Lady of the Cloth Vivien Greenock has made a celebrated career out of discreet good taste in her interior design. In a rare interview, she talks to William Cash about disappearing behind her clients, including Oscar de la Renta and John Fairchild, and why substandard fabric just wont do
Lady of the Cloth
Vivien Greenock has made a celebrated career out of discreet good tastein her interior design. In a rare interview, she talks to William Cash about disappearing behind her clients, including Oscar de la Renta and John Fairchild, and why substandard fabric just won’t do
IN THE LAST eleven years, Vivien Greenock’s office location in the inner salon of world interior design has — geographically at least — only moved a modest hundred yards along the Pimlico Road from where she used to operate from the basement of Westenholz Antiques.
But in terms of her position as one of the most in-demand interior decorators — with some of the most discerning and richest clients in the world — Greenock has risen to the very penthouse of the interior decorating statusphere. And, just as her original studio — where she moved in 2000 after 27 years at Sybil Colefax and John Fowler — may have been subterranean, Vivien has reached her A-list position today largely through being almost invisible in terms of media attention.
This is deliberate. With her reputation for being one the best kept secrets of the interior design world, it is not a surprise that Greenock shuns the limelight of a ground floor showroom or office and prefers to operate her ‘shop’ — as she calls her global HQ with its unassuming brown door on the Pimlico Road — from an airy second floor office above Soane. The latter is the ultra smart and expensive English furniture maker where the lipstick red pigskin desk that I saw in the window as I walked by was priced at a modest £18,000 — retail, that is.
Welcome to the slightly surreal world of London decorator land on the Pimlico Road — the Bond Street of interior design — just south of Sloane Square, not far from where Vivien started out as a junior assistant at the Colefax and Fowler showroom in Ebury Street before rapidly being promoted to assistant to the legendary designer Tom Parr.
Today her own office hums with female assistants answering calls from clients all over the world and placing extravagantly priced trade orders from Vivien’s own private army of bespoke suppliers. These range from hand painted Chinoiserie-inspired wallpaper to sofa-makers and upholsterers of such creative refinement that they make a George Smith sofa suddenly seem like IKEA.
The high ceilings are buttressed by wall-to-wall boxes of sumptuous and quirky samples, from antique fabrics for covering footstools to George Spencer flocked wallpaper in a rich velvety chartreuse. By the window are floor samples of Rafiki Antique Silver sisal, which a client might consider for a rug for the dining room of their super-yacht, or they might be shown a picture of the Moroccan rug that she had made for the Gstaad chalet of John Fairchild, the mogul behind W magazine.
The area around Vivien’s own desk resembles a private extension of Potterton books just around the corner on Lower Sloane Street — the Hatchard’s of books on the decorative arts and design — with a small library of architectural and design books ranging from celebrations of the English country house ‘style’ to the best gardens of Italy, but Greenock still prefers to observe the competitive mêlée of London’s interior design land from her second floor window with a certain aloofness. ‘I am not part of that gossipy world, although I have plenty of friends who are. I prefer spending time with my clients.’
In person, the elegant and relaxed Greenock is an unusual English combination of charming and frank when it comes to making judgments of aesthetic taste — but she pulls this off without seeming matriarchal, patronising or bossy. She sees part of her job as being as much therapist to her clients as designer and decorator. ‘The more I can get inside their heads, the better the result.’
The Greenock decorating modus operandi is almost a form of ‘method decoration’. Like an actress taking on the challenge of a role in a new play, each client and project is an opportunity to creatively morph inside the mind and visual language of the client. Often it is the art of reinvention. Although Greenock has done up to eight projects for certain clients, she will never simply copy something — the easy option, and a decorating route much travelled. ‘If I did that, all my interiors would look the same. They’d be a version of a version. I like doing a wide variation.’
COMPROMISE AND DIPLOMACY are often called for to avoid aesthetic clashes between couples — especially when it comes to areas like the master bedroom. A good example of a perfect solution was reached when Vivien was doing the Connecticut country house of Oscar de la Renta and his wife — photographed for American Vogue in 2008 — and to avoid any squabbling, de la Renta ‘gave’ his wife the bedroom to decorate as she liked because it was her favourite room in the house. The result (pictured to the left) is an ornate chintzy four-poster bed with a decorative pelmet that would not look out of place in an English stately.
The bedroom uses a bespoke stretched floral fabric sourced by Vivien that is also used in the master bathroom, a masculine room reminiscent of the ‘Mayfair country house’ style cultivated by Mark Birley. With its Edwardian-style panelled deep master bath with polished nickle fittings, deep sofa, 18th century landscape paintings and red leather club-like armchairs — all designed by Vivien — it could easily be the sort of magical presidential private bathroom that you might unexpectedly find on the top floor of Mark’s Club in Mayfair.
Of course, as Jeremy Musson points out in the introduction to his new book, English Country House Interiors, that examines the new designer cult of country house style , the English country house has always been more about a ‘romantic ideal’, looking back rather than forward, but it has also throughout this century been about the very highest comfort and ‘practicality’. ‘Interior decoration,’ writes Musson, ‘has a history as long as architecture. Where there are buildings, there will be decoration — especially when status needs to be expressed.’
This is something that Vivien acutely understands. The classical country house look — mixed in with some contemporary touches — that Vivien is perhaps best known for creating for her clients is ‘authentic’ while also being original and often daring. Much of her mastery of this style comes from her years at Sybil Colefax and John Fowler, the pre-eminent London decorating firm of the 20th century which was founded in the 1930s by the socialite Sybil Colefax.
After the war, with Fowler now on board, Sibyl, later Lady, Colefax, sold her decorating business to Nancy Lancaster for £10,000. In the 1950s the firm continued to flourish with rich clients like John Aspinall boldly encouraging Fowler (famous for never chasing clients to pay their bills) to reinvent the idea of the English country house, only in London, exorcising much of the gloomy and dusty Victorian spirit from them and recreating them with a reinvigorated spirit and style as well as — above all — making them comfortable.
Vivien is very much in this great tradition of grand English female decorators (in a business where so many are men) and, like both Nancy Lancaster and Sybil Colefax herself, Vivien is very much a decorator to beau-monde socialites, powerbrokers and tastemakers. Vivien is titled through marriage to a peer, but unlike Lady Colefax she prefers not to use her title professionally.
Despite Greenock’s efforts to remain almost invisible, her name does come up on the media radar occasionally. After de la Renta’s house was published in Vogue, an American blog site called Alicia B raved about Greenock’s ‘classic and weird’ style but also griped that ‘Lady Vivienne Greenock’ — not her correct title — did not have a website. That is about to change as Greenock has finally decided that after nearly twelve years in business, the time has come to launch www.viviengreenock.co.uk and raise her profile for a newer generation of potential clients who might not be part of the inner sanctum of the international demi-monde.
Was she worried that encouraging new super-wealthy new Moneyland types to become clients might prove more of a challenge? Could the Greenock brand become diluted by a series of commissions for South Korean billionaires or Russian oligarchs whose idea of a cellar is a gold-plated, air-controlled, bespoke glass cabinet full of Chateau Latour on display in the Chester Square double-drawing room?
Greenock positively thrives on such challenges and has an unusual knack of getting clients to start enjoying thinking in terms of good taste, when they may not have given so much thought before to their surroundings. Interior decoration has always been about the art of reinvention — and Vivien says one of the things she most enjoys about her work is seeing ‘client confidence’ grow as they start determining what they like as much as anything else. ‘I’m always ready with more sophisticated and imaginative suggestions than clients might expect,’ she adds.
The one area she won’t budge, however, is quality. ‘I can work my way through most situations, whether it’s a crisis between the couple or whatever. What I’m not prepared to jeopardise is the end product — the quality and the finish. If someone asked me to do something that I thought was frankly awful in style, taste and quality, I have to protect my reputation because the chances are someone will go in there and say, “This is wonderful, I’d like one of these,” and so where does that put me? I’d spend my whole life creating something I’m not happy with.’
Oscar and Annette de la Renta’s bedroom in their Connecticut country house
WHAT ABOUT BUDGETS? I ask Vivien if she is of the Nicky Haslam school of interior design which decrees that the ideal client is one with an unlimited budget. Was she very expensive? ‘I don’t really discuss budgets at the first meeting,’ she says. ‘For commercial projects like hotels, they obviously have a budget, which is absolutely fine, but if a private client arrives saying, “Budget, budget, budget,” I will ask them to put the budget aside for a moment, and say, “Let me produce what I think you want, then I’ll tell you what it costs. If you say it is all too much we can then cut things out, downgrade it.”’
The word ‘downgrade’ does not trip easily out of Vivien’s mouth. There is an almost masculine steeliness behind the Greenock velvet charm. If there is one thing that separates her from other female decorators — and perhaps one reason why she works so closely with Fairchild and de la Renta — is that her own aesthetic is not especially feminine. ‘I don’t think you would necessarily walk into one of my houses and say, “They’ve had a woman decorator.”’
Another area she doesn’t like to compromise on is choice of fabrics. Haggling is not really Vivien’s style. ‘You might save £50 a metre on the fabric by going with something cheaper but you have still got to have the very good people to make it up, so what is the point? If you buy cheap fabric and want it cheaply made up, you probably shouldn’t be in my shop.’ Clients are usually required to have everything made by her people.
Getting to understand what a client really wants or likes — often perhaps in a way better than they even know themselves, or their wife or husband knows — is part of what makes Greenock different. Whereas some interior decorators cannot resist the temptation to get drawn into their clients’ lives, or let the drama of their own lives spill over into their relationship with their clients, Vivien knows exactly what her role is, and is happy to invest considerable time getting to know her clients in order to get the best possible creative result for them.
‘I’m very calm and down to earth,’ Vivien says. ‘I’m not excitable and I’m a good listener. I’m also very patient with my clients which I’m not always with the rest of my family — I can be pretty impatient. I think the more time you spend with the client understanding their vision, the more you can really help.’
Greenock does not want to exchange roles: she is happy to be treated as a professional who can help them achieve what they truly want so that others do not even think a designer has ‘helped’ at all. ‘It’s an English trait, and I don’t mind it at all, but many English like to pretend they haven’t had any help at all whereas the Americans are very generous in admitting they have used a professional.’
One can imagine why her clients enjoy listening to her waspish pronouncements that celebrate the beautiful, bold and the bespoke over the aspirant, bourgeois and micro-budgeted — after all, when many of your clients have over-sized egos and impossibly demanding taste, what they are looking for is somebody who can understand them.
From the moment of meeting Greenock, you know she is much more interested in her client than herself: she is not the sort of designer who wants to parade herself, or her showroom, for all the world to see. Her clients are not the type that just point to a glossy spread in World of Interiors and say, ‘Recreate that please, Vivien.’
‘That is certainly not what I do,’ says Greenock. ‘What I do, whatever the style, is so far advanced to most of the things you see in the magazines. I’m lucky — I have very sophisticated clients who are very wealthy who give me the chance to create fantastic interiors. Most magazine spreads don’t have the budget, there isn’t the architecture, and there aren’t the bones there. I’m in a very privileged position.’
Greenock is not the sort of ‘lifestyle’ decorator who aspires to be a much photographed Martha Stewart — with her own decorating makeover reality TV show — for the world’s super-rich. Unlike fellow A-list decorator John Stefanidis, who published a book about his country house in Dorset, Cock Crow, with his favourite recipes, Greenock prefers to keep what is at home private. Off limits. Nothing about Greenock’s approach to her clients, or her office, or her decorating philosophy, or her discriminating taste and style is really about pushing Vivien Greenock. While many decorators today insist on promoting the cult of themselves through books and endless interviews and magazine spreads, Greenock prefers to step back from such industry narcissism.
The Greenock philosophy is to raise her own Ariel-like invisibility as a decorator to an art form, allowing the client — whether they be a duke or a designer — the satisfaction of thinking that they have employed a creative genius who has allowed them to decorate their ski chalet, New York duplex, Chelsea mansion, stately pile — or even luxury dog kennel — exactly as they always wanted. Without quite knowing how they managed it.
William Cash is editor-in-chief at Spear’s