Known for her sultry persona on TV series Superior Interior, Kelly Hoppen opts for understated chic for her interior designs.
Kelly Hoppen made her fortune creating homes for yacht-owning Russians, Asian tycoons and celebrities such as the Beckhams, so she’s the last person you’d expect to believe that the rich are ruining London.
“I’m getting political here,” she says, “but if you buy a property and don’t live in it, those are the people who should be taxed. For people actually living here, we’ve got enough bloody taxes, thank you very much. Where you have an economy where the gap gets bigger and bigger between rich and poor, you have a big problem,” she says.
The bookshelf looks almost like an art piece.
In the offices of her Notting Hill design company, her staff are working on 40 different projects across the world. Up in her studio, where she creates, are samples of tile and paint in the infinite palette of beige for which she is famous.
East-meets-West is the Kelly’s vibe, an aesthetic that has filtered down from a banker’s minimalist redoubt to Zen bowls of pebbles in high-street nail bars.
kelly has a diffusion line, too, which sells mid-price candles, bedspreads, buttoned cushions and “home jewellery” – nick-nacks to you and me – but her main business has always been high-end.
Her first client was a Grand Prix driver, her first office in Lots Road, Chelsea.
Kelly knows the rich; indeed she is rich. Although last year when she joined Dragons’ Den there was a debate whether with profits of just £160,000 over the past two years she was rich enough to sit alongside the hugely wealthy Peter Jones and Duncan Bannatyne. As a sole trader, Kelly responds, she doesn’t have to disclose her finances.
Anyway, here she is, the Empress of Ecru, a bijou form in jeans ripped at the knees and a tangle of Chanel beads, her strawberry-blonde curls almost to her waist. “I can talk for Africa,” she says, and indeed Kelly has the same passion and total immersion I’ve found in artists or fashion designers. This is not a job, it is who she is.
Every time she enters a room, her eyes scan it involuntarily for misalignment of objects. “My brain goes du-du-du-du-du — like that, and it knows where something is off line or where I would move it. It’s not like I would walk in and go, ‘Oh, I’m not sitting here unless you shift that sofa.’ But if somebody says to me — which often they do — ‘Would you change anything?’ I will move something a fraction and they’ll go, ‘Oh, my God.’” Does an ill-positioned lamp niggle her all night? She laughs: “One voddy and [she claps her hands] it’s off.”
A severe dyslexic who struggled at school, she needs to spellcheck every e-mail, can’t read a graph or copy a name from a business card. But she can commit a sheaf of 20 images to memory in seconds. “I have just spent two days with the client and I have already designed the house in my head. I could close my eyes and move a piece of furniture.”
Like other driven, clever dyslexics such as Jamie Oliver, she thrived in business because money doesn’t care if you can’t pass exams. Hoppen was born into a wealthy South African family (her Irish father was in the fashion industry, her Jewish mother in decorative arts) who settled in London when she was two. After her parents’ divorce, she lived with her father, who died when she was 16, the most profound shock of her life. She immediately left school and, with a bundle of samples plus her excellent social contacts, set up shop.
The fearlessness of youth, she says, propelled her. It was what she admires in the young Dragons’ Den entrepreneurs she has invested in, including 20-year-old Oliver Murphy, whose Reviveaphone packs for mending mobiles dropped in water was rejected by the other dragons. “I just loved him. To have that confidence but also humility is fantastic. It’s like he knows he’s going to be successful — and he will be.”
Kelly had the same lack of self-doubt. As a child, she’d ask her mother to take her around show houses, was fascinated by “befores” and “afters”, always moving furniture and tidying up. Her greatest joy was her grandmother’s house in Constantia, outside Cape Town, with its comfortable chairs, beautiful objects each with its own story and lovely china.
“Creating a home has always been my mantra,” she says. “What it looks like is second: the first is how you feel when you walk in.” Her much copied and occasionally mocked “50 shades of beige” aesthetic is to create a neutral background for colourful art and objects: people grow quickly bored with colour, she believes. But I note that her office has a dark red wall.
“That’s only because my feng shui master made me do it,” she says, her New Age spiel mixing oddly with her granite business mind. She uses a shamanic energy consultant in the studio once a year who places crystals about the offices. “I don’t understand it well enough — but all I know is that it works.”
Kelly vibrates with energy. Ideas and views tumble out; I bet she is excellent company at dinner. She rises at 6am, works out with her personal trainer (she even takes him up to Manchester when filming Dragons’ Den). She is blithe about being 54: menopause “is a piece of cake” and she is more content than she’s ever been.
Dragons’ Den is exhausting, she says, with seven pitches a day of up to 90 minutes each. In between set-ups, the dragons toil on their laptops and eat dinner together every night. She already knew Jones and Bannatyne but had never met Deborah Meaden. They hit off right away. Has Hoppen visited any dragons’ houses? “No, but I’ve seen pictures of Deborah’s and it looks very nice.”
Kelly designed the Beckhams’ LA house, but won’t say whether (as is reported) she’s working on their new London home. Discretion is key when you work for the rich. Is she ever appalled by a client’s style?
“Money doesn’t buy you taste,” she says and adds for emphasis: “Underline that. In fact it can do the opposite. And that’s why I have the job I have,” she says.
Vulgar wealth seems to appal her. She talks of pre-Crash London, of overleveraged billionaires refurbishing their houses every year. “Now it’s ‘We’ve got a great home — how can we make a few changes?’ It isn’t just rip it out and start again. And I’m hoping we don’t get back to that point where there’s this utter greed, of just wanting for the sake of wanting.”
The parquet flooring adds warmth to the living room and augments the modern urban palette.
The property boom is fuelled by the rich hovering up Central London, she says. “A lot of buildings in this country are bought by people from Saudi Arabia that just sit there empty.” This is not just making it impossible for the young to buy — “when I see a two-bedroom house in Queens Park (West London) costs £600,000, I feel sick” — but pushing up rents beyond the purse of small businesses. “We need to protect our cities more. I was in Paris three days ago, so beautiful. All the little streets and tiny shops. But we’re ruining ours. Kings Road is a disaster today,” she quips.
Kelly is working on her own new London home, a 7,500sq ft space which won’t be ready for a year, and “it’s a dream”. I wonder what house rules she imposes? Is it shoes off by the door? “I don’t like being told to take my shoes off when I arrive somewhere because I think, ‘I want to wear high heels,’ or, ‘It’s part of what I’m wearing.’ In Asia — where I work a lot — you build something to put people’s shoes in and you are given slippers. So people here should just have a bloody doormat. Just get real.”
Layers of sophistication and luxury set the family apartment at Barkli Virgin House in Russia a class apart.
Kelly now lives with businessman John Gardiner — “the man of my dreams” — who fortunately is as tidy as her.
“People say: ‘Your home is always immaculate.’ Well, that’s because I have staff that keep it that way. But when I am living in it I’m not walking around puffing cushions, you know,” she says.