Interior Design

Customised as I am…

High-spec, high-tech walk-in closets have become indispensable to today’s business élite. Katrina Burroughs reports on a new genre of dressing room that is super-efficient and a joy to wake up to.

February 11 2011
Katrina Burroughs

“She says her dressing room is her favourite room in the whole house,” explains Tim Wood of a delighted London client. Wood designs cabinetry, from single chests of drawers to entire interiors, for super-busy but eagle-eyed individuals, including vacuum pioneer James Dyson and City high-flyer Nicola Horlick (from £7,000).

The detail that so enchanted his Belgravia patron, the wife of an American industrialist, was an elegant solution he devised to display her 75 handbags. They now hang on 24 short rails facing into the room. No art collection could be more lovingly exhibited, but the arrangement is not just aesthetic – it is also aimed at preserving the shape and longevity of the items. “She was insistent that the iroko-wood rails should be the width of her shoulder, otherwise you get a sharp crease in the handle.” He adds, “We designed in plenty of space for her to buy more.”

As well as being opulent dressing-up boxes for women, walk-in wardrobes are objects of intense desire for chaps, who often turn their closets into leather-and-dark-wood chill-out zones. Kamini Ezralow, managing director of Intarya interior designers, has created a dressing room for an Australian media mogul in Mayfair that she describes as “a gent’s boudoir” (from £25,000).

“We lined the walls with walnut wardrobes with olive suede panels and horn handles, and we put a chaise longue in there for him. The idea was that he would go there and take a book, and it’s his little haven.” Ezralow says that walk-in closets are now as high on her wealthy clients’ priority lists as a statement bathroom. “They’re not just for storage and getting dressed, they’re an extension of their private living space. A couple of people have asked for silver trays with antique decanters and glasses.”

This emphasis on walk-in closets marks a generational shift, reckons Philippa Thorp, an interior architect whose residential projects include metropolitan apartments, country manor houses and ski chalets (walk-in closets from about £10,000). She says bespoke dressing rooms have become indispensable to today’s high-flyers.

“Younger professionals are much less inclined to compromise and shove their clothes untidily into cupboards. They’ve grown up in a world where fashion has such importance, and the amount of love and energy they’ve invested in buying their clothes and shoes is incredible.” As, she might add, is the amount of money. Add up the cost of a dozen business outfits, and upwards of £20,000 for a walk-in wardrobe, custom-built by a specialist designer, sounds quite reasonable.

Though size depends ultimately on the surrounding architecture, Thorp reckons the minimum area for a comfortable dressing room is about 6sq m. “But what you do within those square metres will vary enormously – not just from client to client, but according to the location of the property.”

She explains, “The ski-chalet dressing room is less about suits. You can get away with mainly shelf space and drawers because a lot of the clothing folds up. The finishes can be in raw wood because it’s about enjoying the experience of being in the mountains.” Thorp’s City dressing rooms have more opulent finishes and a different layout. “I’m keen to ensure you have more than one access point. Some bankers wake up very early, and they want to shower and get ready without waking their wives, so the dressing spaces I do in London homes always have a secondary access. Then they don’t have to keep trekking in and out of the bedroom.”

Although designers aim to produce rooms that are a joy to wake up to, functionality is paramount. This means debriefing sessions on exactly how a client uses his or her dressing room, and taking measurements of everything from the owner’s reach to the precise rake of each Louboutin and Jimmy Choo.

Martin Brudnizki, best known as a restaurant designer, also creates walk-in closets (from £5,000-£30,000, depending on the project) and has firm views about them. “Your dressing room is the first room you see each day, so it should have sumptuous materials that make you feel good about yourself. But it is like a machine. Everyone needs something different, so it has to be customised around the client, so that it works perfectly for him or her.”

Or them – surely it’s normal for married couples to share? “Not at this level,” he says rather sternly, adding, “If you’ve been together for about 10 years, you get to the point where you don’t want to see each other’s mess any longer. I see that more and more.” One suspects that Brudnizki has saved more marriages than Relate.

So, what are the latest components in these “machines” for dressing? There’s a trend, taken from kitchen designers, towards having more but shallower drawers, set at an ergonomic height. And the emphasis is on at-a-glance clarity of display: several shelves, each holding a trio of jumpers, rather than two jam-packed with woollies, or drawers with a number of 150sq mm compartments to hold rolled-up belts and ties, rather than single racks of unruly neckwear. Dead space in corners is often transformed into accessible storage with carousel shelving, again inspired by kitchen storage.

However, the real revolution is in the lighting. Sean Cochrane, creative director at Cochrane Design, says the lighting plan is key when creating dressing rooms for businessmen. “The problem with business suits is the colour; with black, charcoal and navy mingled together, you can’t tell which dark suit is which. Sometimes, you can’t even see which trousers go with which jackets.”

Pale veneers help, as does strategic use of LEDs. Cochrane inserts ribbons of these lights below hanging areas and under overhanging shelves, so that clothes are illuminated from above and below. “It’s a warm, white light, almost as good as daylight, that gives a good idea of colour but doesn’t dazzle. They go on automatically when you open the door, like a fridge. Another idea we’re trying is to run a strip of LED lights through the rail the clothes hang from.”

Fellow closeteer Matt Podesta, senior designer, MD and owner of Podesta, installs sensor-activated task lighting to illuminate drawers as they open and, on request, will put brightly coloured LEDs underneath units “to give the cabinets a lift”. “It’s popular on yachts and with fitted cabinetry in general,” he explains, not sounding entirely convinced that his creations need such elevation. “It’s quite glitzy, but we do get asked for it a lot.”

Other requests are based on iconic objects that have struck a particular chord with the menfolk. Some clients want their décor to imitate antique cigar boxes, in rosewood or ebony, with contrasting chrome or brass detail. Wood says, “One chap wanted all the cupboards to have a finish like a Bentley dashboard. I explained the problem with that is it chips easily, but that’s what he wanted.”

Podesta reports that his clients are commissioning custom cabinetry with such enthusiasm and imagination that every new dressing room raises the bar. “It’s exciting. We’ve got the best leather boys, metalworkers, upholsterers and cabinetmakers all raring to go. We love it when a client sets us a new goal.” These goals include building humidors and gun cabinets into closets. Podesta has also incorporated a series of watch boxes, which rotate automatic watches to keep the springs charged, into a walk-in wardrobe for a City boy with an extensive collection of luxury watches (price on request).

But above all, he says, clients are currently intrigued by hidden compartments. “We do secret panels with no handles. You just press the panel and it pops open. We can design them all over the place: inside cupboards or desks, in the skirting board... [price on request].”

If yacht designers are responsible for inspiring a rash of flash lighting, and the automobile industry for ultraluxurious finishes, fashion retailers must take credit for some truly chic displays in the dressing room. Interior designer Katharine Pooley admits to suffering terribly from closet envy. “Doing a dressing room is my favourite thing,” she says. “It’s often me putting my own wardrobe wishes into action.”

Her ideas for women’s dressing rooms are frequently based on displays she has seen in fashion stores. The key, she says, is that everything should be accessible and enticing, and that means clothes and accessories must be visible, as in a shop. She uses glass fronts on cupboards and drawers, and designs display cases for jewellery. “I have a client in Knightsbridge who loves sunglasses. She has about 25 pairs. So the centrepiece for her dressing room is a glass-topped chest containing a tray lined with cream suede that displays them all [about £15,000; prices start from £8,000]. It’s like when you go into Hermès and see the glass counter and little drawers underneath.”

Alex Michelin, director of property developer Finchatton, confirms this. “Most of our clients get their inspiration from shops. Retailers are always pushing the boundary on how to display clothes. We keep an eye on the signature stores in Milan in particular – they’re phenomenal.”

Even given the best-designed shelves and cupboards in the loveliest bookmatched zebrano, choosing an outfit can become a chore for those who have amassed garments and accessories in their thousands. Michelin has been employing the latest technology, and library-style coding, to index such encyclopedic wardrobes.

He describes the app he commissioned for a London fashionista. “She used to get all of her clothes photographed professionally, sometimes with her wearing them and sometimes with models in them. We got a programmer to write some specialised software and loaded the pictures onto her iPad. All the hangers are coded – skirts from numbers 1,000 to 1,500; 1,500 to 2,000 were tops – and as you flick through the pictures, you can search for complete looks, or browse individual dresses or shoes. There are notes, such as ‘This bag will go with these boots’. Once she makes a choice, it’s simple because of the coding. Go to hanger 1,086 and, bang, there it is! [about £10,000].”

Other high-tech touches include integrated music systems, TVs that become mirrors when switched off, and the “magic mirror”. Ezralow is currently creating dressing rooms for a husband and wife in Dubai, and the man – not the missus, note – has requested one of these magic mirrors for his. Ezralow explains, “It’s a mirror that has a digital aspect, like a delayed-response camera. It takes pictures of you from behind, then you turn to the mirror and can see what your back view looks like.”

Frequent flyers place particular demands on their walk-in closets, and several designers have developed dressing rooms that make life easier for the constant traveller. Tim Gosling, who incorporates classical cabinetry into some of his one-off interiors, says, “In the past few years, one of the most important elements has become the packing table. It’s a central island – like a kitchen island – and you put your suitcase on it to pack straight from your wardrobes. It makes preparing for business trips so much quicker than laying clothes out on the bed.”

Gosling’s packing tables can be styled to remind the 21st-century voyager – perhaps somewhat unkindly – of the golden era of travel. “You can echo the style of leather-and-brass-bound vintage steamer trunks, those old Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunks, or you can add a decorative detail that looks like a big leather belt around it, like those 1930s Bugattis with the leather bonnet strap [£8,000-£15,000].” He says, “People will often bring back ideas from their travels to incorporate in their dressing rooms. They might love details of a Riva boat. And those showers in the Four Seasons New York used to inspire clients to ask for pale sycamore woodwork.”

Luxury interior designer Helen Green says she often gets dressing-room requests inspired by hotels. “It makes sense. Hotels are at the forefront of interior design, so if clients go to top hotels, they will see the very best of the latest ideas.” Her own hotel projects include four suites at The Berkeley in London, whose glamorous closets have upholstered doors and nickel detailing. She also designs an extra aid to efficient holiday packing into her private projects. This is a valet rail, which you pull out to hang clothes on while packing. “It’s an easy way to preview your holiday wardrobe.”

But best of all, she says, is when clients who have been on luxury trips and stayed in über-stylish hotels tell her they prefer their own interior. A beautiful dressing room is all it takes for us to appreciate that there’s no place like home.