It’s a surprise to learn that the renowned decorator Flora Soames suffers from imposter syndrome.
‘I don’t want to come across as though I’m preaching to anyone, because I don’t feel I’m in a position to. I’ve never been a how-to girl, because I don’t have any training, so I’d feel slightly fraudulent on that front,’ she says; then adds: ‘though I actually think that lack of training is very liberating from the perspective of decorating.’
She is talking about her recently published first book, The One Day Box: A Life-Changing Love of Home. Somewhat different from the usual how-to interior design book, it details her journey into decorating, her passion for collecting, and her highly personal approach to creating a home. She admits that she’s ‘deeply sentimental’ about things and places, and ‘the role that objects play in your life’.
The book’s title was inspired by her own One Day Box, the name given by a friend to Flora’s collection of ‘random things’, which started with a shoebox full of fabric fragments, wallpaper samples, antique maps, photographs, letters and the like that she couldn’t bear to part with. It’s been expanded to include furniture, lamps and more – all things that she had no purpose for at the time, but thought she might use in a home, one day. Over the years, they made a profound impact on her life and work.
Soames wasn’t, initially, planning to become an interior designer. After studying art history at Edinburgh University, she started out working in the art world, but soon changed tack and got a job as creative director at Talisman, the much-loved antiques shop on the King’s Road in London (now closed).
‘Conversations I was having with people about the objects they were buying very naturally morphed into discussions about how these would come together in their own homes,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have a portfolio of work to showcase my style, but I did have an eye, which I was developing along the way, and an enthusiasm to put this into practice.’
Since then, she has become one of the UK’s most respected designers, with a string of illustrious projects, from large country homes to London townhouses, as well as her own line of fabrics, wallpapers and furniture, launched four years ago, and inspired by her collection of antique samples and fragments.
She is very aware of her fortunate position, both in terms of her career and her family background. Her father, Jeremy Soames, is a grandson of Winston Churchill; her mother, Susanna, inherited the West Barsham estate in north Norfolk on which stands the Edwardian house where Flora and her sister grew up. ‘I have lived a deeply privileged life; privileged in terms of my upbringing, the home I was lucky to call home, the path that my career has taken,’ she says. ‘It would be very easy to look at that and think that it has all come very easily. But, as we know, life doesn’t work like that.’
Indeed, she has experienced some very dark times. In her book, she writes movingly of the period following the death six years ago of her partner, Anthony Gordon Lennox, a voice coach and image consultant, who had helped prepare Kate Middleton for her wedding. After initially staying at his home, where they had spent much time together, she moved into a cottage in Wiltshire, alone, to grieve. At this point, it was her collection of seemingly unimportant things that proved to be her anchor.
‘My things carried vast depths of meaning, even more than before,’ she explains in The One Day Box. ‘In the same way as journalling helps many, unpacking and arranging the things that I loved and cherished helped me to regain my sense of self. The stones that we collected on the beach from holidays in the Jura together littered my window sills. The portrait of our beloved spaniel, Humbug, that I had given Ant for Christmas hung facing my bed… The placement of these things was ritualistic and the process was soulful. I was particular in the extreme about arranging it just so. But creating this home was something that gave me a sense of control and my own agency. It was a place where I had choices again and could hold on enough to let go. Looking back, the home where my One Day Box came into its own was a place where it took on life-saving properties, building me up and pulling me back on to my feet.’
That relationship between people and the things that hold meaning for them still defines how Flora puts a house together; it is, she believes, through objects that she is able to tell the stories of a person’s life, or a family’s life, through their home.
She has a deep understanding that, for many people, the process of moving into a new home can bring with it many challenges, and that the way that home is arranged and decorated is key to making it feel comfortable and familiar. ‘Being an interior designer is, for me, a very intimate process,’ she says. ‘You’re coming into someone’s life inevitably at a time in their life that has been prompted by change: expansion of their family, marriage, scaling down or divorce. It can be the cusp of many things, celebratory and otherwise. Change is good, but let’s not pretend that it isn’t intimidating. So as a designer, you’re entering someone’s life at a point when they’re making seminal decisions.’
As for the changes in her own life, Flora, 41, is now living in a rented cottage on the Dorset/Wiltshire border, with her husband, the ceramic artist Alexander Macdonald-Buchanan, whom she refers to as Blondie; they married at a glamorous wedding last December, for which the bride wore a gown by a Hollywood costume designer, later changing into a dress by The Vampire’s Wife. The couple live with their three-year-old daughter, and his two older children, aged nine and 10, who come to stay weekly. Again, her collections have formed the backdrop to their lives there.
‘I’m no longer making decisions only for myself – there’s the responsibility of making decisions for one’s family, and not imposing too much of yourself on that, which I’m not very good at,’ she says. ‘I think my husband would live in a minimal space, given half the chance, but he’s accepted [my things] and is embracing them. My own home is not to everyone’s taste; your home should be a representation of yourself and your family, and what you need to support your day-to-day [life]. I sometimes think, how is it that a kitchen island heaving with paperwork and pot plants and detritus… how is it that that upholds my day-to-day? But somehow I need that characterfulness – although it may not be an efficient way of living, those layers are what bring me pleasure.’
If this vision calls to mind a rather chaotic approach to decorating, when it comes to the homes she has designed for clients, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The rooms she creates are full of colour, pattern and interest, but are also impeccably balanced, so that they never overwhelm the eye.
Flora’s taste and her flair for creating a layered interior is, she believes, partly inherited from both her grandmothers and her mother. Her grandmother on her mother’s side, whom she describes as ‘a collector of stuff extraordinaire’, was skilled at arranging and displaying the things she picked up from antique dealers, car-boot sales and second-hand shops. Her grandmother on her father’s side, Mary Soames – Winston and Clementine Churchill’s youngest child – was inspired by her own upbringing at Chartwell to create stylish yet comfortable homes for her own family, but balanced the legacy she carried with a lightness of touch. ‘She lived surrounded by what to many people would be seen as extraordinary objects of history, but which were also objects of her childhood,’ says Flora, who recalls that in her London home, her grandmother would keep Churchill’s red leather dispatch box by the front door, holding dog-poo bags for her to grab when she headed out with her dog.
One might assume that at some point Flora must have had a rebellious moment where she pushed back against her family heritage, style-wise at least, but that wasn’t the case. ‘I didn’t push against it because what I was responding to ultimately was seeing three women to whom it came quite easily, because they weren’t trying too hard,’ she says. ‘It was a natural process. My mother has, through her life, collected lovely things.’ There are, she admits, ‘some extraordinary objects of historical value – although not necessarily of monetary value’ at her childhood home, ‘but my mother has set out to create her own home, and she has really followed her own eye with that.’
Photographs of Winston and Clementine do, of course, make an appearance among the many pictures that line the walls of her parents’ home, but so do postcards, hastily written notes, and a whole host of other ephemera. The dresser in her parents’ house, which she refers to as ‘the wallpaper of our lives’, crystallises her own notion of the way displaying meaningful things, whose value may only be sentimental, helps to create a sense of home. It is filled with pictures, cards and bits and pieces of pottery, and, says Flora, ‘there’s not a cup that doesn’t have a bird’s feather in it, or a broken pair of glasses’. In her own home, meanwhile, she has a cup on her mantelpiece that holds some of her dachshund Enid’s whiskers, which ‘tells you all you need to know’.
She and her mother share a love of collecting, decorating and rearranging furniture, and a deep-rooted connection to home. Flora talks of a ‘homesickness’ that has stayed with her throughout her life. ‘I remember as a child finding it difficult to leave home,’ she reveals, ‘and also the feeling of coming back, that sense of relief. I’m interested in understanding what causes that: tapping into it, and identifying as we get older what we cling on to and the idiosyncrasies of how we go about our lives.’
Flora recently redecorated the bedroom that she stays in when she visits her parents at the family home, and that used to be her mother’s; it is furnished with Flora’s traditional-with-a-twist designs, including a plum-coloured modern toile-de-Jouy pattern called Enid’s Ramble on the walls, and her colourful floral-print Enid’s Garland fabric on the bed and curtains (both named after her dog). ‘As a canvas, it’s very decorated, but in terms of what’s in it, it absolutely isn’t,’ she says. ‘It’s very layered, with pieces of china, the Beatrix Potter books that I read as a child, car-boot finds of my grandmother’s. And I think that’s an interesting and rewarding juxtaposition.’
While an obsession with collecting things may seem materialistic, it is, she believes, quite the opposite. ‘It’s not just that a thing sparks some kind of aesthetic pleasure, it’s that it also triggers a memory – of the person who gave it, or the moment it was found.’
What her approach offers, to the non-decorator, is a validation of keeping hold of, and celebrating, those things that don’t necessarily have a purpose or any value to anyone else, but that hold some meaning. ‘It’s OK to reveal oneself and all those vagaries when you put together a home,’ says Flora, ‘because, I’d argue, whoever’s sitting in it is going to enjoy that more than a house that says very little about you.’ Looking through the pages of her book, at the homes she has lived in and designed for others, it would be hard to disagree.
The One Day Box: A Life-Changing Love of Home by Flora Soames is published by Rizzoli, priced at £47.50