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Why I’m a minimalist: three designers on their philosophy of quiet decorating

William Smalley, Rose Uniacke, and Guillaume Alan explain the value of uncluttered space to Fiona McKenzie Johnston

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By House & Garden | January 22, 2022 | Interiors

“Spaces that have got too much stuff in them make me feel physically uncomfortable,” reveals the architect William Smalley. “I find it visually and physically intrusive; there’s nothing worse than having to remove cushions from a bed or a sofa before you can sit down.”

The late, great Terence Conran’s advice for interior design was to take everything in your house out onto the street and only let what you need back in, while Rose Uniacke (whose own bedroom is pictured above) is a believer in the power of “generous wasted space,” explaining that it “can be the thing that makes a house.” “There’s a counterpart to maximalism, and it tends to be for quieter people, who want a calm space, a quiet space,” continues William.

Minimalism, as a design style, is popularly associated with clean lines, a tight edit, and a pale, monochromatic palette. Done wrong, it can seem harsh to the point of clinical, which is why so many shy away from the very concept. However, as enthusiasts of the discipline know, interiors by William, Rose, or the French master of minimalism, Guillaume Alan, are enviable for their warmth coupled with a serene beauty – which could be why William doesn’t actually consider himself a minimalist at all. “I don’t mind being grouped with them, but I would describe myself as an abstract expressionist, which is how Agnes Martin differentiated herself from Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt,” he explains, referring to the artistic movement that minimalism took its name from. It flourished in the 1960s and 70s, offering a highly purified form of beauty, but it’s true that Agnes Martin’s discrete horizontal lines do have a softness that is missing from Judd’s rigorous forms, or Le Witt’s definite striations.

Picture: The sitting room of an Edwardian house by William Smalley,

However, the starting point for the work of all three of our ‘minimalists’, William, Rose, and Guillaume, goes back further than the second half of the 20th century. Both Guillaume and Rose grew up amid antiques, Rose’s mother was a dealer, as was Guillaume’s grandmother. William lists the Renaissance architect Brunelleschi among his inspirations, along with the Pritker prize-winning Luis Barragan, Barbara Hepworth’s home in St. Ives, and Kettle’s Yard, the former home of legendary collector of modern British art, Jim Ede, who famously said it was light that furnished a space. If you know Kettle’s Yard, you might wonder at its minimalist credentials; weight is given as equally to smooth pebbles as to paintings by Ben Nicholson, and no surface is left unadorned. “It has the personality of its owner,” says William. “I don’t think people interrogate how they want to live. They adapt themselves to their surroundings, and it should be the other way around.”

William also speaks reverently about the walls at Kettle’s Yard, “which are rough plaster. There’s an introduction of texture, which creates small-scale shadows.” Within this observation is information as to how to make a minimalist interior feel warm. “My New Year’s Resolution two years ago was to never again do flat painted white walls, instead we work with limewash and plaster,” says William. There are other methods for achieving similar results; in Rose Uniacke’s London home, a new basement is given texture by the light cast from lanterns encased in imperfect antique glass. Guillaume mentions the tactility that the materials he uses bring to his schemes, “fine woods such as oak or ash, natural marble, brass, raw linen, soft leather, wool, silk, bronze.”

Palette is always a consideration. Guillaume is famed for his pale grey, “which we call ‘craie’ or chalk. The way each material and texture captures the light creates a coherent whole.” Rose will often paint walls and architraves in the same shade, explaining that if everything around you is the same colour, you can decide what you want to look at and what you want to see. (Though she does use colour, as evidenced by the variety of fabrics available in her shop. But William asks “why would a room be red or green? What if you get bored of it? Or what are you trying to hide?” (And then he confesses that he has just designed a bedroom with olive green linen walls, “because the owner didn’t want grey.”)

Picture: A room in a Parisian apartment by Guillaume Alan, Photo by Matthew Donaldson.

Finally comes decoration. For Guillaume, it’s about making as one “the architecture, landscape, interior design and furniture – all simple, all linked together to create as clear a picture as a painting.” He details the necessity of “impeccable proportions, and precision is an obsession. All the rooms are linked by materials and palette. It not only creates the illusion of more space, but also allows more depth and texture without needing to commit to a colour or unnecessary feature.”

Rose focuses on what something needs to do, and William’s approach reaffirms his abstract expressionism, “I don’t think about decoration as a thing. A space should allow for anything you want to put in it, and that might be a chest of drawers you’ve inherited, or a kilim – minimalist spaces don’t allow that to happen, but good architecture does allow that to happen.” He recently designed a Donald Judd-esque desk for Bridie Hall, who doesn’t just collect, she collects collections. “The desk is covered in stuff now!” laughs William.

But what minimalist art and minimalist design unequivocally have in common is the quality of truth, of “facing beauty without any artifice,” says Guillaume. While Rose mentions the honesty of non-discreet technology, “I don’t like television screens that are mirrored. I like big speakers on the floor,” William explains that he prefers visible over recessed lighting. “We’re all moving towards openness, and I think that is wonderful,” he says. “There’s less hiding of what people feel,” he continues, implying that this quality should be reflected in our homes. “Certainly in residential spaces it’s about the emotions that a room makes you feel – we’re creating atmospheres.” That emphasis is shared by Guillaume, who explains “we try to engender a vibrant emotion in order to create wonder, to awaken the mind and the five senses.” Returning for a moment to Bridie’s mostly maximalist house, it’s worth noting that many of her walls are painted Dulux Trade White, and several are empty. “I find peace in these blank spaces,” she says. With minimalism, as with so many other things, there is a spectrum - meaning there is potential for us all to answer the question in the title.

Written by Fiona McKenzie Johnston.

This article originally appeared on House & Garden UK.