Wherever he worked, from Rome to Riyadh, Interior Designer Christopher Hall immerses himself in the local culture. That’s why his completed commissions have a rooted, timeless quality to them.
One of his clients calls him Lawernece of Arabia and, looking at Christopher Hall in that light, there is a suggestion of the famous desert warrior about him. It is not so much that he looks like Peter O’Toole, but that there is a sensitivity, an intelligence, a ravenous cultural curiosity, a quiet determination and, yes, a faint mysticism about him. Softly spoken, with a light antipodean lilt; slight in build; fashionably bearded and looking half a decade younger than his 45 years, Christopher Hall resembles an earnest academic rather than the interior designer he is.
We meet at Five Hertford Street one winter afternoon, and I get the sense that he would rather be somewhere else … Istanbul, probably, where he settled in 1999. “Istanbul is a city that I adored from the minute I saw it, which was in 1988, and I made a decision there and then that this was a city I was going to live in. And after nurturing this idea for many years, having lived in Rome and Paris and Sydney, eventually I made my way there and started my business. And 14 years later I’m still there part-time, apart from being here now.” While his attraction to Istanbul is emotional, there is the sense that the decision to come to London was arrived at more rationally. “Istanbul is somehow really tiring because it’s a city of 16 to 18 million people with no real order,” he says, “so London is a lot easier for me in that respect. I mean there’s a lot of order and structure, so that’s great.”
Yet for all its structure and order there is the strong sense that London is just that little bit too straightforward for Hall. For him, interior design is not so much an exercise in furnishing and fabric choices, paint samples and pantones, it is an intellectual journey into a different culture. Once embarked on a project, he will master every aspect of it; no barrier is too daunting, no detail too insignificant. I ask how much work he handles personally. “Everything that goes into the house goes past me, every single thing,” comes the response. Even the door furniture? “Everything. Every single thing goes past me.”
And from the contemplation of fingerplates and hinges he will do everything he deems necessary, even if it means becoming fluent in a new language. Having learned French, Italian and Turkish, of course, he was after something a little more challenging: not just another language, but new alphabet. So when he was offered some important commissions in Saudi Arabia, he taught himself Arabic. And having worked up a good knowledge of Arab script, he is now grappling with Cyrillic. The other day, one of his projects was on the cover of Russian Architectural Digest – I didn’t even know there was a Russian AD, but Hall did; he landed a couple of nice residential jobs from it. If he looks happy as a result of this then it is probably because it means that there is a new culture to understand, a new alphabet to decrypt and a new language to master.
He just cannot help but immerse himself utterly in whatever he is working on. “I think there’s a sensitivity. I think that I get in deeper, because I’ve been in the Middle East for a long time, I speak Turkish fluently, I’ve studied and speak Arabic, I speak other languages, and I completely disappear into the project. I feel it deeply, and I understand what the client wants because, culturally, I understand where they’re from. I’m not somebody who’s flown in to do something and flown home again. I live here,” he says, momentarily forgetting that we are still in London. “And, you know, Istanbul is two-and-a-half hours from Riyadh, so I can go for a couple of days, or I can be there for a month. Where people live is very, very important. It’s very easy to create these looks that don’t have any weight to them; however I think it’s essential to respect location and culture.”
And it is that intensity that makes Hall such a fascinating person. He is an intellectual sponge and he brings the same cultural rigour to each project, the same respect for cultural context whether that context happens to be a beach house in Sydney or a palace in Riyadh. “I would have to say the Saudi jobs are the big ones and they’re the ones that have been the most challenging and the most rewarding. And they are very long, so having to train my mind to stay passionate about a job that’s going for 10 years is incredibly challenging, because I get this explosion of inspiration when I meet someone or when I see a space. the idea is to hold on to your inspiration when I meet someone or when I see a space. The idea is to hold on to your inspiration and create what you’ve seen in that moment. But these huge jobs that take time are great for me personally, because I develop new skills along the way, as well.”
For Hall it is about “maintaining that inspiration, and holding on to that sort of clarity and vision that you have. And also keeping the client involved and stimulated and satisfied, and myself as well. And also, I have to say, I haven’t let go of my old habits of looking everywhere for furniture and objects. You know, I’m curious. I go to markets, I go to second hand shops, I go everywhere to find things that will work. And there’s something sort of beautiful about that, because the result is obviously a lot more personalised and less generic.”
And if he cannot find exactly the sort of object he has in mind, then he will make it. He has created a range of furniture that borrows Middle Eastern motifs, appropriating them with an assurance and confidence that can only come with in-depth knowledge, and which makes each piece much more than a pastiche. “The production was easy because when I moved to Istanbul in 1999 there was very little there. They’d just had a massive earthquake and the whole place was a bit of a mess. I started to get projects, and there was nothing to use, so I started designing everything. And I found, quite quickly, that the artisanship in Istanbul, in Turkey, is excellent. So I was thrilled, and the deeper I went in, the more I discovered they were extremely capable of the most incredible things ever. So of course I started to build relationships with these tradespeople and these artisans and as a consequence, my production came to life, because I custom-made everything for every project. Eventually I started to gather certain pieces that I loved and put names on them, and created lines.”
Indeed it was through his manufacturing that he came to the notice of some members of the Saudi royal family. “I designed some bronze chandeliers for a palace in Jeddah, for an interior designer, and from there I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a young prince who was getting married and needed to sort out a residence within a year, and that residence that they purchased grew to be their family home. So we worked on developing it and also buying the property next door.”
Even though that was 10 years ago, the kingdom continues to surprise. “Recently I did a huge tent for a client in Riyadh … I mean a huge tent, with kitchens, serving rooms and bathrooms and 16 or 17 meter ceilings.” And size was not the only unusual thing about it. “The construction of it is concrete and we clad it in woven camel hair on the outside, and inside upholstered the walls, and we laid carpets and built the fireplace because Riyadh in the winter gets very cold, despite what everybody thinks. And floor seating and floor dining. And that was a great exercise because I had freedom to do pretty much what I wanted, but I kept it very much within the palette and range of my interpretation of Riyad. Traditionally, the Saudis are used to tents, and they like to have tents outside their houses, but we took it a step further and created something that was more permanent.”
Lawrence of Arabia would have been impressed: A New Zealander reinventing the tradition of desert hospitality on a Brobdingnagian scale, in concrete clad with camel hair …