Interior decor of the 1960s and ’70s is often grossly misinterpreted. The lazy imagery of hackneyed film sets and cliched music covers has led to the commonplace caricature of mid-century style. In recent years, the use of the over-arching term ‘retro’ to pigeon-hole twentieth-century design has further reduced the interiors of this era to a simplistic level, an era when design expanded its horizons beyond the austerity of the immediate post-war period to encompass more decorative ideals. In reality, the interiors of the mid-twentieth century combined a far broader aesthetic and periodic church than just post-war Pop or psychedelia. David Hicks, for me, precedes the mismatched style of the 1960s and accentuates that quality of confusion with taste and intellect.
Society decorator over interior designer, Hicks created rich and eclectic schemes that combined the contemporary and the traditional with dramatic perfection. When approaching a new interior scheme, Hicks delighted in the existing details and would rearrange these to his design. The sophistication Hicks gave to a room through his trademark techniques – the use of pattern on pattern, the placing of art and objects to form the tailored attention to detail – saw him at the height of his career through the 1960s and ’70s. Hicks would combine contemporary Pop styles and austere Kandya furniture with Chippendale chairs and Moroccan rugs, placed into historic architecture to create the highest standard of interiors of that moment. Walls would be lacquered in aubergine or red, floors would be carpeted in the intricate, Hicks-designed patterns, invariably centred on his ‘H’ logo, and furnishings would follow in Hicks’s signature fabrics.
Hicks’s first project was his mother’s half-timbered cottage. Following the death of his father, the cottage was chosen and redecorated by the young Hicks. Ten years later, at the age of 25, having studied at the Central School of Art and Design and unhappy at an advertising agency’s graphics studio, Hicks decided he needed a house in London to decorate. His mother responded to Hicks’s request by selling the cottage and taking a nineteenth-century house in Belgravia. The shortage of building materials after WWII meant Hicks largely had to improvise: this formative scheme became the catalyst for the adventurous approach that was to define his career. One such shortage in materials led Hicks to use felt on the floors of the Belgravia house: through his contacts at Colefax & Fowler, Hicks discovered that there were many unused printing blocks in storage so he re-commissioned two designs – scarlet backgrounds with khakis, blacks and yellows combined to brilliant effect. The home was furnished with some of salvaged pieces that were painted white, whilst sofas were upholstered in yellow and pictures were framed in a variety of colours.
The year was 1954 and the London house made an explosive impression on interior design. Once completed, small groups of guests were selected for individual parties (so as not to obscure the décor). These events led to Hicks’s first House & Garden feature, which lead to the first orders for cushions and curtains, and that in turn to interior commissions. This was the start of Hicks’s professional design career. By 1957, however, the same rooms were transformed yet again. The bright colours were replaced with beige, ivory and black. Modern Danish chairs took the place of Victorian gilt.
In 1958, he opened a shop in partnership with Tom Parr, Parr dealing with the antiques and Hicks the decorating. His client base stretched from hair stylist Vidal Sassoon to members of the aristocracy (the collaboration with Sassoon led to Hicks designing his first Bond Street salon). In 1960, Hicks married Lady Pamela Mountbatten. Together they bought Britwell in Oxfordshire, an eighteenth-century country house set in 200 acres. This house, along with an apartment in Chelsea, would provide the blueprints for his design beliefs – both a laboratory and a showroom, changing as new ideas came to him (it was in the Chelsea home where Hicks discovered the use of Coca-Cola coloured laquer for walls).
After splitting from Parry (who then went on to head Colefax & Fowler), David Hicks Limited was established with an office in Sloane Square. 1966 saw the publication of David Hicks on Decoration, the first of eleven books to further illustrate the ideals that Hicks sought through commercial and residential schemes. The ‘Hicks on’ series included the titles Gardening, Kitchens, Bathrooms and Living with Taste, where he first claimed credit for the tablescape, a now common feature. Alongside the signature geometric carpets and fabrics, Hicks had begun to look at product design, which were easy items for his shops and provided wider access to his designs – lamps, ashtrays and lots of Perspex followed. The first David Hicks shop, closed in 1963 though, in collaboration with others, commercial ventures continued throughout the 1960s and ’70s in and around Chelsea. These would mix Hicks’s designs with plastic, ceramic, antique and modern. In 1978, Hicks opened his last shop, combining studio, office and showroom into one space on Jermyn Street. With a system of associates, additional stores opened in France, Belgium, Germany, and as far as South Africa. Large Commercial projects were now the form at David Hicks and his expansion ensured a continued path of success.
For the last twenty years of his life, Hicks’s London home was at the Albany, off Piccadilly. In the country, they sold Britwell and moved to a smaller house, The Grove, within its grounds. These were to be his last experiments in decoration. Hicks died in 1998, leaving behind a legacy that had proved you could work against post-war austerity, and shown how to break conformity with etiquette and intellect. Of the movements and trends that appeared and developed through his career, an interpretation from David Hicks would underline those styles with drama, elegance and sophistication. In his words, ‘Interior decoration is the art of achieving the maximum with the minimum.’