The South African-born, west London-dwelling interior designer, Justin Van Breda, cut his teeth working for the legendary Nicky Haslam. He lets Nancy Alsop into his world of interiors
You have a degree in English and Politics. How did it come about that you entered the world of interior design?
I had decided that I wanted to go on to study architecture, so I began putting together a portfolio. Within the first month, it was just obvious to me that that was the world I wanted to work in. I have always been creative and spatially orientated, so my sense of style actually became established quite early on in life.
Once you had decided that this was what you wanted to do with your life, how did you set the wheels in motion?
I applied for and got into the Design Time School of Interior Design in Cape Town, where I grew up. It was the most wonderful college – I completed the High Diploma two-year course and then got straight on a plane to London.
You then got a job with the legendary Nicholas Haslam in the 1990s. What was that experience like?
I worked for Nicholas Haslam from 1999 until 2002, and it was the most amazing experience, almost like studying on a post-grad course. He is a genius in the way that he works and designs and he’s inspired a whole generation of leading aesthetes today, of which I hope I am one. He is also very generous with his knowledge, so it was a wonderful learning experience.
You rose very quickly through the company to become his creative director. How did it feel to so quickly hold this exalted position at such a well-established brand?
At the time, it did not feel exalted – it simply felt like a progression of the way that the work developed. But I remember being incredibly proud of the work we did; I really was his right-hand man.
What then prompted you to go it alone?
I left working for Nicky to return home to South Africa to spend some time with an ill relative. During that time, I began putting together a showcase of the very best of South African manufacturing to sell in London. I needed the connection with home if I was going to return to the UK.
You have long based yourself in west London. What is it about this pocket of town that really speaks to you?
West London is a fantastic place to live for so many reasons. I have always coveted my street, which has a distinctly villagey feel. The row of houses I live on are all wonderful family homes; everyone knows their neighbours; and there is a very strong sense of community. I am also incredibly lucky to live so close to two wonderful parks. And finally, living west makes it very easy to get out to the West Country, where we also have a home.
Your work – both the furniture you create and the interior design side – seem to veer towards the classical, but always with a contemporary twist. How would you describe your style?
I am evolving constantly as a designer. My work is becoming more informed and probably more traditional, but I still like to add quirky new world elements. While not slavishly traditional nor purist, I find the proportions and stylised nature of Britain’s early 20th-century hugely inspiring.
What current projects are you most excited about?
I am, of course, very excited about some of the houses we are working on; it’s wonderful to have such loyal clients. I think this year I am most excited about our English Home Furniture Collection and our first ever fabric collection, which was recently reviewed as echoing historic documents with a new design edge. Our Curate collection launches in May and is a very exciting decorative accessories collection – it reflects a collaboration with some fantastic artists.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
There have been a lot of proud moments, but launching last year in the USA was a defining moment for me.
Is there any such thing as a ‘typical’ Justin Van Breda client?
Our interior design clients vary so much and come from all walks of life. We could be dealing with a bachelor, or a family, or an older couple – often all at the same time. The one criteria is that we always get along and we treat one another with respect and dignity.
Do you gave any interior design pet hates?
I have just completed what I thought was one of my pet hates in a project and it worked out fantastically, so that teaches me not to be judgmental!
Who are your design heroes?
Undoubtedly Nicky Haslam. The architect Robert Adam is a huge inspiration, with James Wyatt a close second. I will always love William Morris. With the advent of social media, I am inspired daily by my contemporaries, which is incredibly exciting.
If you could issue three golden rules when it comes to decorating at home, what would they be?
1. Listen to your instincts when choosing your colour scheme. Ultimately it is you who will live with the end result, not your decorator.
2. Create the optimal space for how you and your family actually lives, not how you want them to live! Be honest with yourself when making plans.
3. Work with a design if you are able to. You do not do your own legal or dental work!