Carol O’Callaghan looks at the work of fashion designer turned interior designer Barbara Hulanicki.
Carol O’ Callaghan looks at the work of Biba founder and turned interior designer, Barbara Hulanicki who has designed hotel interiors and specialist wallpaper lines is now designing a range for Made.com
Biba: It’s a brand name which conjures up the fashion, style and patterns of the 1960s, a revolutionary brand making what was, initially, cheap, colourful and ever-shorter dress designs. It grew to be the iconic brand of the post-war generation, who had grown up in the aftermath of dreary clothing and rationing.
What’s probably a little less known is that the Biba shop, located in London’s Kensington, had a product offering which was not restricted to clothing, but included a bookshop, food market and a home interiors floor which sold things like wallpaper, paint, cutlery, soft furnishings and even an assortment of statues.
Its founder was Barbara Hulanicki, a Polish-born designer whose family emigrated to England in 1948, when she was just 12 years old. They family settled in Brighton where she later studied at what was then the Brighton School of Art. After graduating in 1954, she worked as a fashion illustrator for, amongst others, Vogue. Ironically, the current Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, on whom the main character in The Devil Wears Prada is believed to be based, was a Biba employee in the early days.
By the mid 1960s, Barbara had launched the Biba shop with the help of her late husband Stephen Fitz-Simon. It quickly became famous as a source of affordable clothing for fashion-conscious girls; for its Art Nouveau interior; its products, and as a celebrity hang-out for the likes of The Rolling Stones.
Ahead of her time, Barbara tapped into vintage furniture to kit the shop out. “Biba was always about clothes displayed in a home-decorated atmosphere,” she says. “The Art Nouveau furniture came from vintage markets.”
By 1975, however, the shop was in financial trouble, saved only by an intervention from investors. Shortly afterwards, Barbara left following what appears to have been a disagreement with the board of directors over creative control. A year later Biba closed its doors on what had evolved into a five-floor shop with a roof garden.
Now a Miami resident for the last 30 years, Barbara continues to work in fashion design, but has built a business which also focuses on interior design with a celebrity clientele, including Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, for whom she designs
hotels in Jamaica and The Bahamas.
“My first commission was Gloria Estefan’s home,” says Barbara, “when she was building her party house next to her home on Star Island in Miami Beach.”
Since then, she’s designed the Estefan recording studio and restaurants. But commissions have also come from home interior product specialists, including Habitat, which resulted in a range of wallpapers and textiles.
Then it was the turn of wallpaper specialist Graham & Brown, with more wallpaper designs and a series of illustrations. Disney Europe was next with a wallpaper featuring Maleficent and Diablo from the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty.
For TK Maxx and its sister shop, home interiors specialist HomeSense, it’s been textiles, while her latest collaboration is with online retailer Made.com and a brief which taps into personal favourites.
“It was cushions and rugs which I love designing and cannot live without,” she says. “It’s the Art Deco of today — patterns enlarged in scale. “I really hope there will be another collaboration with them as I love their outlook and modern taste.”
Now past typical retirement age, she’s been quoted as saying she intends outliving us all, and seems to have no end of commissions in the offing.
“I have a couple of secret projects in Miami,” she reveals. “A hotel I am working on in the Florida Keys, a private home on Di Lido Island, also, ballet shoes; t-shirt designs, and I will be styling for a few photographers.”
Ever practical, she says, when asked about her own, must-have home interiors item: “I love furniture on wheels, everything moves in a flash.” And for a must-have luxury item, she says: “It’s vintage stone floors and very high ceilings with windows looking at the street life and street energy.”
Maybe that’s a nostalgic echo of her first house purchase, an old property in London in need of work, as was her first home in Miami, which she says are easier for a designer to tackle, preferring what she sees as a great retro atmosphere and some style ghosts.
But she also says she can’t wait to move into an empty space, “.... and start again — and no clutter this time.”
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