A LONGSTANDING DELIGHT in globe-spanning, era-leaping, florid kookiness sets the British apart from their closest European cousins. Consider the French, who to this day venerate the ornate late 17th- and 18th-century Louis periods and dismiss as bourgeois the Haussmannian 19th-century style that came later: Their symmetrical interiors tend toward deep, conservative reds, forest greens and golds. Italian design was also largely reverent and free of aggressive palettes and busy patterns through the centuries, focusing instead on keeping alive the Classical period of gilding, pale plaster and colors only as bright as veined marble would allow (at least until the Crayola shades of the 1980s-era Memphis Group).
The island-bound English, though, have long prized ecumenical, brightly colored cheekiness — not merely in their conversation but also in their surroundings. It was the British, for example, who took paisley, the rain-drop-shaped iconography that originated in Iran in the 14th century, and made an industry from it; the Scottish town that gave it its Western name based an entire 18th- and 19th-century economy on shawls and textiles woven with the pattern. In the mid-1800s, the influence of pale, late neo-Classicism and Empire style gave way to dark-hued Victorian embellishment, which was later followed by a period of Edwardian restraint. But what followed, in the beginning of the 20th century, was a blossoming of the worldly eccentricity we now associate with magpie English design. Modernism swept away propriety, and the perceived sensuality of Raj-era India (shades of hot pink and saffron with tiny embedded mirrors and inlays of colored stones) seemed evermore alluring. The famed interiors of the early 1900s society decorator Lady Sibyl Colefax, a progenitor of today’s cheerily jumbled aesthetic, were informed as well by the privations of World War I and the stock market crash in which she lost much of her fortune; she gave her imprimatur to the rising “make do and mend” decorating, which juxtaposed old, interesting pieces, often oversize, with threadbare textiles and finds from the East. Unlike the French and Italians, Colefax and other English decorators of the era neither eschewed nor fully embraced any single period; their interiors were a mélange of Classical allusion, Gothic revival, Napoleon III inspiration, Orientalist interpretation and Indian motif. Though still enamored of royalty, which other European nations had long jettisoned, they were also increasingly uncomfortable with class distinctions, an ambivalence you can see in over-the-top rooms like those Colefax contributed to at Ditchley Park, the Georgian mansion in Oxfordshire that was revisited this decade for scenes in “Downton Abbey.” The result can be read today as a parody of highbrow semantics: overscale chandeliers hung low in sea-foam green and butter-yellow rooms, miles of swoopy drapes atop vivid embroidered silks and cushioned sofas in claret velvet.
Such barmy eclecticism resonates with the current generation of English designers, perhaps as a reflection of a homegrown culture in similar turmoil. English interiors have never been wittier — nor more like excavation sites. In a client’s tiny Georgian house in Highgate, Ben Pentreath — the designer responsible for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s flat in Kensington Palace and an owner of Pentreath & Hall, a furniture and accessories shop in Bloomsbury — paired Kelly green kitchen cabinets with a tangerine-colored stove and densely patterned traditional wallpaper by Morris & Co. Another room is painted aubergine in contrast with a chartreuse-and-marigold ikat lampshade and a gilt-framed reproduction of a 1903 John Fulleylove painting. It is a style as inimitable as it is instantly, recognizably English.