Octavia Dickinson on the Enduring Charm of British Design
For a culture that so proudly advocates a stiff upper lip, we Brits are surprisingly free-spirited when it comes to design. However understated, stoic and well-mannered our behavior may be, underpinning it is a cheekiness that, when let loose with a paint palette, comes happily to the fore. “We’re quite eclectic,” agrees Interior Designer Octavia Dickinson, whose own designs embody the eccentricity of English country-house style. “It’s pattern on pattern, layered together with lots of different textures and colors.”
In defiance of the pared-back minimalism of contemporary interiors, Dickinson is among a cohort of young designers repackaging British maximalism for the modern day. Not for her (or her clients) is the sleek serenity of an all-white space; in her projects, you’ll find chintz fabrics typical of historic British designer Colefax and Fowler merged with rainbow colors, pleated lampshades perched on elegant fixtures and antique furniture revitalized with bold, contemporary fabrics.
“In Britain there’s been a long history of the English country house, and people are starting to go back to that,” the designer says. “There was definitely a point when we were going towards a more minimalist look, but recently people have turned towards comfort again—they want warmth, they want pattern, and they want to be inspired by their surroundings. They’re excited about color, and they want to feel creative.”
There’s no shortage of either in Dickinson’s projects, where rooms feel welcoming and homey, palettes are bold but not garish, and patterns perfectly mixed but never clashing. In one house, a tomato red wall greets you like a hug and takes you through to the sitting room, where the same shade provides a backdrop to a velvet green sofa and bouclé-covered footstools. Florals have a place not just in the upholstery (of which there is plenty) but on the walls of bathrooms, the skirts of cabinets and even the ceiling of a nursery. She cites “quite masculine” British designers such as Robert Kime and David Mlinaric as inspiration, along with English Architect and Interior Designer Ben Pentreath, who “is very joyful,” and not to forget the grand doyenne of English country-house style, Sibyl Colefax, founder of the aforementioned Colefax and Fowler.
“I like so many different eras and styles of furniture, patterns and design, and I love mixing them together,” she says. “There are certain rooms that shout to me that they should be incredibly chintzy, and others that should be much more modern and clean. I quite like being able to play with that, bringing in Arts and Crafts and Georgian furniture and mixing it all up.”
An initial stint in the fine art world put Dickinson in good stead to grapple with this contrast of old and new—before working in interiors, she trained her eye at the Courtauld Institute of Art, a college in London, and later sourced artwork for BBC television programs. She eventually swapped showbiz for sofas after landing a position as an assistant at interior decorating company Leveson Design, but her experience in fine art gave her an appreciation for color and interiors that has stayed with her.
“I’ve been really lucky to have seen lots of interiors, and lots of interiors in art, and to learn that there isn’t just one way of doing something—it’s about finding beautiful things,” she says. “That’s what it comes down to: finding things that you love and making them work together.”
It just so happens that much of what Dickinson loves feels, and is, distinctly British. She identifies the key characteristics as “frilly skirts on sofas, china on the wall, and lots of low-lighting with different kinds of pleated shades.” “I think it’s quite a quintessentially British thing to collect over time,” she adds, “and that means you end up with lots of different styles of furniture—sometimes quite a lot of faded pieces with much brighter things—all layered together.”
In borrowing from different styles and eras, Dickinson takes a traditionally classic aesthetic and creates spaces that feel refreshingly contemporary. It’s a knack which she attributes to British design in general—inherent to the style is an understanding of, and appreciation for, heritage. “Everything about British design has a historical relevance to it, in a really lovely way,” she says. “It’s not that people aren’t being imaginative and creative, it’s that they are using the past and reinterpreting it. It feels like there’s a historical aspect, which I think is really special.”
So, how to achieve the look at home? “It’s definitely down to layering,” she says. “Start off with a fabric that you really love. If you begin with a beautiful pattern, you can build the room from there, looking at every single element—lamps, lampshades, the fringe of a curtain, the rug, pillows with trimmings. It’s all about layering the room with texture, color and patterns, and going all out.”
Building a room like this, she says, is her favorite stage of an interior design project— “The admin of it all is not so fun,” she jokes—and though her clients often come armed with ideas, they’re generally happy to give her creative reign. “I think people know what they like, but not necessarily how to achieve it,” she says. “Walking into a room I can normally tell what color it should be, and what feel it has. I’ll show my clients a few fabrics to give them an idea of the direction I’m going in, and it goes from there.”
She jokes that the project she is most proud of is “usually the one I’ve just been working on,” and makes reference to a colorful London home she completed for a young client last year that was “really good fun and creative.” Next in the pipeline is an historically important house in the countryside, which is going to take more than two years to complete. “We’re just working on the architecture side of things at the moment,” she says, “but I think I’m going to be very proud of that project when I’ve finished it.” We don’t doubt it.
To discover more of Dickinson’s world, visit octaviadickinson.com