Lh Interview: Nina Campbell on Finding Success in the World of Design
When it comes to interior style Nina Campbell is a goddess! In business for over 50 years and still going strong. Nina’s signature rich palette, attention to practicality, comfort, and detail. Alongside her delightful wit make her one of the most renowned names in design across Europe and the US.
With a portfolio full of stunning interior designs spanning from contemporary to traditional; the exquisite Nina Campbell home decor brand; Annual fabric and wallpaper collections for Osborne & Little; and an eponymous shop on London’s Walton Street brimming with chic accessories, Nina is a self-made industry expert to say the very least. So, if you’re looking for some design and business inspiration read on for Lh’s exclusive interview with the one and only Nina Campbell. (Now if only her fabulous English accent could come across via print!)
Nina Campbell on Finding Success in the World of Design
An early attraction to home decor led Nina to study at the Inchbald School of Design. After graduating she landed a job at the UK-based fabric and wallpaper distributor Colefax & Fowler. A job which she then left at only 22 to go and start her own studio. And here is where I began my conversation with Nina.
Love Happens: What inspired you to leave your Colefax & Fowler and start your own design studio at only 22?
Nina Campbell: Well, I think in a way its a sort of madness, isn’t it? When you are 22 and you have a belief in your self, an infallibility. But you also don’t have much responsibility, so its a wonderful moment to just set sail I think.
I had this opportunity with somebody whose house I was doing who wanted to partner with somebody in design. She loved design. And she was older than me so she knew a lot of people and she had very good taste. She thought it would be a good idea to set up a business together. We called it Elliot & Campbell—which did sort of sound like quite dull solicitors from Edinburg, somehow the two Scottish names. [laughing]
So we set off and did some really wonderful houses. It was in the day when you really were an interior decorator. Now everyone is an interior designer, but in those days you just went and you redid a beautiful drawing room with the furniture already in it because everyone had their own furniture. You barley went shopping for people because most people were just recovering, adding new curtains, a new carpet or a new rug. It was a very different world really. And then of course when you did whole houses there were bedrooms and all the bathrooms and everything. But it was a much more relaxed way of decorating. It really was decorating and not designing, we weren’t moving walls, etc. that came later.
Lh: Knowing all you know today if you could go back in time and give your 22-year-old self advice what would it be?
Nina Campbell: I think that I was very lucky. First off with my time at Colefax. John Folwer was the most extraordinary teacher and human being and very generous with his time. So I think I would advise anybody to go and almost sort of learn their trade at someone else’s expense. You can leave college but actually, you don’t really know much when you leave college. You might be able to work on the computer, but you don’t have that…. I think decorating is a bit like cooking, you need to know when to add the herbs and salt and pepper.
Lh: When you started off did you have a plan for your future in the industry? Did you know you wanted to offer design services and products? Or did things play out more organically?
Nina Campbell: No, the product came much later. When I first started I just wanted to interior design lovely houses. I was doing a house in the south of France so that was quite advanced at that point. Not so many people traveled as much then, so I was very lucky to have that opportunity.
Then much later, I sort of realized when I started product… I was doing a house for somebody in Scotland. I wanted to use this particular fabric all over the walls and it was discountinued. So I went to the man that owned the company. And I said look you’ve discontinued this fabric and I really want to use it, would you mind if I had it printed for myself.
He was an incredibly generous, lovely man, and he said absolutely go ahead and take it and do what you like with it. So I did. And he got a very nice day of fishing out of the man it was being done for who had a very good river in Scotland, so everyone was happy. And I started printing this little sprig design for the walling of his particular room. Then we started doing you know the sponge bags and all of those things.
And I had always wanted a shop actually. So I then opened my shop with Mark Birley in about 1970… Designing is a sort of love affair, I had sort of slightly fallen out with decorating for a bit and I only wanted to do the Annabel’s and all of the Mark Birley work because he was a friend and I thought it was so much easier to have one client and then have the shop together. So that was rather fun, we traveled all over the place shopping for things for the shop. And then as things moved on, he, I think, got slightly bored of a shop full of lamps and sponge bags and he wanted to go more into wine and that sort of thing which obviously wasn’t anything to do with me. So, I went to another shop and then I started decorating again.
You know somehow somebody comes in and says oh my goodness would you help with this. And you think oh that would be heaven. And the weird thing was that the woman who came into my shop and asked me to help her with this very difficult room, it was so bizarre, she had bought a house that I had lived in as a child.
I knew the house incredibly well so it was obvious that I was going to do it. And I told her I can’t believe you bought this house, we lived there, I know all about that room. That was rather amazing, talk about serendipity or small worlds. And then after that, I started really designing all over again. But by that time I had my shop and then I started my fabric. Again because everybody discontinued everything I wanted. So I just thought, instead of getting the message and thinking well obviously there is some reason why nobody wants this fabric, I thought well I want to design fabric. [laughing]
Lh: Many interior designers aspire to have their own product collections, how do you successfully blend your interior design services and the product side of your business?
Nina Campbell: With the products, the shop, and then more wallpaper the whole fabric business got rather of out of hand because we were selling it and buying it and having too much of one color and none of the other. We needed somebody to rationalize the whole thing and that’s when I went to Osborne and Little. And they said we would like to do your license for you, which was again incredibly early really for that sort of thing. And I have been working with them now for almost 35 years. They knew all about the product.
Lh: What do you believe has been the key to your shop’s success over the past 30+ years when retail has gone through such changes and struggles?
Nina Campbell: My son now runs my shop, and I think some of the things we have in the shop are still things that we sold years ago, and slightly refreshed obviously. But actually, our pink heart and blue heart, people are coming back for their grandchildren and buying it and saying oh I can’t live without this pillow, I grew up with it. They have brought it all back again. Another generation comes along, and they have it as a child and they want it for their children, or for themselves.
Then, of course, we add things, we go buying all the time, all over the world. And I suppose because I have children who are living, as I do, very much in the present, you know what you want in your own house and you try to bring that to the shop.
Lh: What 3 things do you believe allowed you to have the success you have had?
Nina Campbell: My mother was Austrian from Vienna, and my father was Scottish, and so they were two mountainous people coming together, they were very up and down, so life was quite volatile let’s say. But my grandfather had told my mother as a child this wonderful statement which she told me. He told her with all seriousness, and she said to me, listen, this is what my father said to me: The difficult can be done immediately, and the impossible takes a little longer. So I had that in the back of my mind really, but actually, most things you just have to get done.
So I think for the industry I would advise…
Good manners are really important, and by that, I mean being on time for people, don’t keep people waiting, unless you know. Now we have the mobile phone, you can always ring ahead and say I’m sorry I don’t know what happened I will be 10 mins. And that doesn’t matter whether you are saying it to the client or to the painter who is waiting for you. So I think that’s very important because you are just being decent and making somebody else’s life easier.
Get to Know Your Client
I think that you want to find out as much as you can what your client wants. Talk to them, ask what are your favorite colors, how do you like to live, how do you like to hang your clothes, when a friend arrives how do you like to offer them a drink, all the things you need to know to make a house successful. Your house is your home, you don’t want to live in just a showhouse. It’s got to work. And it’s much more fun when the whole house isn’t self-conscious.
If Something Goes Wrong, Address It
If something is going wrong you need to address it, it’s not going to go away by ignoring it. So I think that is particularly important in our world where people let you down all the time. You need to somehow address it, and let that poor client know something is not going to arrive when they wanted it to.
And If You Have Kids…
And in my life, what made my life very easy, I had three children and I worked very hard all the time, but I did have the most wonderful person in my life, our nanny who looked after my children from birth to whenever they left, and who is still around, it meant that I never had a moments worry about our children. If you can take that anxiety off your shoulder you are incredibly lucky. I realize how incredibly spoiled I was.
Lh: Do you have any mottos? Business, personal, design or perhaps something else?
Keep your head. And make people feel at ease and comfortable and that you care, I think that gets you a long way.
Lh: The design industry has changed a lot since you first began, do you have any thoughts about what the future of the industry looks like? Any specific advice for those entering the industry today?
Nina Campbell: Be very careful of that thing you have just seen that looks marvelous and somehow costs nothing and looks exactly like the one somebody told you is twice the price. There is a reason why the other one is twice the price. And I think one has to make an educated decision about whether you want to go for the cheap copy or the original. Because how long do you want it to last? It’s as simple as that. There is something lovely about really honing something that has been in one place and now suddenly you put it against a new color in another room, and I think if everything is disposable its rather a shame.
Lh: What do you see as the future of Nina Campbell?
Nina Campbell: I hope that I have been an inspiration. I hope that the fabric will live on. And I am planning to carry on myself for a long time. [laughing]
I would like to do lighting, I think I would get rather carried away doing some lighting design.
I am embarking quite soon on a new tabletop collection for 2020. Tabletop is one of my favorite things because I can’t really cook very well so if I blind people by the way I lay the table they might not notice the food. [laughing] Well then I can get the food delivered… There was an article in London a few years ago, all about delicatessens and who bought from this one and that one, and my name appeared on about 80% of their list. My secret was out to everyone. [laughing] Actually, I was quite proud. [laughing]
Lh: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Nina Campbell: I feel very lucky that this is my choice of profession because you can really just go on being inspired all the time, you just keep your eyes open. The last fabric collection I made I had found a document somewhere, then went to an art gallery called Piano Nobile in London and there was an exhibition of Duncan Grant. All the colors and the lightness and the whole different feel blew me away. You never know when your inspiration is going to come from.
Also, it is really nice to have the balance of the design services, product, and shop. If I get stuck in one bit I can go to another… A full rounded life.
Interview and Intro By Anna Beck Bimba
All Photos Courtesy of Nina Campbell