Interview with David Mlinaric

Interested in historic buildings and their interiors from an early age, David Mlinaric studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. He established his own company in 1961, now the international interior design practice Mlinaric, Henry and Zervudachi.  Recent clients include the Royal Opera House, London, historic houses and national museums including consultancy on the British Galleries and new Sculpture Court at the V&A.

See below for a transcript of an interview recorded with David Mlinaric in February 2006.

London in the 1950s

London was wounded. I remember very, very well the look of buildings that had been bombed and half buildings with black tarred paper on the sides of them.

Once my mother took us to Claridges in desperation, round the corner from where my father's business was, because she thought it would be open, and it wasn't.  At ten-thirty, the chairs were already on the tables, which is an extraordinary fact when you think about what then happened, and very quickly, in the Sixties.

England wasn't rich after the Second World War and it didn't recover for a long time. People tended to buy things from the place where they had always bought them, they wanted the continuity. I think England imposed conventions on people, that was one of the things we were trying to get free of really.  It was very, very conventional, very hierarchic, and to young people, pretty dull, quite frankly.

Student life

I think the whole Sixties idea, the blossoming or whatever we call it, actually started in the art schools. People's appearances, at the Slade especially, next door to the Bartlett where I was, were very different from what other people in London looked like at that time. Some of them just very scruffy, but some of them looked completely wonderful. I remember there was one girl, who looked like Leslie Caron and she had a white dress in the summer, which she probably had made herself, and white stockings, and I had never seen a completely white silhouette before on a girl. And there was a thing called a hen basket, which was shaped like a nest, and girls used to put them on their elbow. That was a huge break because everybody else used to have a handbag. I always quite liked being smart, tidy and clean and trim. I never went into the direction of everything being quite slack and grungy as it's now called.

Window displays at Bazaar

I remember the typeface and the big plate glass window and the fact there were just two dresses, and you saw straight into the shop. There might have been a screen or something, but it wasn't like a normal window display. It wasn't eighteen dresses with lipstick and pretend wigs on, it was a different look altogether. Of course it was terrific. 

Menswear

At the start of the 1960s here was an incredible tailors called Billings and Edmonds in Hanover Square, where Mr Green was the first person who made my suits, with really tight trousers and odd detailing in the cut of the jacket, and I fussed about the size of lapels and coloured linings.  I remember going to Turnbull and Asser and having a very bright pink shirt made, and then being asked to leave the Cavalry Club for wearing it. This happened again about 1966-67. I was wearing a white suit  made by Blades (now in the V&As collection) and I was asked to leave Annabel's Nightclub for having a white suit on.

Blades

In about 1966 I did the interior design for Blades, in Burlington Gardens. We stripped out, as I nearly always do, everything that had been put in since the original building date, and we put practically nothing back in. We simply mended things and lit from a low level. They sold hats as well as suits and we got some heads like you put on mannequins, stuck newspaper on them and hung them up on the wall, about twenty of them, and that's what you saw when you came in.  All the clothes were just on hangers on rails. It's not unconventional now but then things would usually be in display cases. The shop had a front door and a staircase and was quite like a house really, it was quite club-like.

Ossie Clark

I remember Ossie's attitude to work was very interesting because he was very unpushy about his gift, almost to the extent that one longed to say to somebody, 'Just do look, because he is really, really gifted.' If people came from American Vogue to talk to him he would be … not exactly offhand, but not in any way pushing himself forward.  It was actually rather wonderful. None of us wanted to be assertive ... that all came later, that sort of thing.

Pauline Fordham

Pauline Fordham of Palisades had incredibly beautiful things, but didn't last very long. She was a colourful character. The journalist Erica Crome used to refer to that kind of thing as fancy dress, and she used to refer to us as fancy dress too.

Hung on You and Granny Takes a Trip

Hung on You and Granny Takes a Trip were run by friends of mine. They were very low budget, at that time lots of things were . What one had to do was just create a mood, create character. Granny Takes a Trip was done in this way by Nigel Waymouth, painting  his own things all over the windows. Hung on You was the same. It was just Michael Rainey's colour sense and his choosing this pot of paint rather than that and putting it up. But nobody had the money to change the shell of the building. If there was a hideous staircase going down to the downstairs showroom it stayed, and each banister was painted a different colour.

Michael Rainey's relationship with his cutter was pretty much the same as my relationship with Mr Green. His turned into a profession, but it was very much the gifted non-professional becoming professional with the help of skilled cutters. His imagination was strong. He was very well dressed, very well put together, extremely handsome, very tall and like everybody, very skinny. You couldn't imagine him ever wearing anything that wasn't in its own way very elegant. It just didn't happen.

Clothes and trends

I remember going down to the end of the King's Road at Worlds End where you could get jeans. All the stuff was out on the pavement like a greengrocers, rows and rows and rows of Levis. And from that day until today I have always had Levis for day to day life. It was usually either blue or black Levis and a black polo neck sweater for ordinary working days. Mr Fish had the most beautiful  light wool jerseys which you could wear in summer or winter.  Polo necked jerseys and a bright coloured jacket was another thing… Mr Green made me a suit of pin stripe cloth of the kind that City gents used to have the trousers made of, with a black jacket. It was quite gangsterish, quite Guys and Dolls. He also made me an aubergine coloured suit, about the same colour as my studio, with black velvet piping all round it... He was old school, but was thrilled to see something coming out that was different, as lots of people were.

Obviously there were occasions on buses when people shouted 'Get your hair cut!'

I used to go to girls' hairdressers. My hair was very long in those days. It was  Plantaganet length, and there was an awful lot of fuss made about that ... one went all the time to have it blow dried or whatever. We were very vain in our way, but it was such fun.

The end of the Sixties

I was walking down Victoria Street in a pair of bell-bottom sailors' trousers dyed yellow, and a polo necked jersey which was orange, and bright yellow canvas boots made by the Chelsea Cobbler… and I remember seeing on the Evening Standard news stand that the Six Day War had broken out... and thinking, the party is over… something has happened and our fun is going to stop.  And it did.

There was still quite a lot of mileage in what Erica Crome called fancy dress, you could say it went on all the way through until Punk really, when it was another kind of fancy dress. I think that those people who were punks were rather angry and it might be that they found us, who were playful, rather irritating.  But if I had been that age I would have been a punk too, because they looked so wonderful.

The Social Scene

Alvaro's Restaurant was a key place. I remember Jane Birkin, for example, as a very young girl coming in looking absolutely incredible, like a child really. Everybody looked much younger than they were supposed to.

Anita Pallenberg arrived in London with a suitcase of unbelievable clothes which she opened in the sitting room of a friend of mine's parents' flat , a very, very stylish girl called Jane Ormbsy Gore… and they got over excited about putting all the clothes on but they looked incredible.

Everybody was to some extent camera shy. Nobody really wanted to go over the top in being conspicuous. The magazines that were interested in exposing this new thing, like Vogue or Harpers Queen were fairly uncritical to begin with, not like nowadays where everybody wants to score points off somebody else. The current celebrity thing has a lot to do with making a lot of money and we didn't have that aspiration. You could go out to lunch for seven and sixpence, and if you got fifty pounds for a photo shoot in a German magazine… you would just go out to lunch. We never thought it was the target, to make a lot of money. 

The end of the King's Road

The King's Road was always my patch in a way. But everything became more popular and more conspicuous with more people coming to have a look. The King's Road on Saturdays became a sort of international market. More shops opened with less nice clothes and the little shops, the dairy and the greengrocer didn't survive because the rents went up. Commercialism spoiled it really.

Looking back on the Sixties

To be young and in London at that time was just the best possible set of circumstances that you could have. If you went to Paris they were still quite pompous and formal. In America it was all Andy Warhol and people. That was a bit extreme for my liking. But in London that time was thrilling. London was the best fun. I think it is still.

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