Interior designer Harriet Anstruther is part creative, part detective, uncovering the stories of a building before writing its new chapter for her clients. Her own home tells a story of beautiful craftsmanship, and the imperfections that build up over time / By Morag Bruce
Harriet Anstruther looked around her bedroom and had an epiphany. Everything was new - built-in furniture, hessian wallcoverings, patterned curtains - but it just didn't feel right. It wasn't how she wanted to live.
Anstruther was just four at the time, and standing in the bedroom her architect mother had designed. "Looking back, those are quite bolshy thoughts for a child," she says with a smile.
It was just the first hint of the instinct that has gone on to define her work as an interior designer. "What people want from their homes is a tangled web of needs, desires and dreams. My job is to help them decipher their vision, not impose mine. After all, I'm not going to live there." As obvious as that last statement seems, it reveals a refreshing lack of ego. "I'm very interested in the psychology of it. Working with a client needs to be a very intimate relationship. They're opening up to you in a way they perhaps don't to anyone else, revealing truths or ways of portraying themselves. It's not about me."
Getting to this point - running an award-winning multi-disciplinary architecture and interior design studio in London - has been a long journey, but always a creative one. "My mother is an architect and my father is a writer, so I'm definitely a product of my environment. My degree is in fine art, then I worked in fashion for 10 years, designing textiles," she says. "Kit Kemp asked me to create a collection of fabrics and wallpapers for the Covent Garden Hotel and after that I began to take on more interiors work, which felt right for my life. I was bringing up a child on my own and the 'London, New York, Paris' fashion lifestyle wasn't working. I went to Inchbald to train, then launched the studio."
We have a few clues from Harriet's reaction to that first bedroom what her taste probably isn't. How she handles the question all instinctively creative people dread - "how would you describe your style?" - reveals more. She is hesitant to rely on words like 'eclectic', although she definitely prefers a mix. "God forbid we all shared the same taste - it would be so dull. I love Scandinavian and French styles, but if you did your whole life like that, well, that's not you either is it?
"My style comes down to the individual story of each project and what its next chapter needs to be," she continues. "My first big project, for example, was a Tudor farmhouse in Surrey. I enjoy the challenge of working with constraints. With a listed property, you have to find a way to move it on or transform it within very tight parameters. I love that challenge.'
Her ever-present energy quietens and focuses as she describes investigating the history of a building. She wafts cigarette smoke, creating big circles in the air; eyes just as wide. "I get very caught up in the layers of a house. In its most basic terms, you have the DNA of all the previous occupants, human and animal, in the bricks and mortar. It's not some hippydippy, karmic thing; it's scientific fact. You're working with that just as much as you're working with the beams over your head." Flexibility is also important: "An interior design shouldn't dictate how you live," she says. "It doesn't matter if I say, 'Right, you're going to walk from this table to that chair every day, because that's how I've designed the room.' I need to find how a client naturally moves around a space."
As well as running the studio, Anstruther is a member of the V&A's development advisory board, a committee member and ambassador for the Royal Academy, and also consults for, among others, the Design Museum and Yohji Yamamoto. This discipline-hopping approach suits her and feeds back to her practice. "I consult with Yohji on areas outside fashion, but I'm so inspired by how he brings such an intellectual point of view to his clothes; they are more like artworks. I think Arik Levy is brilliant, too - his work is very cerebral, but it doesn't take itself too seriously. I admire people who bring all worlds into their work."
Anstruther lives close to the V&A with her husband, renowned photographer Henry Bourne, her daughter and two dogs. The building is a mid-19th-century townhouse that the couple returned to a single dwelling over a two-year period of renovation. The reception spaces are light and pared-back, highlighting the Georgian architecture. "These spaces are all about celebrating the things we love - books and art," she says. "It's our story."
As well as craftsmanship and detail, she finds beauty in imperfection. "People ask if we're having difficulty choosing a carpet for our stone stairs. But I would never cover them up. They're quite marked and you can see where they've been repaired. I love seeing the history in every step. There's a chapter about that in my book," she says. Ah yes: she is writing a book about her work, due out next year. "I wouldn't say it's a scrapbook, but it is about my process. While it has lots of photographs of my projects, there are music references, too. Music is one of my great loves. Nothing can stop me in my tracks quite like it." We don't imagine for long, though.