Ahead of the launch of a new hotel in the coastal town of Deal last Summer, we chatted to interior designer Nicola Harding of Harding and Read about her flair for creating fresh, playful spaces.
Nicola Harding had a peripatetic childhood. Her father was in the military and she moved house a total of 36 times. In military quarters, families living in furnished accommodation are issued the same pieces of furniture. Each time Harding’s family relocated, her parents would select identikit items from a vast warehouse. “Some houses we moved into had an atmosphere,” recalls Harding. “Others just didn’t. I have always transfixed by that difference.”
Private Commission in Bath, designed by Harding & Read
Harding has since made a career of conjuring that elusive atmosphere. She is one half of the interior and garden design studio, Harding and Read. Together with her business partner, Orla Read, she has recently been named by House and Garden as one of 2018’s Top 100 Interior Designers. Her career began with the acclaimed garden designer, Arne Maynard, with whom she worked for five years before setting up her own studio. In the ensuing ten years, Harding has built a reputation for fresh, cool, comfortable interiors.
There is a playfulness to their projects that Harding attributes to her vivid sense of nostalgia. “As a child, I just always longed to have a home,” she confides. “I was hungry for that sense of feeling nurtured by the environment you’re in and creating a sense of belonging.” Harding also cites her godfather is as a key influence: “He was a collector and travelled the world with his husband. He had a brilliant understanding of English craftsmanship…that world is full of the most fascinating characters.”
Striking colour combinations and characterful pieces are the hallmarks of a Harding and Read interior. For example, in a recent renovation of a Grade I listed townhouse, an antique Windsor chair is pulled up to a vivid blue occasional table in a corner of a soft pink kitchen, as pictured above. “We put a lot of antiques into what we do,” explains Harding. “The journey that you go on to find a piece becomes a bit of a trail … the stories you hear, and the people you meet, all of this comes to life in that one place.” As well as hidden histories, there is undoubtedly a sense of humour to their interiors. “We try not to be too serious,” Harding agrees. “I love playful, unexpected touches rather than shiny details. It’s all part of creating a relaxed atmosphere.”
The commercial clients that approach Harding and Read – including the recently reopened Beaverbrook, an opulent country house hotel in the Surrey Hills – are often seeking to create this elusive “homely atmosphere”. In The Garden House at Beaverbrook, mismatched cushions are heaped generously upon reupholstered antique sofas, vigorous houseplants populate the window ledges, and vintage books are piled upon polished surfaces. “With commercial projects, every inch has to justify itself in terms of cost and practicality,” explains Harding, “but because of our experience with residential clients, we find all sorts of kooky artists and craftspeople that we are able to filter into our commercial work.”
Harding and Read’s commercial project, The Rose, exemplifies this approach. They worked with the independent owners “on an absolute shoestring” to transform a rundown pub in the coastal town of Deal into a restaurant, lounge, dining room and eight-bedroom hotel.
Open to the public last Summer to much acclaim, the interiors of The Rose are eclectic and luxurious. Clever colour combinations and locally-sourced antiques abound. But, as Harding points out, The Rose “definitely does not feel like someone’s taken a piece of East London and transported it to Kent [...] When I’m working on a project I do everything I can to get to know the client or brand and the people who will be using the space. How is the space going to feel and what’s going to connect it to its history and wider environment? are questions I always ask myself. ”