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How superstar interior designer Katharine Pooley creates her magic

Katharine Pooley’s grounded principles and ability to interpret her clients’ dreams have placed her centre-stage as one of the world’s greatest designers

Katharine Pooley admits to feeling somewhat overwhelmed and humbled by the accolades she has attracted.  She’s been named Entrepreneur of the Year, International Designer of the Year, Asia and British Interior Designer of the Decade – quite an achievement for someone who only left working in finance to start her own business 18 years ago. And what a business it is – she has travelled to six countries in the last six weeks, installing a dozen projects. 

A glance at the scope of her portfolio explains why she’s one of Britain’s most sought-after designers. Jet lounges, superyachts, stately homes, beach houses, cottages, barn conversions, listed town-mansions, penthouses, apartments, retreats, villas, chalets, chateaux, palaces, castles – nothing seems beyond the capabilities of Katharine Pooley and her team of 49.

Logistically, 2021 presented a daunting challenge, which many designers would have balked at. “We took on 30 new projects,” she says. “Large properties in Sardinia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, a palatial villa in Malta, a castle in Majorca, a stunning chateau 70 feet above the Mediterranean overlooking the Bay of Cannes, a residence above Discovery Bay in Hong Kong, and more. Because I never, ever compromise on quality, we often import absolutely everything to ensure the quality, difference and uniqueness that people rely on us for, but Covid made this so difficult.”

I don’t believe in No – I will always find a way and I train my team never to give up. Our clients come to us because we can cope on a global level. We get things done.”

Katharine Pooley

At one point, about to install a beautiful chalet in Zermatt, she had four lorries at the border when Switzerland locked down, imposing a 10-day quarantine. Pooley managed to swap drivers, find tests and complete the job. “I don’t believe in No,” she says. “I just crack on. I will always find a way and I train my team never to give up. Our clients come to us because we can cope on a global level. We get things done.”

A villa in Cape Town, with interior design by Katharine Pooley

Pooley owes her bullish can-do approach less to her tough background in finance than to her respect for nature. “When I worked for Morgan Stanley, my passion was mountain climbing,” she explains. “Climbing in Antarctica was one of the highlights of my life. We flew to Argentina, waited for a six-hour flight in a Russian Ilyushin 76 military plane without windows. That took us to a base camp, where we waited three weeks for the weather to change before going to the next camp.

When we finally started climbing the mountain, it was minus 55 degrees and we got caught in a terrible storm. There were four climbers in the group; one of them had had a cataract operation and took his glove off to rub his eye and got frost bite. I realised how small and insignificant we were amongst this vast expanse of ice and rock. Nature always seems so inherently powerful, but we now understand it’s terrifyingly fragile. I think of its breath-taking beauty often when designing for my clients.” 

Pooley’s deep respect for nature’s ferocity has had less of an influence on her design aesthetic as on her insistence that, if she was able to climb that mountain, no hurdle is too great to overcome. Explaining her aesthetic, she says: “Design is not about me. Some clients don’t know what they want, so my job is to understand their tastes, ideas and personal style and interpret those to create magic. What we do deliver is matchless, impeccable, hand-finished beauty every time.” 

Each client’s wishes are different and Pooley’s knack is responding intuitively and accurately to those so her style can never be pigeon-holed. Three recent properties, a palace, a mansion and a two-bedroom cottage are evidence of her versatility.

Pooley describes the interior of the Kuwaiti palace as “a bit like the Vatican, all deep, lush reds, greens and golds.” Every detail was handcrafted, from the coffer details and cornice details to air conditioning covers, panelling and woodwork. “The ceilings are exquisitely ornate and hung with gorgeous chandeliers. It’s simply spectacular.”

In Notting Hill, Pooley created ‘a home for life’ in an imposing, double-fronted Victorian house, extended to give three basements and seven storeys and comprising a spa, indoor pool, games room, gym, bar, library and garden as well as a grand drawing room, large entrance hall, sweeping staircase and marble-clad bathrooms. Pooley commissioned European ateliers, craftsmen and artisans for beautiful pieces and installed colourful contemporary art, rock crystal and alabaster chandeliers, and a classic Steinway to enhance the house’s character and elegant grandeur. 

Little Nut Cottage in the Lake District is an indication of Pooley’s democratic spirit and passion for beauty and transformation, regardless of scale. She turned this two-bedroom, semi-detached cottage into a tranquil haven with generous open-plan living space and a terraced garden enclosed by a pretty, wrought iron fence with a dining area and timber-clad hot-tub. There is a bespoke kitchen from Humphrey Munson and an oak-framed four poster bed with a charming headboard of ceramic flowers by a specialist artisan.

Despite her punishing workload, Pooley finds time for an extraordinary number of philanthropic projects, picking up another 2021 Community Award from Great British Brands for her work with Decorate a Child’s Life – doing up deprived children’s bedrooms.   “It’s a small but important way to change a life,” she says. “I’ve seen small children, six to a room without cupboards, beds or even a lightbulb, as their mother can’t afford the electricity. They’re too ashamed to take a friend home.” 

Pooley recently completed her seventh child’s bedroom this year, for a young girl living in very poor conditions. She couldn’t have sharp or edged surfaces as she was always likely to hurt herself. Responding to the child’s love of the galaxy and Peppa Pig, Pooley called on friends and suppliers – like Chrissie Rucker of The White Company to donate bedding, and Fromental for wallpaper.

“We transformed the room and then waited for her to come home. It was magical,” says Pooley. “Next year my plan is to create 47 bedrooms – Covid-allowing, of course).”

She serves on numerous other charities, including the British Forces Foundation (for whom she raised £265,000 at a ball this year), Lady Garden Foundation, United in Design and Al Johara.

What we offer is that subtle but irresistible balance of absolute comfort, environmental awareness, intelligent design, and unforgettable beauty.

Katharine Pooley

It’s no surprise to find Katharine’s favourite film of the moment is the documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible about Nepalese mountaineer’s Nimsdai Purja’s astonishing feats. “Giving up is not in the blood, sir,” he says at one moment in the film; and this could well be Katharine’s mantra. “I don’t tolerate not trying and I’m judgemental of people being lackadaisical,” Pooley agrees. “To me, only the absolute best – from how we answer the phone to how we respond to a problem – represents true service.”

Pooley’s impressive upward trajectory looks set to continue next year, with two new hotel projects in Mayfair and Asia, and another superyacht. “The hotel and superyacht world are ready for us,” says Pooley with cheerful certainty. “What we offer is that subtle but irresistible balance of absolute comfort, environmental awareness, intelligent design, and unforgettable beauty.”

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