Sometimes your job as a writer is to critique, or nitpick – or at least to recommend improvements. At other times – and this should be done with a sigh after much internal questioning – it is to upbraid.
Very rarely, your only duty is to praise and recommend – to add footfall and eyeballs if you can. At such times, the role is evangelical: to shout above all the crosswinds of bad news, in order to trumpet the good.
WOW!house, currently showing at the Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, puts me happily in the third category. I won’t say it’s unmissable – a word whose etymology feels unsound, because it can obviously be missed. But you shouldn’t miss it.
It turns out to be the work of a restless visionary – a visionary caught up in a pandemic. Claire German, the business’ superb CEO, dreamed up the scheme during lockdown: it starts from the premise that designers are too often snookered into fulfilling a client brief. Instead she has asked the question: What would happen if 18 world-class designers were to give free vent to their inspiration in the same space? Having asked the question nobody else had asked, she then did what nobody else could do: she made it reality.
Iksel Entrance Foyer by Mark D. Sykes
To discover how it all looks, you have to visit the place itself: the reality is so comprehensively visual that language is inadequate. It turns out to be not so much a house but a sort of Wow!apartment located all on one level of the company’s vast space near Imperial Wharf. (Could the 2024 iteration somehow take us upstairs?). 2023’s version features an entrance foyer, various reception rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, studios, a kitchen, and much else besides.
I can imagine Bertie Wooster living here, though he would perhaps be baffled by what he would deem various futuristic touches: the soundscape in each room, the TVs, the modern appliances. It could also house an artistically-minded billionaire like a latter day Sir John Soane, or the 13th Duke of Devonshire on the back of a spree. It is as if all the most tasteful and aesthetically ambitious Rothschilds had convened, decided to pool their resources, and hi-fived all round.
The Iksel Entrance Foyer sets the tone. This is the work of Mark D. Sikes who is quoted as saying with considerable understatement: “We’re doing something quite different that I think will be a surprise.”
Living up to this billing, Sikes turns out to be a man of boundless imagination who sets the tone for the installation: the wallpaper, inspired by Chinese scroll painting, took 18 people nine months to paint. Plants and fronds are beautifully spaced, and elegantly tented fabrics flare out at you and overhang you. It’s a beautiful space: the fact that Sikes is now designing a room at the White House makes you tempted to announce your candidacy for the presidency, just on the off chance.
The next room is by the deservedly famous Nicky Haslam and is called the Legend Room. Haslam says: “This room is a prelude to the many rooms to come. It has no dedicated role, but it needs to have diverse activities…reading, studying, gaming, eating, chatting.” Not for the first time, as it will turn out, I’m struck by how much can be achieved at the level of detail in design when you’ve made sure underlying symmetries are in play: in Haslam’s room, the supporting pillars are cunningly spaced, and even the positioning of the chairs suggests a certain cunning which enables him to meld different eras elsewhere.
Nicky Haslam, Legend Room
In fact, it turns out that playing with time is a theme: most of the rooms overlap one era with another, almost always successfully, and always interestingly. In something this vast, I doubt everybody will like every design decision here: but there’s so many to see that only the terminally incurious could come away uninspired.
My favourite rooms are Tim Gosling’s library, full of a light but deeply felt nostalgia, and a French chateau feel. Gosling explains in the Wow! wonderbook: “Libraries are rooms that you amass emotional objects for, creating links to things and people that span thousands of years of human knowledge and skill. It’s the room in your house that you would save if there’s a fire.” It’s a gorgeous achievement, and probably the most unified aesthetic in the house.
Tim Gosling, Library
Another favourite was the kitchen by Henry Prideaux Interior Design. This is a confident space, reminding me of Voltaire’s dictum that great works of art need quiet patches. I loved the stretch of richly coloured marble, and the careful way in which details accumulate – the desk to one side, the interior of the cupboards roofed with gold. ‘A well-imagined interior should make its inhabitants feel good. Your emotions should be satisfied by the space.” Mine were, and I also now know I need a new kitchen. Specifically, this kitchen.
Kitchen, Henry Prideaux Design
The room I could most imagine hosting in was Joy Moyler’s dining room, with its little curtain-surrounded nook – a tribute to Christian Dior, who apparently liked to have a niche to withdraw into specifically to gossip. Moyler is another stratospheric achiever whose clients include Leonardo DiCaprio and if you want to know what the view is like from his house, then you can find out by visiting this room. The strong suspicion is that DiCaprio has a nice house – and not least because some of it has been designed by Moyler.
But does he have a Wow!house? Very possibly: not quite. Only the visitor to the Design Centre Chelsea Harbour has that. In the Wow! Wonderbook, Moyler explains her ethos: “Every room should include people who are wonderful, who you want to spend time with, and comfortable furniture, which will create an environment for people to linger.”
She’s right of course and it makes you think. We all sometimes play that game of constructing our ideal dinner party: Oscar Wilde tipping his head back in astonished laugher at your latest witticism, while a hand reaches across to enfold yours – a hand which turns out to belong to Marilyn Monroe. Shakespeare comes up and asks if you’re free for his latest leading role; but sadly you’re unavailable because you’ve just agreed to be Roger Federer’s doubles partner at Wimbledon. Leonardo, from a corner, nods approvingly and quietly decides to make you the centrepiece of the picture he’s painting.
The thing about Wow!house is it makes you feel better about yourself just by being there: you begin to detect possibilities within which, you fondly think, might just make the world go ‘wow!’ yet.
Wow!house runs at the Design Centre Chelsea Harbour until 6th July 2023