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At the western end of Knightsbridge, where the tall, gloomy ‘Pont Street Dutch’ houses give way to a little stuccoed Chelsea quartier with some pretensions to urban planning, stands Stanley House, a surprisingly large and grand double-fronted house in the Italianate taste, built in 1855 by the Chelsea speculator John Todd for his own occupation. The tiers of creamy-white columns, pilasters, friezes and runs of balustrading, offset against a ground of apricot-coloured stucco, give it the proprietorial air of a little palazzo. But its relatively conventional exterior belies an extraordinary interior, only hinted at by the enormous pair of plate-glass doors that shelter beneath its columned portico, each one garnished with a snarling lion mask in patinated bronze. Inside, in the little mirrored vestibule, the funereal obelisks flanking the front door are endlessly reflected, providing a spectacular prelude to the home of Michael Inchbald, whose death in February 2013 robbed architectural and interior design of one of its most daring and stylish exponents.
From a young age Michael showed a precocious interest in architecture and interior design. At home, he would drastically remodel entire rooms and then wait and see if his father noticed when he got back from work. He went to Sherborne School and then studied architecture at the Architectural Association, lodging from 1945 with his uncle Courtenay in the capacious, clock-filled house in Milner Street. The young Inchbald was initially allocated a single bedsit room, but he soon asked his uncle for another – pointing out that a gentleman had to have one room to live in, and another in which to work. He got his way, and both were soon stylishly tricked up with things he had spotted in antique shops and salerooms – 18th century French and English furniture and a painting by Horace Vernet in the sitting room, while a Panini kept company with Empire pieces in the ‘Vogue Regency’ bedroom-cum-study. The flat was featured in Ideal Home in 1947, and later in House and Garden. He was also making his mark in contemporary design –in 1955 his stylish wicker ‘Mambo’ chair won the National Design Prize and was later exhibited in the 1957 Milan Triennale.
After leaving the Architectural Association early, he contemplated emigrating to America, but his marriage in 1955 and the death of his uncle Courtenay the following year opened up other opportunities – not least the refurbishment of the large house in Milner Street which he took on. The lower floors were converted as an office for his fledgling interior design business, while the rooms upstairs were stylishly adapted as living quarters which combined his interest in contemporary design and new materials, with a fearless sense of colour and a taste for theatrical display. Here he arranged his antique furniture, pictures and sculpture, as well as some of his uncle’s finest clocks.
Executed between 1957 and 1959, and published in House and Garden magazine in 1960, the interiors of Stanley House confirmed Michael Inchbald’s reputation as an up and coming young interior designer – equally confident and assured in a modern or traditional idiom. The large Drawing Room, which extends the full depth of the house, was where the finest pieces of furniture and works of art were displayed, shown off against soft coral-red walls. The key pieces were French – the great greenish-grey marble Rococo chimneypiece surmounted by a portrait of the duc de Penthièvre, a grand ormolu-mounted bureau plat, a series of imposing commodes, and a pair of Neo-Egyptian bronze and ormolu candelabra.
Michael Inchbald confessed that the carefully orchestrated theatre of Stanley House sometimes intimidated his clients. One can see why, although they included the Duke of St Albans, duchesse Sonia de Liancourt, and the Earls of Perth, Dartmouth and St Aldwyn, as well as contemporary celebrities – the film director, John Schlesinger, the author, Alistair Horne, and the banker, Henry Tiarks. But if Inchbald’s cool blend of neoclassical and modern never approached the popularity of John Fowler in his domestic work, his success in the commercial sector – as the interior designer for several American banks, the headquarters of Plessey, and a series of remarkable interiors in luxury hotels – certainly approached that of his chief rival, David Hicks. Nor were Inchbald’s talents confined to dry land – he worked on state rooms for the liners Carpathia, Franconia, and the Windsor Castle, and designed the first-class saloon aboard the QE2 - the Queen’s Room was acclaimed as ‘the most successful marine interior ever conceived’.
So many of Michael Inchbald’s interiors have been swept away, it is ironic that his name is now best known from the eponymous Inchbald School of Design, which his wife Jacqueline set up in 1960 to teach design and art history. Established in a single basement room in Stanley House, it was the first interior design school in Europe. It is still going strong today. But Michael Inchbald’s real legacy is the interiors he created at Stanley House. As Stephen Calloway elegantly put it in an article in Harpers and Queen in 1988; ‘Michael Inchbald is a rare character. Among vociferous and self-opinionated designers he is diffident, among interior decorators he is a true connoisseur of beautiful things; a man of taste, not of fashion’.
Tim Knox, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge