Russell Sage on designing with antiques

‘I’m driven by a love of materials, but also showmanship,’ says Russell of his studio’s style, which he once described as ‘slightly eccentric, full of stories and pleasing details that people warm to’.

This is a man who has no problem working with saturated colour in big spaces, the legacy of growing up in his parents’ Somerset pub. ‘Everything was painted dark red – the ceiling as well – so I’ve never been scared of colour,’ says Russell.

He’s also a designer who doesn’t think twice about filling every nook and cranny of a room with books, memorabilia and artefacts. Or layering poptastic floral paintings over dark mock-croc panelling alongside a velvet, fringed Victorian lobby settee, as he’s done in Fitz’s bar at the Kimpton Fitzroy hotel.

Russell’s bold use of colour and pattern is best seen at The Fife Arms, the Scottish hotel he has designed for art dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth. Here, pieces by Lucian Freud and Picasso, and rooms painted by artists Zhang Enli and Guillermo Kuitca juxtapose layers of rich shades and historical patterns. ‘I like the gear-change effect it brings as you move from room to room,’ says Russell.

‘Colour works best when you put it next to another colour,’ he adds. Take the hotel’s Edward VII suite for example. ‘The use of a deep blue-grey paint for the woodwork perfectly offsets the boldly coloured Shrewsbury Welby wallpaper by Watts of Westminster and at the same time frames the star-motif on the wallpaper in the bathroom. As you look through the doorway, it goes bang,’ Russell enthuses.

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His approach is simple: ‘Don’t hold back,’ he beams. This has most recently been demonstrated in his design of a discreet, grown-up dining room, dressed in fresh spring hues for chef Adam Handling at the Belmond Cadogan Hotel, restoring The Goring hotel’s lobby with Fromental’s gorgeous hand-painted wallpapers, and creating funky interiors for the Hospital Clubs in both London and Los Angeles.

This chameleon quality owes much to Russell’s first career in fashion, following an MA at Central Saint Martins and five years showing at London Fashion Week before launching his interiors studio in 2005. No two projects are ever treated the same. ‘It comes from having to tear things up and start again every season,’ he says.

Antiques play a fundamental role in most of Russell’s design schemes. He has been buying furniture at auction since he was 10 years old. ‘I love the anticipation of finding treasure,’ says Russell.

Working with older pieces should never feel precious though. ‘I don’t want people to feel like they are living in a museum. I always say don’t feature an antique unless you can dance on it; what’s the point of a 16-seater table if you can’t run down the middle of it?’

Russell considers the atmosphere of a room before designing its interior. ‘I think about how I want people to feel and react, and then choreograph the design around that. I want to create rooms full of joyful surprise, to make people smile,’ he says. ‘I remember my mum once talking about the food in their pub and how everyone eats with their eyes. Well, this is what eating with your eyes looks like to me.’

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