Sloane arrangers — 40 years of decor and decorum

In your secret heart, do you absolutely know that the downstairs rooms in your house must say “warrior and landowner”? Do you feel that furniture must always look old and be made of wood? What do these convictions tell the world about you?

Forty years ago, Ann Barr and I wrote The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, a guide to the styles and stances of a particular subset of the British upper-middle classes — the “typical Brit” kind that the world would recognise by their dress codes and speech-patterns. We named them after Sloane Square in Chelsea, the centre of their London shopping and restaurant world.

At the time, we were pretty sure of their priorities in interior design (though they called it “interior decoration” then — they thought “design” made it sound pretentious). So sure that we set it out in 20 rules. Indeed, the rules seemed so widely observed then that all consenting Sloanised houses looked practically the same, however they’d started in life — as real manor houses or done-up Fulham terraces.

The SRH was an international bestseller (according to The Sunday Times, it was the biggest-selling UK trade book of the decade) and it provoked lots of coverage — most notably about those dress codes and speech patterns. But no serious pushback about the golden rules for interiors. So we felt we’d got that right.

What’s changed 40 years on? Is Sloane taste perennial, a hidden enclave defying fashion, or has it gone the way of everything else in the Instagram age? After all, the world the Sloanes inhabited then has changed utterly.

The first Sloane book was pre-Big Bang (1986), pre-Cool Britannia (1996); well pre the financial crisis of 2008, and pre the arrival into the Sloane part of London of rich Russian and other international homebuyers (from the 1990s on). Since then, house prices have ballooned; school fees have
ballooned too. Above all, it was pre-internet and globalisation.

Peter York’s best-selling 1982 book took a wry look at Sloane Rangers © Steve Ullathorne 

Until the 1980s, the entire Sloane culture had been well under the radar of mass media. It was a secret garden of established upper-middle-class conformity, homogeneous, discreet and decidedly trad, toff-loving, dog and horse-worshipping. Rus in urbe perfectly described SRs in London, with their green Barbours and Puffa jackets.

The emergence of Diana Spencer in 1981 caused a storm of media interest in her clothes (velvet knee breeches, piecrust collars), her attitudes and her language — in fact, in everything about her. Ann Barr and I had first documented the Sloanes’ secret world a few years earlier in Harpers & Queen magazine, and we knew then that Diana’s style was pure Sloane — and there was lots more where that came from. Time, we thought, for a book.

There seemed to be a growing interest in aspirational interior decoration. Interiors magazine (now The World of Interiors) had been launched in 1981 with the slogan “where the other half live”. And TV coverage of interiors was moving from the practicalities of DIY with Barry Bucknell to themes and looks. So the Sloane at Home warranted a chapter to itself.

I’ve been asking interiors commentators and practitioners what’s changed over the decades. I live in Pimlico, conveniently near the Pimlico Road, London’s ur-centre for expensive housey-housey shops, inspired antique dealers-cum-interior designers and people with their own fabric brands. People such as Robert Kime, who did Highgrove for the Prince of Wales, and then went on to do up Clarence House when the PoW moved in there. Or Rose Uniacke, who did the Beckhams’ evolved Holland Park house.

I heard about what sounded like huge changes. But only after most of my informants had acknowledged that the tastes of older country Sloanes, settled by 1982, had hardly shifted: a few new curtains here and there and a kitchen refit was about the size of it. Even after an empty-nest downsizing they’d attempt to reproduce the comfortable look of the Old Rectory in a cottage.

For the younger, richer and more urban successors to the Sloanes, interiors seem to have changed fundamentally — at least at first glance. In Fulham and Battersea, and in the newer London places of Sloane settlement spreading out from Notting Hill, interior design is much more fashion-driven now. Thanks first to TV shows and magazines and retailers of all kinds with ever-larger budgets, then to an ever-expanding pool of online commentators (or ‘influencers”), people interested in interior design have been flooded with masses more information. And more pictures. Sloanes included.

And everyday Sloane life has changed over the past 40 years. In the UK, the daughters and granddaughters of the original Sloane mums expect to go to university. Diana, Princess of Wales, said she was “as thick as a plank”. Now Sloane dads boast about their daughters’ MBAs and PhDs. And better-educated young women are inclined to see their mothers’ shining mahogany dining tables and silver pheasant ornaments as, well, a bit archaic.

Younger Sloanes are also more likely to feel uncomfortable about the tokens of class membership — the Cambridge photographs, the pony club, the hunt stuff — that their parents loved to put centre stage. And to be more sensitive when it comes to colonial references — the great-grandfathers photographed with smiling native bearers somewhere in The Empire have been left in their parents’ houses or hoicked up into the attic.

A 1980s living room by interior designer Nina Campbell
Chintz, swags and tokens of class membership: a 1980s living room by interior designer Nina Campbell © Christopher Simon Sykes/The Interior Archive

The London home of architect Ben Pentreath, one of those ‘who taught Sloanes how to relax and own the modern world in a Sloane-safe way’
The London home of architect Ben Pentreath, one of those ‘who taught Sloanes how to relax and own the modern world in a Sloane-safe way’ © Jason Ingram

Neither has Sloaniness been good for one’s career recently. Where once it helped in the job market, it hasn’t cut much ice with a new generation of international employers and colleagues. London Sloanes have tended to play it down to avoid being pigeonholed as backward-looking and unprofessional.

That meant a gradual relaxation and modernisation of those dress codes and speech patterns and, by the 21st century, a bit of the Soho House look started creeping in at home — the look of the international urban “creative class” seen in London, New York and LA.

Where they live has changed too. In the past 40 years, London Sloanes have lost out in the competition to live in the “nice” central postcodes they thought they owned. Even marginal Knightsbridge and Belgravia went to Russian oligarchs and Hong Kong panjandrums. “Heaven SW7” — South Kensington — was snapped up by rich young French couples in the 1990s.

This meant that younger Sloanes found themselves moving out to different places with very different neighbours. As new gentrifiers, they spent more on extensions, additional bathrooms and better kitchens. They were “adding value” to justify living somewhere their grannies had never heard
of. Shoring up their new status. So new things crept in. More fashionable, more expensive.

Thanks to a new group of millennial interiors influencers, faithful Sloanes have been eased into little experiments with, say, a bit of mild mid-century modern furniture here (wooden, though, not tubular metal) and a bit of safe Modern-British painting there (something pleasant, with an Ivon Hitchens-ish look — no funny stuff, nothing conceptual, and they’re still distinctly nervous about photography-as-art).

These newer designers, from early Cath Kidston to Rita Konig (daughter of the legendary decorator Nina Campbell) and architect Ben Pentreath, with his amusing blogs, taught Sloanes how to relax and own the modern world in a Sloane-safe way. You could hang on to a fair bit of the old stuff if you wanted to, it was all in the way you arranged things.

Kensington and Chelsea
London’s Kensington and Chelsea: Sloanes have been pushed out of ‘the “nice” central postcodes they thought they owned’ by Russian oligarchs and other global rich © Getty Images

You could nod to the 20th century here and there, you could be “playful”, close-hanging “serious” pictures with funny ones, and you could have patches (“pops”) of eyeball-searing colour. You could have Mum’s lovely chintzes hung in simpler ways. So long as things weren’t packed tight and didn’t come in over-symmetrical two by twos. And no massive swags and tails above the curtains.

But a minority of ambitious, richer London Sloanes went further: they’d heard that less was more and they’d brought in smart designers who spaced it all out like the recently done-up boutique hotels they’d been staying in. The result could be a little cold and steely. Nicky Haslam, that most social doyen of interior designers, hates this look.

“Everybody’s fallen for that hotel look,” Haslam says. He remembers a designer telling him: “We don’t like books downstairs” (except, apparently, oversized books about Chanel jewellery). “It’s that blandness I hate: those big, uncomfortable designer sofas.” 

Hatta Byng, editor of British House & Garden magazine, takes a different view. “There are fewer rules,” she says. “People are freer — the old styles were a bit unimaginative and boring. At the same time the whole traditional thing is on Instagram now; everyone is buying old-fashioned tat again. They just arrange it differently.” 

Giles Kime, the interiors editor of Country Life magazine, that most devotional of British rural guides, is equally upbeat. He thinks Sloanes’ interiors have moved on from wannabe manor house to something a bit more anonymised.

Twenty Golden Rules for a Sloane interior

© Christopher Simon Sykes/The Interior Archive

From The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, 1982

1. A Room Should Have One’s History In It

2. A House Should Be A Manor House

3. A House Must Be Suitable For Animals

4. Every Room Displays Your Tokens Of Membership

5. The Downstairs Rooms Must Say Warrior And Landowner

6. Furniture Must Look Old

7. A Room Should Have Objects From One’s Travels And Colonial Service

8. Show Silver — The Sloane Metal

9. Observe The Visible Floorboard Rule

10. There Should Be A China Cache-Pot Or Two

11. Upholstery And Fabric Are Timeless

12. Colours Should Be Sloane

13. A Dining Room Should Have Appurtenances For The Great Rituals of Life (such as claret and port-drinking and nut-cracking)

14. There Should Be Embroidery About

15. Cane And Bamboo Furniture Lightens Things Up

16. Walls Should Look Soft, Not ‘Architectural’

17. There Must Be A Fireplace

18. Symmetry Is Good Discipline

19. Ding-dong Doorbells Or Chimes Never Peal In A Sloane House

20. There Should Be Jolly Or Loveable Novelties You Have Fallen For

“People curate their interiors with a bit of Scandi mod[erne] and something they’ve seen in Soho House or 5 Hertford Street [the Mayfair Club],” he says. Anyway, he adds, “millennial Sloanes consider all these tokens of belonging very naff”. The Edwardian photographs and institutional scrolls belong to “try-hard country-house hotels of the 1990s”. 

But above all, as decorator Robert Kime says, “posh people live in humbler houses now”. So they have to make them look that bit smarter. But less formal: another big change is that a growing appreciation of food and “foodiness” has meant dedicated dining rooms have been largely abandoned — except on special occasions. Extended, modernised kitchens became show-off spaces.

Nick Coleridge, chair of the V&A museum and former overlord of Condé Nast Britain, publisher of House & Garden and The World of Interiors, thinks that working from home and Zoom have made the Instagram generation even more house-conscious.

But he thinks the young are playing a double game, just as they do with their clothes. “They arrive in the country in demotic jeans and trainers but by 7.30, in the safe space of the drawing room, they’ll be in velvet slippers and smoking jackets,” he says.

He thinks OKA, Annabel Astor’s smart Fulham Road shop, is safe interiors territory for young Sloanes. The interiors’ double life means being self-consciously cool in London places of New Sloane settlement such as, say, De Beauvoir Town (once a bolt-hole of leftist types) or Shepherd’s Bush, and then a lot more indulgent in the country when around like-minded friends. “They actually want your cast-off furniture” for their country place, he says.

When I first showed those 20 golden rules of 1982 to Pentreath, he told me they were “spot on for now”. “Everything is coming back,” he says. “The 1980s are alive and kicking. No one’s into contemporary architects. They like [notable neo-Georgian architect] Quinlan Terry and [doyens of British Grand Manner interiors] Colefax and Fowler.” He emailed me in capital letters:

“THEY ARE STILL ENTIRELY RELEVANT — LITERALLY NOT ONE RULE NEEDS TO CHANGE.” 

But over the past 40 years it is clear that much has changed. Across the world, local elites — like Sloane Rangers — have lost out to international ones; super-rich world citizens. Sloanes in their turn have responded; they’ve tried to adapt their style, to recognise a bigger world and lug bits of it into their sitting rooms (their parents called them drawing rooms). And they’ve learnt to edit, to play down some of those old stylistic messages in favour of newer ones.

Take that crucial “warrior and landowner” rule. Both identities have difficult baggage. Fewer Sloanes go into the forces now. As for landowner, it sounds privileged in an era when we’ve all signed up to the idea of meritocracy. So they’re more iffy about broadcasting it the moment you open the door in 2022. These days, it’s more like narrowcasting in Sloane safe-spaces: a quiet word in the right ears.

I was never a true believer in those 20 rules of interior design. Or in the more general idea that Sloanes could save the world so they ought to be allowed to run it forever. Though I loved working on the big ideas and the detailed observations in the book, I couldn’t take it that seriously — and always found it rather alarming when it turned out that people did. For me, that sounded a bit like wanting to live in Narnia.

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