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An 18th-century bed

An exuberantly awkward 18th-century bedroom

The designer Ashley Hicks on why he loves the state bed at Kedleston

The designer Ashley Hicks on why he loves the state bed at Kedleston

June/July 2018

I don’t like things looking too perfect. Maybe that’s a reaction to my father, David Hicks, who was also an interior designer and whose work was all about order. Whether he was decorating houses for Vidal Sassoon, Mrs Condé Nast or making the carpets for Windsor Castle, he wanted his designs to leave you feeling that they had to be that way. I’m more interested in playful mystery, in making people ask why something is the way it is. That’s what this bed at Kedleston Hall in the north 0f England does.

Like many grand 18th-century houses in England, Kedleston had a suite of state apartments. The family lived in the side wings, where guests stayed too. The state rooms were there to show how rich you were. Kedleston’s luxurious four-poster bed was never intended to be slept in: it was simply meant to scream magnificence.

Ashley Hicks is a British interior designer and architect. He was talking to Jill Krasny

The design was adapted from the room’s mirror, which features uprooted palm trees on the frame. That was made in about 1740 and the bed came 25 years later. It is carved out of cedar imported from Lebanon, the same wood that, according to the Bible, King Hiram of Tyre sent King Solomon to build his temple in Jerusalem. The decoration is symbolic too. The carvings of rococo palm trees on the bedframe evokes the palms of victory awarded in ancient Rome for sporting prowess. The bed is crowned with ostrich feathers, which appear in medieval heraldry; like the cedar, they were rare and expensive.

Though we can decode the extravagant mish-mash of the bed’s symbolism, we do not know for certain who made it. The most likely candidate is James Gravenor, who created many of the fittings for Kedleston. The National Trust, which now owns the house, says it was designed by Robert Adam, the neoclassical architect responsible for most of the building. Yet many scholars reckon he would have been horrified to have this item ascribed to him. Though the palm-tree decoration is part of a symmetrical design, the wild, windswept fronds and other rococo flourishes clash with the rigorous classicism of Adam’s aesthetic, and with the design of the fabric on the walls, where the pattern is more formal.

The clash of designs means that the bed is fighting with the rest of the room. The result is a kind of exuberant awkwardness, which is the feeling I often try to engender in my own work. In 2017 I was one of several designers asked to contribute to an exhibition in Milan’s Casa degli Atellani during the city’s annual design fair, Salone del Mobile. The 15th-century house where Leonardo da Vinci lived while he painted the “Last Supper” is full of coats of arms, oriental rugs and dark wood panelling. In it I displayed a set of my totem sculptures, small decorative stacks of colourful, abstract shapes in painted clay, resin and gilt bronze. They looked gloriously out of place on the grand stone mantelpiece. But they added a touch of humour to the room, a note of imperfection that made it feel more relaxed.