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Nina Campbell interior design

Nina Campbell celebrates 50 years of trailblazing interior design

‘I enjoy making something beautiful,’ says interior designer Nina Campbell, who has styled the homes of Beatles, royalty and political leaders. She speaks to Effect Magazine about the insights she’s learned along the way

With her VIP client list, Nina Campbell may be top drawer in the interior design world, but that in itself doesn’t explain her longevity. Her homewares and interior design business celebrates its half-century this year, and she is still at the helm, deeply involved in all projects. How has she done it?

Campbell, 77, puts it down to the continued energy and excitement that interior design brings her. “I love walking into a space and imagining what to do with it. I love shopping for things, the Cinderella effect of furniture. I enjoy making something beautiful.”

That enthusiasm is now in action in a big house in Maine, US, and Alexandra ladies’ members club in Melbourne, Australia. These follow on from decades working for British and overseas royalty, celebrities and other wealthy individuals.

Campbell’s background – born on Sloane Street, educated at boarding school and London’s Inchbald School of Design, and a debutante – meant she was rubbing shoulders with the privileged from an early age.

Nina Campbell

And it was the mid-1960s redesign of famous members-only night club Annabel’s in Mayfair that raised her profile, she says. “That put my name out front.”

She and Annabel’s owner Mark Birley opened a shop, Campbell & Birley “which we filled with glorious things. One day, Ann Heseltine walked in and asked if I could decorate her and Michael’s new house in Belgravia.”

I love walking into a space and imagining what to do with it. I love shopping for things, the Cinderella effect of furniture. I enjoy making something beautiful.

Nina Campbell

That seems to be the way of things, with good connections leading to juicy projects. But it’s the servicing and delivery of those projects that have resulted in repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendations.

“As an interior designer, your job is to create a dream home for your client, and you leave your ego behind,” she says. “You need to manipulate the house to make it work for them, and to show them things [such as furniture] they could have that they might not have thought of.”

A good client is someone “who you can talk to, and you understand them and what they want”. That dynamic can be nerve-wracking at first, “then you get under their skin. It’s about interpreting for them their needs and aspirations.” At the start of a project, she asks them: “Why are you creating this home? Is it for your family and your friends? To entertain?”

Her buzzwords are comfort and quality: certain items need to be bought for the long haul, she believes. A bed should be the best you can afford, and that also goes for sofas and upholstery. However, if you can’t stretch to a good carpet, “put down coconut matting and sling a rug on top of it.” Similarly, inexpensive cushions and lampshades might not last forever, but can be “amusing and pretty”, and relocated to a child’s room, perhaps, when you can afford to replace them with better quality versions.

As an interior designer, your job is to create a dream home for your client, and you leave your ego behind

Nina Campbell

And she’s very down on fussing, taking a leaf from a book she once read on Regency dandy, Beau Brummell. He took hours getting dressed, but then didn’t need to fiddle with his attire once he was out. “I can’t bare it when people fuss, fluffing cushions and moving lamps. A house should be there as a background to you.”

A traditional English country house kitchen in Wiltshire by Nina Campbell (Photo: Simon Brown)

After the client, an interior designer’s relationship with the architect comes a close second, she believes. “The architect and the designer have to get on and iron out bumps, so that the client gets what they want at the end. Quite often, the architect comes up with a solution and I have to disguise it.”

Her role is often to imagine how the house will be used, and she cites a big property in the US, which will host lavish parties, with catering brought in. Those male and female staff will need to have rooms where they can change and shower, “but an architect might not think of that, as they haven’t thought to the very end.”

This became a family business in 1999, when Campbell’s son Max Konig took on the role of managing director; her daughter, Alice Deen, followed in 2009 as head of communications. The interior design arm comprises a team of four “who I trust and who travel with me. They run their particular jobs with me.” And two juniors service their needs. In the last four years, she has taken on two architects, which has been “a game-changer”. With floorplans that are to scale, “you can see if things fit. Once you put it on a floorplan it all falls into place.”

Meanwhile, sourcing furniture is still very much in Campbell’s hands, and she tends to buy for a specific project. “I can do it late at night and at weekends,” adding that a lot of antique dealers are now on Instagram. She recently spent a weekend shopping in the Cotswolds town of Tetbury, which has a big concentration of antiques dealers.

And in the capital, a favourite is Adam Calvert Bentley in Battersea. He has a background in antique and fine art conservation. “I just bought some interesting things there for a house I’m doing in Wales.” She also hunts down contemporary pieces, such as outsized pine cones by London-based ceramicist Kate Malone. Meanwhile, the business has just reintroduced its own ‘antiquey department’, which stocks tableware such as trays and jugs.

She hopes her core values haven’t changed over the decades, and believes in referring to the past and the classics, whether that’s in art, architecture or music, “you should go back to the masters.” But her own style of traditional sumptuousness has evolved over the decades. “It’s important to move on.”

Certain colours (like apricot) fell out of fashion, but are starting to creep back in – “everything has a cycle.” Some things, like Colefax & Fowler’s chintz, “never went away,” but are nowadays used in a more paired down fashion. On a practical level, lifestyles have changed. “When I started, everyone had a dining room, and now everyone eats in the kitchen.”

While many clients must be anonymous, some names – such as Rod Stewart – have slipped into the public realm. Campbell herself mentioned doing houses for Ringo Starr and the Duke and Duchess of York as a guest on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1997 – exactly 25 years into her career.

She acknowledges that private clients can be demanding, “but they have every right to be as it’s their house and they’re often spending a lot of money.”

She advises that if things start to go wrong, address them up front. “Don’t try and fudge them and pretend it never happened. Say to the client – there’s been a bit of a disaster and this is what I intend to do about it.” This approach takes huge courage, but the alternative is for things to only get worse, she adds.

This happened once, when a big building firm went bankrupt, having persuaded her to give them a large cheque for works done, “which we later discovered they hadn’t done. There was no point pretending to the client that it hadn’t happened.” It took an extra two months to get the client into the flat.

As well as gaining the client’s trust, interior designers need to have a good relationship with all their trades people. “It’s about trust and trying to behave well at every juncture of your career.”

Also, Campbell recommends that estimates should not be exceeded. “Make sure a job ends up costing what you say it will cost – everybody, however rich they are, has a limit.”

Maybe that is the secret of her staying power: a deep respect for and understanding of her clients.

Effect Magazine is brought to you by Effetto