master class: Nancy Lancaster’s 7 rules of design (and why they still matter)

8729FC26-B863-4B06-A1DF-B8D32C730FAFIt’s always worth our time to revisit a classic. And how refreshing, even now, so many years later, are Nancy’s rules. Nancy Lancaster (1897-1994) was born and raised in Virginia in a beautiful house called Mirador that she loved dearly and its Southern spirit stayed with her throughout her life. She married an Englishman (and then another one) and lived most of her life in England. Her story is one filled with large estates and meticulous, magical gardens, and yet, what she wanted most was to create places of “comfort and pleasing decay.” She thoroughly embraced the English country house and is credited (along with her business partner John Fowler) with creating the style of decorating that we think of today as English country.

a painting by Alexandre Serebriakoff of Nancy Lancaster’s closet room at Ditchley Park.

Nancy Lancaster insisted on imperfection and coziness (this could not have been an easy thing to pull off in the near-castles that she called home). She believed in keeping things down to earth, showing the signs of wear and tear, embracing the backstory so to speak. She always included antiques and went out of her way to make materials appear to be lovingly worn.

One of Nancy’s garden walls.
The sitting room in Nancy’s last home, a coach house.

I look to Nancy when I’m working on a project and trying to figure out how to bring a room (or house) to life. Whether it is making an old house feel fresh or giving a new house character, her rules serve as the framework, but more importantly, they remind us (through the details and the voice) that rooms and houses are for living. This is why they matter.

Nancy Lancaster’s 7 Rules of Design

  1. In restoring a house, one must first realize its period, feel its personality, and try to bring out its good points;
  2. Decorating must be appropriate;
  3. Scale is of prime importance, and I think that oversized scale is better than undersized scale;
  4. In choosing a color, one must remember that it changes in different aspects;
  5. Understatement is extremely important, and crossing too many t’s and dotting too many i’s makes a room look overdone and tiresome. One should create something that fires the imagination without overemphasis;
  6. I never think that sticking slavishly to one period is successful; a touch of nostalgia adds charm. One needs light and shade, because if every piece is perfect, the room becomes a museum and is lifeless;
  7. A gentle mixture of furniture expresses life and continuity, but it must be a delicious mixture that flows and mixes well. It is a bit like mixing a salad. I am better at rooms than salads.



Happy Friday!

One response to “master class: Nancy Lancaster’s 7 rules of design (and why they still matter)”

  1. Some folk have CHIC down to their bones !


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