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Why I'm a maximalist: three designers on their love of less-than-quiet interiors

Alidad, Henriette von Stockhausen and Gavin Houghton expound on why more is always more for them

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By House & Garden | January 30, 2022 | Interiors

“Less is more” was a phrase adopted by the Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, and is often repeated by those who believe in the merits of a clean, uncluttered look. But, “more is more,” retorts Gavin Houghton. “Tutankhamun’s tomb was not a white box. I like colour, and I like contrast; early Delft next to a modern painting is a visual treat. I like curtains and trims and florals and ceramics; I have de Gournay wallpaper in my house, and I’ve hung paintings on top,” he continues. “Maximalism fills me with joy,” says Henriette von Stockhausen of VSP Interiors. “I like a house where you can sink back into a cloudy feather and down sofa with lots of cushions – rather than anything streamlined – pick up a good book and remain a while.”

Both Gavin and Henriette favour the classic English style of interior that looks as though it has evolved over time, and are experts at giving that particular blend of antiques and mismatching prints and textures their own contemporary twist. Their words are doubtlessly music to the ears of anyone who read last week’s article on the philosophy of minimalism and not only wondered where the stuff was, but marvelled at some people’s seeming imperviousness to the pleasures of colour, chintz and a frill. For while a streamlined interior can look appealing, if you’re a certain sort of person “that look of less doesn’t work,” points out Gavin. Alidad, who is renowned for his recognisable aesthetic that blends the best of East and West, creating richly layered environments, agrees: “the thing with minimalism is that one thing out of place can make the whole room look wrong. I believe that you should be able to pick something up and put it somewhere else, and it should still work.” “If you’ve got children and dogs and horses, maximalism is much more forgiving,” confirms Henriette - who has all three.

Picture: A bedroom by Henriette von Stockhausen of VSP Interiors. Photo by Simon Brown

“I was always told the more layering there is in a room, the more relaxed it will feel,” continues Gavin. “Unsophisticated interior design is a one-note piano. You see it, you get it. A room needs to be like a person you’d like to get to know, which means it needs to be interesting and erudite, to have history and background. And collections of things tell you where somebody’s passion lies.” “Even so, it’s not for show, but for comfort,” explains Alidad, which makes perfect sense when you consider the heaven of being in a room that, through its depth of charm and detail, entices you to stay – and stay.

And yet we all know that there is a fine line between good maximalism, and Channel 5’s Hoarder Homes: No Room To Move. In fact, Alidad reasons that he would only define himself as maximalist because he’s not a minimalist. “Maximalism can sound like you’re putting things in for the sake of it. I put things in because I like that timeless look, the idea that you’ve inherited things from generations back and combined them with your own, which inevitably means you have a lot of things.” “But those things need to have a place,” points out Gavin. “They can’t just be piled up because you can’t stop shopping. I don’t like clutter.” “Everything needs breathing space,” agrees Henriette, who acknowledges that it can be easier to edit somebody else’s belongings than your own, admitting “I’ll often juggle things around at home to fit in another painting.” Sometimes it’s worth taking everything off every surface and starting again, only putting back what really gives you pleasure. We’re not suggesting the full Marie Kondo; “anything that you love or think is beautiful has value to being in your house, it’s those things that make it your home,” says Henriette.

Picture: Alidad's dining room is a vibrant and colourful space. Photo by Simon Brown

But it’s not just little things. You’ve got to be able to walk through a room without having to move chairs or shimmy behind an extra sofa – regardless of how beautiful that sofa is. Layout is the start for nearly every interior designer and “it’s got to be functional,” points out Alidad. The mix of patterns and colours matters too. “There has to be a balance,” says Henriette. “I’m not actually a fan of too much pattern on pattern, the eye does need to rest occasionally. There’s definitely a place for an odd frill or kick pleat corner – it deformalises, and de-sharpens – but too many things competing does not result in the best outcome.” (Worth knowing, if you do struggle with plain, is that a stripe is an excellent foil to a floral.) “I definitely use restraint,” adds Alidad. “Despite the madness that some people might assume when I’m putting a scheme together, I know instinctively how far I can go. Quite often with some rooms, just one more fabric, one more pattern or one more colour could topple the whole thing. And often I design rooms that are very peaceful and tranquil – those rooms tend not to be photographed though, as magazines want my ‘real’ look.”

So, while less still doesn’t appear to be more, it does seem that sometimes, more needs less, and within the best maximalism there are still areas of quiet. “It’s hard to convey with the camera,” says Alidad. “But there is something very calming when you get the balance right, and all five senses are being stimulated in the same way.” That last sentence is interesting, because it is so very similar to what Guillame Alan said was the aim of his all-chalk coloured interiors. “The vocabulary of good design is the same whether you are doing a minimalist room or a maximalist room,” points out Alidad. All interiors are a spectrum; where you are on that spectrum is down to personal preference, and your opinion on palette, pattern, frivolity and purposeless joy.

Written by Fiona McKenzie Johnston.

This article originally appeared on House & Garden UK.