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Anouska Hempel, Andrew Martin Interior Designer of the Year Awards 2022 Effect Magazine

How Anouska Hempel rewrote the interior design aesthetics of an era

The Andrew Martin Lifetime Achievement Award 2022 was given to Anouska Hempel for her elusive, impossible to define but instantly recognisable design

Most of us know the headline facts about the designer Anouska Hempel. She was the gorgeous blonde Bond girl (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) who became Lady Weinberg, and beyond that we associate her with the two hotel projects that made her name: Blakes and The Hempel. When Blakes, with its lush, dark, exotic, maximalist interiors, opened in Roland Gardens in 1978, it catapulted Hempel to fame, and three years later she graced the first ever cover of World of Interiors.

Then in 1997 came The Hempel, a cool white façade on a leafy Bayswater square that came to define minimalism. Both hotels were created decades ago and The Hempel no longer exists, yet such was the imprint left by Hempel on our collective imagination that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that her Lifetime Achievement Award at the Andrew Martin Interior Design Awards last week was well-deserved. At a private ceremony at the V&A, Princess Michael of Kent presented Hempel with her award to rapturous applause.

The Design Awards were founded in 1996 by Martin Waller, the man behind Andrew Martin, whose flamboyant designs and textiles, sourced from all over the world, have earned him a reputation for being the Indiana Jones of interior design. Waller set up the awards in response to what he saw as a grievous void in the recognition of extraordinary international talent in interior design. They remain the only global design awards in the world and have become known as the Oscars of the design world, a mandatory event on any designer’s calendar. Past winners read like an international Who’s Who of design greats – Kelly Hoppen, Nicky Haslam, Rose Uniacke, Tara Bernerd, Jamie Drake and Kit Kemp.

Princess Michael of Kent presenting Anouska Hempel with the Andrew Martin Lifetime Achievement Award (Effect Magazine)
Martin Waller looks on as Princess Michael of Kent presents Anouska Hempel with the Andrew Martin Lifetime Achievement Award

So, when it comes to Hempel, Waller credits her with reinventing the entire way we perceive hotels. “The post-war paradigm was the Hilton or Sheraton,” he says. “Whether you were in Kuala Lumpur or London, you knew you could rely on exactly the same bland, reliable experience. That went on for years until Hempel blew all that sky high with Blakes.”

I do everything I can to make the world a better, more beautiful place than I found it. Leave a wonderful place for the young to see, because if you don’t, they will never know of the magnificence that is possible.

Anouska Hempel

Waller continues: “We accept what she did now as the norm, but back then it was revolutionary to make every room different, to paint the walls black and pair Chinese antique furniture with blocks of framed flower prints or rows of identical cacti in black lacquer planters. No-one had ever seen a Louis Vuitton trunk used as a coffee table.  She brought things in from all over the world. I remember seeing this beautiful Syrian chest of drawers inlaid with mother-of-pearl – it was a revelation. Before her, architects ruled with an ordered, crisp, restrained look, so this was a radical change of direction. She’s a giant in our world – as important as Ralph Lauren and David Hicks.”

Anouska Hempel photographed by Lord Snowdon (Effect Magazine)
Anouska Hempel photographed by Lord Snowdon

Hempel was born on a boat between Papua New Guinea and Wellington in New Zealand, where her family stayed until she was about five. They then moved to a sheep farm in Australia, where Hempel and her sister were expected to muck in, cleaning, packing and plucking and freezing chickens.

Hempel claims the experience set her up for everything she went on to do, making her “incredibly resourceful and creative”. Her first foray into acting was in a Cadbury’s Flake commercial and she went on to become an actor, but always yearned to direct and design as well. “I’ve always been a designer and don’t remember a single moment where I wasn’t fascinated with sheer beauty,” Hempel says. “Even at five, I was moving things around at home to make it look more stylish. My imagination has always been my strength, and I knew that I had the flair and the energy to become a designer.”

With two little children in tow, she began selling silver on Portobello Road and came into the hotel business by chance: “I was meeting wonderful people within the film industry and realised that there was absolutely nowhere beautiful and amusing to stay. I wanted to create hotel where guests could step through the doors and discover a place of unconventional, welcoming luxury.”

Waller underscores Hempel’s pioneering impact: “People credit Ian Schrager with inventing the boutique hotel, but he came along in the 80s after Anouska,” he says. “She’s the quintessential Renaissance woman, creating rather than riding the zeitgeist. We forget what a trailblazer she was, blowing away those pretty, prissy, country house interiors with her exotic cluttered rooms that were masculine, opulent and gorgeously decadent. The awards are so necessary to shine a spotlight on these rare talents.”

The Hempel Hotel interior designed by Anouska Hempel in Effect Magazine
The Hempel Hotel interior designed by Anouska Hempel in Effect Magazine
Black became white at the legendary and now-closed Hempel Hotel

When The Hempel opened, it was a dramatic departure from Blakes, yet remained defiantly her own. Black had become Hempel’s signature colour, boldly and abundantly used for emphasis and drama, enhanced by contrasting rich tans and gleaming golds. Then suddenly, here was an all-white oasis of purity and calm. “It was drastically different and contemporary beyond anything the world had ever seen,” says Hempel. “The ultimate in minimalism, you could still tell it was my hand, but inspired by the principles of Zen Buddhist philosophy and the importance of experientialism over materialism.” Staying at The Hempel was to succumb to luxurious serenity, evoked by its clean, sparse, white symmetry and order. It instantly attracted celebrities from Victoria Beckham to Michael Jackson.

On receiving her award, Hempel said she was “delighted and humbled, thrilled to be acknowledged in this way,” adding that she was working just as much as she always had. Indeed, current projects include the overall design for an Italian-based yacht, hotels in Chile, Philadelphia and Marrakech. Recent projects include the hotel Monsieur George in Paris, a significant private residence at No. 3 Grafton Street London, and the gardens, interiors, architecture and landscaping of her own country property, Shaw.

Anouska Hempel landscaping of her country property, Shaw
Top: The rich, dark interiors of Blakes Hotel. Bottom: Anouska Hempel’s design extends to the landscaping of her country property, Shaw

The Andrew Martin Interior Design Review is published alongside the awards every year, comprising the work of 100 outstanding designers. Hempel is described in this year’s volume as the “savant of the visual”, with her elusively beautiful designs impossible to define yet undeniably and distinctly her own. Perhaps it’s her belief in creating utopias – and her faith in beauty’s power to soothe – that will ensure the legacy of her design. “Everywhere I go, I try to leave a statement and my mark – a bit of magic and nonsense,” she says.

“I do everything I can to make the world a better, more beautiful place than I found it. Leave a wonderful place for the young to see, because if you don’t, they will never know of the magnificence that is possible.” If there is a word that encapsulates Anouska Hempel’s style it’s probably ‘magnificence’ because, of all designers, she has been seen time and time again to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Effect Magazine is brought to you by Effetto