The meaning of style, by interior designer Russell Sage

Acclaimed interior designer Russell Sage talks broken rules, secret ingredients and looking good in any light

Russell Sage
Chinoiserie, in an English country home, breaks all the rules but is the height of style, says Russell Sage
(Image credit: Future)

The Savoy hotel in London once threw a party, just before the First World War. If you’ve ever been to The Savoy you’ll know it glitters, and it did so even more back then. Yet the brilliantly rambunctious organisers paid no heed to the fixtures and fittings, and instead covered the space in rubber, filled it with water and sailed guests around on boats, sipping decorously on champagne. Have you ever heard of anything more fun? Wildly, truly eccentric, a moment of whimsy just for the pure joy of it, breaking the rules of supposed fine taste and modern interior design quite simply so a ruddy good time could be had by all. 

I think Brits have always broken the decorative rules. Look at our old country houses, bursting with chinoiserie and Italianate marble not because they were authentic to the space, time period or building’s original features, but because the owners were collectors who wanted to make people smile. When Sir John Soane built his house in Holborn, now the Sir John Soane’s Museum, he did so to have a space in which to display his Hogarth collection, so he could host fabulous dinner parties, beam at his guests and say, ‘Can I show you the Egyptian tomb in my basement?’. Imagine the delight he would have seen in their faces. That sense of wonderment, caused by design, is the true definition of style. 

The pursuit of that feeling is what I base all my work on. At The Fife Arms, the hotel I designed in rural Scotland for Hauser & Wirth, we hung a Picasso pride of place simply because we were excited to show it off. The property houses 16,000 works of art, not so as to pay them stuffy reverence or create a hushed gallery, but because
we want people to be able to experience them, to share them with the world.

russell sage

The Picasso painting at The Fife Arms, designed by Russell Sage

(Image credit: The Fife Arms)

In the garden of my own house in Somerset I have two four-metre Indian vases, while two stuffed giraffes guard the hallway. You’d never find these in any interiors book, but I have them because they bring me joy.

You see, style doesn’t have to be about finesse, or hospital corners, or sticking rigidly to a sense of what ought to be done. My village is far from chocolate-box perfect – against a backdrop of gorgeous cottages you’ll find rusting cars in driveways, the odd plastic bag wrapped around a barbed wire fence and uPVC windows gleaming against old stone, but to me that is part of its appeal. I’d be heartbroken if it was all tidied up. Unlike other tourist spots, where residents have to get their external paint choices signed off by an association (this happens all over Gloucestershire), here anything goes, allowing for true creativity and expression.

After everything we have been through this past year, design is about the desire to bring people together. If your home is not a sanctuary then you’re going to be in trouble, and this is where style comes into its own, the secret ingredient that elevates a room from looking good to feeling good, too. I’d suggest the following:

Pick a sofa not because it looks nice in a photo, but because  it speaks to you personally and makes you want to run to it and jump on it and lie back into it. Use restful colours that help you – specifically you – relax. My hero Karen Beauchamp, a former creative director of Cole & Son, once told me that if a colour is to feel like home then it should have a touch of the earth to it.

So instead of going with banana yellow, opt for one with a hint of brown in it; instead of choosing bright white look for softer, more restful pigments. I’m drawn to cognac leather tones right now, palettes that look good in any light. Nothing so bright it smacks you between the eyes when you want to be watching telly.

Russell Sage

Bloomsbury sofa, Heal's

(Image credit: Heal's)

But above all, style means a good representation of you. Agonise over decisions; ponder whether you can live with some furniture or a colour for the next 20 years. Does it suit your lifestyle, does it make you feel comfortable? Do you really love it, and does it make you happy? Be drawn to things – and people – that do. Create a space in which you love to live. For this is where style is found.

The interior designer behind such legendary hotels and restaurants as The Zetter Townhouse in Clekenwell, London, the Fife Arms in Braemar, Scotland, and the tea bar Teatulia in London's Covent Garden, Russell founded his practice, Russell Sage Studio, in 2005. He lives between London and Somerset, and regularly comments for Livingetc offering his thoughts on design and decoration.