John Minshaw leads the field in classically informed interiors that successfully combine a pared-down contemporary aesthetic with traditional architecture
Ask for an accomplished expert in elegant restraint and the answer would surely be John Minshaw. Known for the pared down, classical simplicity of his interiors, flamboyance is about as far from his design vocabulary as chalk is to cheese. ‘We are fairly bones-y as a practice,’ says Minshaw. ‘We like to get the structure of a building right first.’ It is only when those bones are bared and made absolutely right, complete with state-of-the-art services in place, that he will move on to thinking about the interior furnishings.
His architectural and interior design practice specialises in private residential work. ‘I hardly ever do commercial because there are just too many suits in the way,’ he says, ‘and it is much nicer to build a rapport with one person.’ His projects are almost invariably listed houses, although they span different periods, from Georgian to Arts and Crafts, and they tend to be located in London and the south east, although he does undertake occasional projects across Europe. In its 30-year history, the practice has built up a singular reputation for its ability to design contemporary interiors that are in harmony with their period settings.
Now 67, Minshaw attributes much of his success to his ability to draw. ‘I spent a lot of my childhood in hospital so I drew a lot,’ he says. ‘And I was dyslexic so drawing was really the only way I could communicate.’ With a bulging portfolio of drawings and the encouragement of his art teacher, Minshaw applied to Camberwell Art School. He was accepted at the age of just 15 and describes his study there as a life-changing experience. Minshaw was taught by the distinguished painters Euan Uglow, Robert Medley and Frank Auerbach and chose to specialise in ceramics in his second year, under studio potters Lucy Rie and Hans Coper.
It was an art training like no other. ‘Drawing is fundamentally still the best thing I have,’ he says. ‘It helps me visualise rooms three dimensionally.’ (And it is also why clients receive concept drawings in pen, why most of his interiors feature carefully chosen paintings and why the subtle use of light and shade — of which more later — has become something of a trademark.)
Minshaw was only 23 when he turned his hand to making furniture and subsequently to interior design. Today, John Minshaw Designs has a staff of six. ‘We’ve resisted getting larger because we only take on one and a half big projects a year and we’re such control freaks,’ he laughs. ‘We run everything — in essence we’re a one-stop shop — and we always take on an entire house.’ From planning and listed building consent to space planning to furnishing, it is a complete professional service of which Minshaw is proud. ‘As a practice, we are very architectural. We’re not cushion-plumpers.’
Minshaw favours balance, symmetry and proportion in his interiors, which he describes as ‘contemporary and quite sharp’. And don’t expect slavish adherence to a particular period or style: antiques from perhaps 1850 as well as 1950 may be mixed with the most modern of materials. ‘I like to blur the distinctions between old and new. If we are doing our job properly, things should look as if they’ve always been there,’ Minshaw says.
‘A huge part of what we do is opening up houses,’ he explains. In a recent project, he transformed a nine-bedroom warren into a home with four very spacious bedrooms and, in another, he created a totally new and much more open layout behind an original Georgian exterior. ‘Nine times out of 10, we just keep the façade and everything behind it is new,’ he says. The newly enlarged scale informs much of the design, so cornices, mouldings and floorboards need to be over-sized. ‘If you use small mouldings or narrow boards in a large room, they just disappear.’
The look may be eclectic but there is still a John Minshaw signature aesthetic. Key items he uses include very good antiques (or bespoke furniture made to his design if he can’t find the right antique), paintings, comfortable sofas and classically inspired lamps, while doors will often be floor-to-ceiling and staircases floating off the wall. Kitchens tend to be slick and bathrooms very clean lined. He favours hard-edged materials, including steel, glass and stone, especially in kitchens, while he will introduce a softer feel to drawing rooms. ‘We don’t use a lot of pattern — I find it almost like camouflage which blurs the edges — and instead use a lot of texture.’ Minshaw might use four different textures of the same grey-white, for example, in polished plaster, gloss and matt paints and linen. ‘The light reflects off different textures in interesting ways,’ he says. ‘I do tend to let light do the work: it’s my art-school training. Shadow informs you of shapes.’ His use of colour is restrained — Farrow & Ball’s Strong White is a favourite — and only an occasional block of another colour interrupts the flow. ‘I find that more dramatic than colouring a whole room,’ he explains.
Antiques are clearly a passion (‘I love the objects that pass through my hands,’ he says), as is Egypt, the source of much of his inspiration and a place he loves to draw. Minshaw has a dislike of quick fashion fixes, saying: ‘I can’t bear trendy, whizz-bang things that look dated after six months.’ Ultimately, it is his love of classical proportions and design that informs all his work. ‘That’s our language,’ he says simply.
This article was first published in idfx Magazine.