By Hollie Bowden
Recently, on a grey day in Gloucestershire, I found myself returning to Peter Greenaway’s 1989 movie, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. I was longing for an escape and an injection of colour, and Greenaway’s film is full of visual detail and postmodern puns. It’s a kind of Shakespearean noir that brings sex, murder and cannibalism together, with costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.
As I watched the film, I wondered how, as an interior designer, I would approach such ornate spaces — especially the vast London restaurant where much of the action takes place (pictured, below). There’s always a tension between doing what you’re known for as a designer and wanting to evolve and satisfy your own radical impulses.
This stunning seven-bedroom baroque villa near Pisa — on the market for €3.9mn — for example, would be the perfect setting to let my imagination run wild. When you can’t change too much of the architecture, you are left to work with furniture and objects. Yet the incredible terrazzo floor and frescoed ceiling could easily come to dominate the scheme.
As in Greenaway’s fictional restaurant, the best strategy is to dial up the drama. I took some key visual themes from the film and curated a selection of very out-there pieces from the history of modern design, as if they were characters in a scene. The lesson I have taken from my brush with cinema? As a designer who is often described as being an arch-minimalist, I can happily report that Adolf Loos was not right when he said that "ornament is crime"!
Seek out eccentric antiques
Antiques always add a degree of respectability to a room but they don’t need to smother the mood with gentility. There have been many furniture makers that exhibited the sort of playfulness we associate with contemporary design. The genre-defying work of Carlo Bugatti, for example, is somewhere between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, with a freaky symbolist soul. This chair from c1902 recalls the film’s twisted, postmodern take on the heavy, wood-panelled Edwardian restaurant interior.
Go big, go bold
It’s important to go big in a space that has such a theatrical character. Adding a piece of collectable design can provide a thrilling departure from the heavy antique furniture you might expect to find in an old building like this. A bold art historical reference such as this cabinet by Sebastian ErraZuriz reminds me of the outsize reproduction of a Frans Hals painting in the film’s fictional restaurant, Le Hollandais. ErraZuriz is known for working reproductions of ancient statuary into elaborate pieces of furniture, which here would echo the classical themes of the villa’s 18th-century frescoes.
The elegant lighting in Greenaway’s film gives his characters a painterly glow. An opaque glass chandelier, such as this example by Venetian glass specialist Barovier & Toso, gives excellent indirect illumination, bathing the space in soft shadows. I love the idea of a 1940s light in the middle of the baroque frescoed ceiling, mingling with a sparse assortment of wall and table lamps, creating gentle pools of light throughout the space and highlighting details in the rooms.
Embrace the uncanny
A touch of perversity in a room can be a great thing — that unexpected moment that sets off a scheme. Using a piece made in an unexpected material, such as this neoprene coffee table by Brian Thoreen, can serve exactly that purpose. I find the alienness of an industrial material in this most aristocratic setting delightful, but the strange elegance of the coffee table’s form gives it an unexpected rightness.
The formality of this villa can make us forget that it was designed for entertaining on a grand scale. This Boa sofa by the Campana Brothers from Edra is as much a sculpture as a piece of furniture. You don’t sit on it so much as crawl into its tangled form and get lost in the braids. I’ll never forget the first time I sat on a Boa, when I was 19 — it revealed the potential for furniture to be a dynamic, social object that you can experience. I’ve longed to use it in a project ever since. Imagine being stretched out on a Boa in this incredible room, hidden away with your friends in the countryside, drinking and talking into the wee hours.
Photography: Genevieve Lutkin; Shutterstock; Italy Sotheby’s International Realty; courtesy of Rago/Wright; courtesy of Nilufar Gallery