Who is she? Growing up in a military family, Nicola Harding lived in a series of ‘identikit houses with standard-issue furniture’, so was sensitive to the subtle touches that make a home from an early age.
‘It was fascinating to me how you could walk into one family’s house and feel a sense of warmth, whereas another might be sterile,’ she recalls. Visits to her godfather’s home, which was filled with designs and textiles he’d collected, was another catalyst for her love of interiors.
Harding studied theology at Edinburgh University and then completed a diploma in garden design at KLC in London. The latter formed the basis of her eponymous studio, which she set up in 2008, after five years working with renowned landscape designer Arne Maynard. ‘I thought I’d tag interiors on to my business as there was a recession and gardens tend to fall off people’s budgets,’ she explains. Decorating gradually became her main focus, but always with an eye on the link between indoors and out.
What’s her style? Colourful and comfortable, with a nod to classic English country house style and a focus on antiques and sustainability. ‘I love 1930s and 50s candy shades and use a lot of confident colour,’ she says. ‘I’m interested in it as an emotional or nostalgic trigger, something that can subconsciously take people back to a certain point in their lives. Most importantly, though, I aim to create a sense of home and that’s about comfort, nature and a feeling of being welcome.’
She cites London decorator Robert Kime as an inspiration (‘his projects feel like they have evolved organically and been there forever’), and frequently finds herself taking on clients’ gardens as well as their properties. ‘When I’m designing, I’m always thinking about what you can see outside. I hate it when you’re looking out at parked cars, so I’ll organise the garden to be symbiotic with the house, rerouting the drive to take cars out of sight if need be.’
What are her recent projects? They include The Mitre, a boutique hotel on the banks of the River Thames opposite Hampton Court, set in a Grade II-listed inn dating back to 1665. ‘We wanted to strike a balance between drawing out its history and bringing it into the present day, while adding a sense of fun,’ says Harding of the design, which was inspired by regattas and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. ‘There’s lots of colour and stripes, and a tented ceiling in one of the restaurants that resembles a beach parasol.’
The studio has also designed Everington House, a large family home in Berkshire that represents a ‘polished, tailored’ take on the country home. ‘We used lots of antique finds, mixing them with high-street pieces and bespoke, artisan-made designs,’ explains Harding. ‘The idea was to create a sense of the property having grown over time.’
What is she currently working on? A Victorian villa on the Thames that exemplifies her determination to get the maximum use out of every room. ‘We’re turning a walk-through corridor into a library, with chocolate-brown lacquered walls and a huge library table,’ she reveals.
She’s also decorating new Knightsbridge hotel The Beaverbrook Town House, sister property to its namesake in Surrey, which is scheduled to open later this year. ‘It will have a turquoise lacquered bar with tiles and stained-glass details.’
She says: ‘My dream house would be something bonkers and English eccentric, with a dynamic energy from things slightly clashing. There’s a kind of alchemy to what works in an interior.’ nicolaharding.com
Nicola Harding on how to make your home more sustainable
1 Work with as much of the existing furniture as you can. It’s easy on any project to feel that you need to throw everything out and start again, but I’ll move things around to unexpected locations – for example, a chest of drawers in the bedroom might come down to the kitchen.
2 Focus your budget on a few good pieces that will stand the test of time – it’s better than having everything mediocre. I like to invest in locally sourced designs, so for one hotel I used beds by Naturalmat. They’re made using organic wool from farms nearby and elevate a bedroom.
3 Use natural finishes wherever possible. Synthetic materials may have toxins in them that you’re not aware of, whether it’s flame proofing on fabric or the foam under upholstery. This is why I love antique furniture – the quality and level of craftsmanship is much higher for the same amount of money, and a lot of natural fibres are intrinsically more fire-resistant.
4 Pay attention to fixtures and fittings, and use screws or nails where possible rather than harsh glues. Think about how antique pieces are made, so they can be taken apart and repaired or reused. There’s a place near me called Relics of Witney that sells lovely hand-forged nails and hinges.
THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK
Every project has its own unique list of suppliers and craftspeople. Part of making it special is finding the right mix
PAINT I’m currently working with Pure & Original, which uses all-natural ingredients. It offers interesting finishes, such as ‘Fresco’, which is like historical lime wash. The paints have a much higher pigment content than most, so have real depth, and the colours are easy to live with. pure-original.com
ANTIQUES Howe London on Pimlico Road is run by Christopher Howe, who sells a fascinating mix of antiques and pieces he has made himself. His shop is an endless source of inspiration and great for investment pieces. howelondon.com
LIGHTING London designer Rosi de Ruig makes her own lampshades and bases by hand. They’re a wonderful source of colour and fun, and I use her designs in pretty much every project I do. rosi-de-ruig.myshopify.com
HOUSEHOLD GOODS Tinsmiths has a shop in Ledbury but also sells online, and is brilliant for everything from fabrics to lighting and homewares, such as oak and porcelain loo-roll holders. Phoebe Clive, who runs it, champions interesting artisans around the UK. tinsmiths.co.uk
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration March 2021
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