The Chess Club designer urges us to be bolder with our interiors
“There’s nothing more disappointing than when you end up with an oak floor and a white wall,” sighs interior designer Fran Hickman. “It’s really dispiriting when you start off with a bold idea and then people get scared – I wish they wouldn’t.” She pauses, then continues: “But I would be the last person to tell anyone how they should live at home.”
She might not dictate her design mantra, but whether it’s her easy-going nature or quiet confidence, it hasn’t proved too difficult to make people come around to her way of thinking.
Hickman’s previous design credits include Soho House Group, Smythson and Alice Temperley. Her first project after founding her own studio in 2014 was the Moda Operandi showroom in Belgravia, which she transformed with elegant shell chairs, cabinetry and wood panels featuring light grey and dusty pink terracotta. Since then she has been diligently working her magic across town, from the dreamlike candyfloss-hued Emilia Wickstead showroom on Sloane Street to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Regent’s Park villa.
Then, last year, she sent the press all a-flutter with her restyle of the Chess Club in Mayfair, where she did away with the stuffy private members’ club mantle in favour of vivid wallpaper murals and cases of butterflies lining the walls. The project was a chance for Hickman to reflect on her graduate days, when she was a member of The Arts Club. Back then it was “really sort of down at heel”, she says fondly. Alumni from the University of the Arts London were offered memberships for “next to nothing”.
“We had the run of the place,” Hickman reminisces. “I was in my early 20s and I loved it because it felt rooted. It’s disappointing when these beautiful listed buildings are gutted and treated like new, so when it came to Chess Club, I didn’t want to do anything flash. I wanted to do something that felt like it could have been there for a long time but also felt fresh.”
It’s disappointing when these beautiful listed buildings are gutted and treated like new
In the end “fresh” meant bold colours, feminine touches and vivacious butterflies. It was a trip to Italian architect Carlo Mollino’s Turin abode that inspired the latter feature, after a helpful custodian shared the origin of the apartment’s 316 butterflies with Hickman. “Mollino’s home is layered with meaning and symbolism, like a pyramid, a place of death; but we used the butterfly as a reminder to live for the moment and enjoy beauty in the everyday.”
For Hickman, storytelling and symbolism is at the heart of all she does – “design is a language; the intention behind an object or a colour is very much part of the story that you’re trying to tell without words” – especially in the current retail landscape. She believes that now, more than ever, it is fundamental that a space has something to say.
“It’s so much easier to shop online, so why go out? It might be a matter of the service you receive, or the pleasure the space will bring you, or that it can transport you somewhere else. I always encourage clients to be as bold as possible, but you can only nudge people so far,” she smiles.
Design is a language... a story that you're trying to tell without words
But does she practise what she preaches? She describes her home in Artesian Village as “unfinished”, adding hastily that a move might soon be on the cards.
She doubts she will be going far though. “I have lived in this area almost my whole life, so there are so many memories. The streets are quiet and beautiful and everything you need is within close walking distance” – such as Apostrophe for her daily morning americano with almond milk that she grabs on the way to her office in Kensington.
“I’ve bought a few pieces for my house now but I often see new things and I want to redo everything. There’s quite a lot of temptation involved in my job, so in terms of making a decision when it comes to doing up my own place, I have too much choice. ‘Do I want to do something really minimal today, or do I want to go bold’, do you know what I mean?” she asks.
Her work often takes her far from Notting Hill, with a portfolio covering both residential and commercial jobs. She admits that the latter are often more enjoyable because of the opportunity to play, but there is one current project that has been particularly memorable: a refurbishment of a Richard Meier-designed building in East Hampton, New York, the childhood home of celebrity stylist Elizabeth Saltzman.
“We’re taking it back to the 60s to how Elizabeth and her brother remember it as children. So we have primary coloured bedrooms and we’ve reworked psychedelic prints that we found in the house to contrast with the exterior of the building itself, which is very pure and white,” she explains. “The décor inside is quite wild. It’s a dreamy brief. I would never get offered something like that over here in the UK.”
As well as dividing her time between residential jobs in Manhattan and London – including a recent refurbishment on Horbury Crescent – and a shared office space in the UAE, Hickman is also currently working on a project for Farfetch in Tokyo. She refers to her signature style as clear, concise and finely detailed, but would she say she has a trademark touch? “I suppose I have an approach in the way that I might deliver a message,” she offers, hesitating slightly.
As for her pet peeves, she is more vocal. “I hate trends,” she declares, countering that with, “well, I don’t mind looking back at them once they’re over," adding regrettfully: "But at the moment there’s too much brass and pink and green everywhere." At least it’s not oak floors and white walls.