‘I realise all these owners have or had money, but then I like Picasso’s line: “I want to live like a poor man, but with money.”’
Due to the seeming perfection of William Smalley’s work, it is perhaps surprising that the interiors that the London-based architect likes best are not the ones which are outwardly perfect but those which most reflect their owners. ‘You can tell nice people from their spaces and objects.’ From his possessions – a pink Muller Van Severen chair, a fórcola (a Venetian gondola oarlock) or the brass Carl Auböck egg paperweight that sits on the grand piano in his Lamb‘s Conduit Street home – one might deduce the following about Smalley: a gentleness, a delight in craft, and an unexpected eye for colour given the monkish air.
The landscape architect Kim Wilkie, whose St James’s apartment Smalley reconfigured, describes Smalley’s work as having the beautiful clarity and precision of a crisp morning, while renowned architect and interior designer Ben Pentreath has written about his distinctive language – one which rests somewhere between a profound reverence for tradition and the uncompromising eye of minimalism. Possibly, he concludes, it is best summed up as private. Certainly, gushy hyperbole are not part of Smalley’s vernacular.
‘I like anything that is plain and stripped back,’ he says. ‘Architecture is my way into everything, I dream in buildings’ – something he has been doing since he was a boy when he was skipping games lessons to sit inside and draw. Smalley’s grandfather was a mathematician who taught Alan Turing at Cambridge and his mother was a computer programmer in the 1960s. His parents were never going to let him become a solicitor or a banker but, in any case, the architectural die was already cast.
His first client was Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian whose weekend cottage he remodelled in the Cotswolds. More recently, he completed the Monocle’s editor’s London house and a London townhouse, known as Disco House, which appeared in Wallpaper* with its mid-century feel and play on materials. His projects – he works on 10 to 12 at any one time – are as varied as an ancient English country house, a modernist house on Ham Common, an apartment in Manhattan and a chateau in the French Alps (he took the roof off to install a 2,500sq ft party floor).
He likes to be involved in every stage of the process from start to finish and can’t imagine handing over to an interior decorator, which explains why House & Garden included him in their recent top 100 interior decorators list. While some interiors are conceived with a magazine cover in mind, Smalley’s spaces seek to answer humbler questions: what is the best place to read a book, to listen to music or to have dinner with friends?
text: Carolyn Asome