windows around Chelsea and Pimlico for the Chelsea in Bloom festival (the fringe festival is almost better than the actual Chelsea Flower Show now), the city seemed to have dressed in its best for the start of the summer season. It's not surprising London has now passed Paris and New York as the most popular city for foreign visitors. The place was glowing like a newly polished silver tea setting.

The London book is a year or so away. But in the meantime, I'd love to offer you a few tips for places to see, shop or stay

Kate Spade's windows (left) and the view from the National Portrait Gallery's restaurant, over Trafalgar Square (right)

London doesn't give out all its secrets at once; it's a little old-fashioned like that. (I lived there for years and am still discovering corners I didn't know existed.) But persevere, because under the buttoned-up formality there's a surprising personality. The London I've come to know in recent years is witty, sophisticated, surprising, upbeat, unique and extremely kind. Those Parisian taxi drivers could learn a thing or two from London's cabbies' manners.

So here's a London list to bookmark for your next trip. I hope the skies are blue wherever you may be this month.


London has a lot of spots that are considered 'fashionable'—any of the Firmdale Hotels (above), the Dover Street Market (above; a department store so cool  it doesn't do merchandising, windows or indeed decorating or displays), the new restaurant Spring by Skye Gyngell (formerly of the Michelin-starred Petersham Nurseries), any David Collins-designed bar, any boutique in Brompton Cross, Bloomsbury, Pimlico, or Spitalfields, and anything with a books or botanica theme, such as the Ivy Chelsea Garden and Assouline.

A navy drawing room that was taken from a Mayfair mansion and reconstructed in a wing of the V&A

The Exchange on Gloucester Road – one of the best places to pick up cut-price Chanel

Leighton House's grand gallery of mosaics and tiles

But there are also a lot of London that go under the radar. The charming architecture and homes tucked away in Launceston Place, Kynance Mews and Canning Passage behind Gloucester Road. The extraordinary fashion archives of Blythe House (where the V&A stores all its archives and 'leftovers' from all their exhibitions and display). The hidden gardens. The unknown National Trust properties—such a 575 Wandsworth; truly one of London's greatest delights. The too-good-to-be-true price tags on consignment boutiques, such as The Exchange (above), where you can nab Chanel for almost nothing. All the memorable museums and the design secrets they hide—Sir John Soane's attic apartments; Leighton House (above); the Emery Walker Trust...

This is the London that's truly memorable. This is the London you need to find.

So here are a few of my London 'favourites', from sublime design destinations to fantastic fabric finds.

Located next door to man-of-the-moment Ben Pentreath, Maggie Owen is not only Ben's friend but a brilliant jeweller. Her store, above, is as pretty as her trinkets, which are the kind you can wear during the day and then out the opera at night. Flashy but far from tacky, they take costume jewellery to a new level of sophistication.

If you're an artist, this is going to be your new happy place. This 100-year-old art store is filled with irresistible pigments, beautiful brushes, incredible history and of course creative inspiration. All the artistic greats have bought their bits and pieces here. The best part is the timber cabinetry and panelling; it's as beautiful as the paints. Don't miss the antique drawers full of coloured pastels at the back: you'll want to start drawing even if you don't know how.

Don't go to Columbia Road just for the flowers, although they are fabulous to see and smell. There are also a dozen or more gorgeous shops, including this cute garden boutique, above, which stocks everything from the now-ubiquitous Kew planters to herb signs and hats. There are also lovely little stores selling fashion, fabrics and more. The key is to go on Sunday, as that's the only day that many of the stores are open. The atmosphere of the market is wonderful, too. All in all, it's great thing to do on a Sunday morning.

A little known gem in London's East End, the Geffrye Museum is dedicated to period interiors and gardens. It's set behind a grand garden but it also features it own charming garden at the rear, which is divided into various period gardens — Victorian; Edwardian, and so on. The key is to read all the small signs and plaques; they're where the interesting bits are hidden. One large board, that was almost lost behind a door, showed in fascinating detail how gardens became popular with the upper-middle class. Even the small signs in the medieval herb garden are enthralling. I didn't visit for many years because I'd heard it was dull. It's not at all.

I love browsing fabric stores, especially those along King's Road (Cabbages and Roses, Designers Guild, and William Yeoward, above). But on this trip, I also discovered Fulham Road, where you can buy Manuel Canovas at Colefax and Fowler without needing an interior designer's trade card. And then there's the Chelsea Harbour Design Centre, a veritable Who's Who of Textiles, from Tissus d'Helene (my favourite; a wonderful jumble of sumptuous stuff) to Brunschwig & Fils, Kravet, GP and J Baker and Samuel and Sons. There are more than one hundred fabric houses here, so leave a few hours. Some are trade-only, but my friend gave me a tip: ask for samples of your preferred fabrics (which comefree), and then sew a lovely big quilt out of them. What brilliant thinking.

I won't say too much about Queen Mary's Rose Garden, except try to time your visit for mid or late June, when the roses are in bloom. It's one of the largest rose gardens in England with more than 12,000 roses. Take a picnic or a packed lunch, or grab something to take away from the little cafe. On a sunny days, it's a scented heaven.

I discovered Chiswick on this last trip. I went to visit the Emery Walker Trust before it closed for renos (a wonderful shrine to William Morris), then realised there was an entire neighbourhood of design finds, from William Morris' own house, above, to enchanting cottages and pubs like The Dove, above, which has the smallest bar in the world.  There's a riverside path you can wander, which takes you past rowers racing down The Thames, riverfront mansions and historic cottages, a leafy vista to look at on the other side, and gardens that look like they should be in the countryside. 

And then, when you've finished, there are all the lovely boutiques and restaurants of Chiswick High Road to visit. Don't miss The Old Cinema for antiques and High Street House for a drink. One of London's best-kept secrets. No wonder Colin Firth and others have bought homes here. It's a pocket of pure bliss.

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