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MICHAEL SZELL / 1930-1988

Born in 1930 in Budapest, Szell, in the post war years, managed to move to Britain, where he had the opportunity to attend the royal college of Art, and open his own showroom in Chelsea in 1969.

Below is an article from the Observer newspaper Saturday 21 September 2002 by journalist Dominic Lutyens about the life of Michael Szell:

Hungarian-born textile designer Michael Szell had one salient criterion for picking fabrics: ‘You must always think, “Can I face that design with a hangover?”’ But, coming from this creator of outrageously oversized fabrics and wallpapers featuring voluptuous hothouse flowers in hallucinatory rose madder or acid green, it’s an unconvincing credo. Minimalism was a meaningless ‘ism’ to Szell and his set - posh but maverick 60s and 70s designers for whom decorating meant just that: lovingly festooning rooms with deluxe, froufrou fabrics, wallpapers and floral displays, rather than stripping them of ‘clutter’ (as spoilsport minimalists dismiss anything flouncy or busily patterned).

Szell’s irrepressibly exuberant style is magnificently exemplified by the Bayswater home - where he died in May, aged 72 - which I came to see by chance. I’d been asked to write an obituary celebrating this flamboyant designer and his inimitable taste. Inevitably, I asked myself what his home might be like. I contacted a friend of his, Mark Pattison, an employee of Szell in the 70s, and asked whether it might be possible to see it. Amazingly, it was. I had to move fast: the house was on the market, and Szell had meticulously willed each object to his friends, all of whom were picking up the pieces swiftly, so threatening to dismantle the house and destroy its amazing artistry. Very speedily, photographs were taken, while I took a tour. Despite Szell’s absence, his home was charged with his presence, while its decors were perfectly intact, conserved, if only fleetingly, as if in aspic.

Everything Szell did, he did with panache: paintings of clashing genres and periods smother walls, a different extrovert print adorns each room, covering everything from walls to chaises longues, pieces of furniture from different eras happily cohabit. It’s hard to convey how exciting it was to wander around.

Szell’s presence was occasionally felt very vividly. In his dressing room, for example - its walls covered in a green fabric the colour of crème de menthe - one wardrobe door was ajar, revealing his collection of ties. An ultra-70s table lamp with a pleated shade in the bedroom was switched on, almost as if Szell had been the last to do so. The lamp illuminated the full splendour of the room’s decor: a bedspread matching the wallcovering and curtains (in the same vivid green print as the dressing room’s), rococo gilt-frame mirrors, paintings hung from floor to ceiling, Victorian salon-style. As these pictures testify, for Szell less was definitely not more.

The work of Szell, who rose to eminence in the 60s, fused the tradition of polite British chintzes, typified by ultra-establishment London shop Colefax & Fowler, with - consciously or not - 60s psychedelia. One good example is a print featuring larger-than-life, white pineapples against a sunshine yellow ground which, in 1972, hip 70s fashion designer Thea Porter snapped up to create a collection of dreamy evening gowns.

Szell’s designs were influenced by his travels - to India, Iran, Turkey - which gave them an Orientalist flavour. A green-fingered grower of orchids, he was also inspired by the ultra-luxuriant gardens at his country house, Mamhead Park, in Devon. Hence the effusively trippy colours and gargantuan scale of his organic motifs: lilies of the valley, pomegranates, orchids, roses… Szell’s contemporary, David Hicks, also used exaggeratedly enlarged motifs but, by comparison, these were soberly geometric.

Szell happily went overboard when it came to whimsy: his print, ‘Cox’, featured black and white cockerels, drawn à la Aubrey Beardsley (a demigod to 60s designers), against an apple green ground; another, a black and yellow tiger with crossed arms; and yet another, strutting pheasants framed by sinuous irises.

He also printed on tinfoil or incorporated Lurex into his fabrics. He lined walls and doors with his textiles and tented entire ceilings with them. In the 70s, at his home in Chelsea, everything in his ‘drawing and dancing room’, including the speakers, was swathed in malachite-green fabric. He loved using the same print for curtains, bedheads, bedspreads, an effect reminiscent of 19th-century artist Edouard Vuillard’s paintings of interiors, in which near-identical patterns melt into each other.

Born in Budapest to Hungarian nobility in 1930, Szell was cagey about his early life. Falling on hard times (at the hands of the communists or Nazis - no one knows which), he came to Britain in the late 40s as a ward of family friend Sir Michael Duff, Lord Lieutenant of Caernarvon. He studied design at Aberystwyth College and the Royal College of Art. In 1969, he opened a shop on Sloane Avenue, London, whose windows brimmed with orchids. Throughout his career - culminating in a spate as chief stylist at Harrods, where Mohammed Al Fayed freely indulged his baroque aesthetic - Szell prided himself on his meticulous hand-printing, often dabbing on the ink himself at the printers to ensure accuracy of colour.

For all its legendary sang-froid, the royal family was potty about Szell’s carnivalesque designs. Princess Margaret adored them, as did the Queen, who commissioned him to decorate both the Throne Room at Windsor Castle and the interior of the royal train for the 1977 Silver Jubilee tour. (For the latter, Szell designed a fabric with vertical lines inspired by rain, which was mistakenly hung horizontally.)

Szell consorted, too, with the era’s funkier jet set, including Paul Getty and Ava Gardner. His textiles adorned film sets (his diaphanous curtains billowed sultrily in the breeze in a swimming-pool scene in The Great Gatsby). He also flirted with London’s arty underground, once accompanying fellow designer Celia Birtwell to Andrew Logan’s annual, bacchanalian drag event, the Alternative Miss World Contest. Indeed, his life never lacked adventure: in 1977, on holiday in the West Indies, he was shot in a botched robbery, but swiftly recovered.

Curiously, Szell was both an ascetic and a hedonist. He hated wasting anything, a consequence, possibly, of the privations he suffered in the war. But he was a bon viveur, too, perhaps out of a desire to drown that past. Always dandyishly dressed, he partied hard. Friends say he was a fabulous dancer. His fantastical designs - some of which graced his Bayswater home, featured on these pages - are perhaps symptomatic of this escapism.

Szell’s ground-floor drawing room - with its frivolous print of fluttering ribbons and roses - is typical of his Colefax & Fowler-on-acid, print-piled-on-print aesthetic. Persian rugs, and his habit of smothering walls with art - including a painting of a cowboy and one of two spaniels - were major passions, too.

Empire style was another obsession: the eye-popping green fabric in his bedroom featured emperor’s laurels. In the maroon sitting room, there’s a chaise longue upholstered in Szell’s burgundy and gold fabric, ‘Drop’, above which presides a beturbanned Regency belle in an Empire-line dress.

Szell’s ecleticism didn’t stop there: he adored chinoiserie, too. In the bedroom stands a black lacquer commode embellished with chinoiserie motifs. Not that he eschewed the odd bit of restrained monochrome, as his collection of cream Leeds ware demonstrates. Unmistakably, 70s touches abound, too, from two simple glass coffee tables to some bijou pots of dried flowers resembling topiary.

Szell closed his shop in the early 80s, but still made the occasional bolt of cloth for friends. In the early 90s, to his joy, the Ferragamo family bought his archive of designs. At his 72nd birthday, just before he died, he arrived with difficulty (he had been suffering from multiple system atrophy, a disease in which his circulation was weakened unless his skin was exposed to the sun). But, dapper as ever, and with customary brio, he was determined to celebrate his life with his many friends.

RUGS BY MICHAEL SZELL