New Zealand-born, London-based designer Veere Grenney tells Elfreda Pownall about the heavenly effect of mixing pieces from different eras, his affection for the colour chartreuse and the art he adores.
T he interior designer Veere Grenney has been called the greatest aesthete of our generation. The rooms he designs are calm, beautiful and comfortable, but always with an exciting and unexpected edge. Born in New Zealand, this most British of decorators had only one wish in his teenage years – to emulate his design heroes Billy Baldwin and David Hicks. Some 10 years after arriving in Britain in the 1970s, he found himself working for Hicks, which he has described as “a baptism of fire”. After eight years as director at Colefax and Fowler, Grenney opened his own studio. Respite from his work life designing interiors – from Mustique to Manhattan, a Swedish archipelago to a Wyoming ranch – are his three homes: in London; in Tangier, Morocco; and a peerless 1760 fishing lodge in Suffolk, England.
In your former London Embankment flat, an 1876 building by Richard Norman Shaw, you put a 1930s Maison Jansen chandelier with a set of 18th-century Viennese gilded chairs, rush matting on the floor and plump modern sofas covered in your own pastel geometric fabrics. What do you think the mixing of eras brings to an interior?
If you’re a good interior designer – a perfectionist interior designer – and a grown-up person who knows their onions, you have to mix. The only way you can have a spontaneous originality is through a harmonious mix of the top with the bottom and the rough with the smooth. And that means different periods as well. I recently went to see a house belonging to old clients of mine, in the south of France – an iconic 1930s house, built by a Hollywood mogul. I can’t bear an all art deco interior, looking like a bloody cinema. So you make it comfortable and cosy, with a marvellous 18th-century commode, some lovely old-fashioned chintz furniture in the style of Syrie Maugham, and then some good bits of art deco. I mean, heaven!
You had Roger Hilton works in your Arts and Crafts Norman Shaw flat, and you have paintings by James Mcbey and John Lavery in your new house in Tangier. Is mixing works of art from different eras important to you too?
I’m very non-reverential when it comes to art. I’ve just finished a London house for clients with an unbelievable collection, where we have mixed the best Doig, the best Hockney and the best Richter with Velázquez and other Old Master drawings and paintings. I love to stack pictures up the wall. You use your eye to work out the geometry of what will look best together. There are certain paintings though – for example, the cityscapes of Algernon Newton, my new passion – that need to be hung singly. But I do find it astonishing sometimes to hear myself say to Martin Speed, who hangs all my pictures, “Shall we put the two Turners over here, and the Braques with those eight Bombergs, there?” If you’re lucky enough to own so much beauty, the worst thing is to show it off as though it’s all about money. And if the walls are crowded in any room of mine, the surfaces are very ordered.
When did you first see the Temple – your former fishing lodge in Suffolk, England?
I was a teenager in New Zealand when I first saw a picture of the Temple, then owned by my design hero, David Hicks. Many years later I was offered a job by Mary Fox Linton, who was in partnership with Hicks. In Hicks’s day the Temple had no electricity and one small loo. He had to bring food hampers when he came to visit at the weekend. I’ve made it pretty luxurious, with three bathrooms and central heating. I’ve also cleared the canal that this room overlooks and made a formal garden.
You’ve called the Temple a palace and a cottage at the same time; would you prefer to live in a cottage or a palace?
I’d find a charming cottage in the best position with the best view, and planning permission to build on a double-height drawing room.
What are you coveting and what are you collecting at the moment?
I’m collecting Orientalist paintings and coveting works by Algernon Newton, if I could afford him!
Nancy Lancaster, a designer you admire, said every room should have a touch of black. Is there a colour you would always include, even just a touch?
For me it would be chartreuse – that yellow-green of an early spring bud. It looks heavenly with pink.
Do you ever go to salerooms with your clients?
I’m often consulted on their art purchases, but I don’t buy art with them. I will go occasionally and view, but I can never go to a sale. The adrenaline rush of bidding is just too great, it’s like gambling or sex.
Veere Grenney is featured in Interiors: The Greatest Rooms of the Century (Phaidon)
Lead Image: Denston drawing room, designed by Grenney. Photo: David Oilver.