The art of slow decorating

The art of slow decorating

A lick of paint and some new cushions is one way to update a home. But to reap the rewards of decorating for years to come, you need to take it slow. As Neptune co-founder John Sims-Hilditch tells Suzanne Imre.

According to the World Institute of Slowness in Norway, ‘the fastest way to a good life, is to slow down’ and the same could be said for the most successful interiors. ‘Decorating should be approached rather like gardening,’ says John Sims-Hilditch, ‘it’s a life-long quest and never quite finished.’ Neptune’s co-founder is explaining his own philosophy on the slow decorating concept where interiors evolve organically and gradually: ‘You should never think, “ok, I’ve done the house now”. For a start, there’s no joy in that. The essence of slow is that it’s never done, so don’t try to get it done. Not feeling the need to finish is important. And it relieves a lot of pressure.’

But slow doesn’t mean moving at a snail’s pace and living in chaos for months on end. Far from it. Slow decorating is about planning, considering, refining. It’s about having a strategy. A direction of travel, which helps clarify those decorating decisions (light or dark? Nickel or brass? Wood or tiles?). And it’s about enjoying the process as much as the results.

John is a strong advocate for developing a strategy. The exercise of exploring what you would do if you could wave a magic wand can be extremely revealing and influence decisions whatever the existing budget you’re working with. ‘I’d encourage all our customers to develop a strategy before they start spending,’ says John. ‘Think about what you would do if you could. Then at the back of your mind, you’ll know where you’re going and you won’t end up with something that doesn’t work because you didn’t have a vision.’

Neptune’s in-store design teams follow this strategic approach when advising on projects. ‘We want our customers to enjoy the process, so we help them prioritise and work out what’s worth doing and what can wait,’ says John. ‘The design teams can be very helpful in getting the customer to stand back and review before they dive in.’

Taking time to look at a project objectively is important. Mining down to the basics will ultimately build a richer, more coherent scheme. For John, there are three key elements to consider which will guide design ideas (and help with those confusing options that get thrown up along the way):


Location – what is the context of where you are? Are you in a city or the country, and how does that location influence your space?


Architecture – what are the architectural details of the rooms and building? How can you honour them so that you work with, rather than against, what you’ve got?


You, the client – what do you need and what do you love?

 But like all good strategies, plans need to be open to new inspiration along the way. John recounts the story of a chance meeting with Jean-Louis Sibuet, the French hotelier who founded the famed Les Fermes de Marie in Megeve. ‘He shared a nugget of wisdom,’ he recalls, ‘which was that, in any property, you should keep everything you can and only add when you need to.’

The notion stayed with John and, when he and his wife, Emma, embarked on a project to connect the schoolhouse they’d live in since 1991 with the adjacent barn, it proved useful. ‘There was an old beam in a weird place between the cottage and the barn, but rather than knock it out, I decided to incorporate it into the design and now it gives me pleasure whenever I see it. It’s a good example of slow decorating. If I’d been rushing, I’d have whipped it out all too quickly.’

This slower method also supports the desire for sustainability and preservation. If you have an unhurried approach to furnishing your home, you’ll likely buy less but better. And those pieces will have longevity. ‘Things that are considered, well-made and beautiful are naturally sustainable because future generations will love and appreciate them and want to care for them,’ explains John, who champions the concept of sustainability through beauty. Taking time to seek out those beautiful things, according to the slow decorating philosophy, reduces the demand for fast, throwaway products and rash purchasing mistakes.

And slow decorating doesn’t just apply to major renovations. The process works just as well on the smaller details of a home, even down to the styling of a dresser. ‘You can spend your whole life evolving the look of a dresser,’ says John. ‘Introducing colours or collections you build up, even how the light falls on it in different locations.’ And that’s the charm of slow decorating: it’s about enjoying where you are in the process and not feeling the need to rush.

A case in point is John and Emma’s cottage in Cornwall. ‘We did a significant amount of re-organising at the beginning of the project, according to our strategy,’ he explains, ‘but then we’ve done lots of little things since. And now the house is twice as good as when we’d completed the main work. The “not finishing” aspect of the house was really important. If we thought we’d done it all and not continued to tease away at it, the house wouldn’t be half as lovely as it is now.’


Suzanne Imre lives in London and is the former editor of interiors magazine Livingetc. She who now works as a brand and content consultant.

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