The man with the unrivalled design contacts book

A specialist agency is harnessing its rigorously edited contacts book to match its clients to the perfect architect, builder, interior designer, project manager and landscape gardener, says Lucia van der Post

Image: Chris Burke

You’ve bought the manor house or the plot of land right by the coast that you’ve had your eye on – or perhaps you’ve finally decided the home you’ve been living in for the past 20-odd years needs a complete makeover: what do you do next? Why, you call in the professionals: a builder, an interior designer, a project manager, maybe a landscape designer. It’s often a long list of requirements and – here’s the rub – how do you know who to choose? Britain isn’t short of talented architects and builders, but finding the right one for your particular project takes more than just luck; it takes know-how – which is where Sandy Mitchell comes in.

In 2003, the former editor on Country Life set about renovating and restoring a 13th-century Grade II-listed manor house he’d bought in Berkshire, but found that aside from personal recommendations and hearsay, there was nobody to turn to for advice. Mitchell had expert credentials of his own. Trained in law, he had worked at The Sunday Telegraph as well as at Country Life and later in television, focusing on architecture, landscape and interior design. So he set about assembling a portfolio of architects and designers, interviewing their teams, scrutinising their work, talking to previous clients and finally asking an independent panel of experts to assess them as well.

Through his agency, RedBook, he and four colleagues now work with close to 50 architectural practices, 40 interior designers and 20 garden designers, whom he believes to be the best of the best. After all, as Mitchell points out, the architect or designer who might be perfect for inserting a minimalist interior into an old manor house is not necessarily the same as the one who is right for building a highly contemporary beach house, or for giving an air of warm classicism to a listed house.

He took the company name from the famous “Red Books” created by Humphry Repton, the great 18th-century landscape gardener, who used to present his proposals to clients in red Morocco-bound volumes to help them visualise his designs. Mitchell’s seven advisers help assess the architectural practices, designers and builders under consideration. Among them is broadcaster and former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A Roy Strong, whose expertise is landscape and garden designers. Dr Simon Thurley, who for 15 years ran English Heritage, advises on conservation architects. Then there is Liz Elliot, editor-at-large for House & Garden and a leading light in the world of interiors; Dominic Bradbury, who advises on contemporary architects and design (and writes for these pages); and Clive Aslet, editor-at-large of Country Life and an expert on the English country house and traditional architecture. All are there to help guarantee that only the finest feature in RedBook’s stable.

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The process begins for a client with an initial cost-free meeting to discuss the project. Once the agency has been engaged, there is an upfront one-off fee of £2,500 (most of the agency’s income comes from a percentage fee charged to the practices it works with), which seems minuscule given the overall outlays for projects like these – clients’ budgets tend to be a minimum of £300,000 for interiors or £750,000 for architectural schemes.

Mitchell sets great store by matching the chemistry between the client and the professional practices, so that the whole experience is enjoyable for both sides. He asks a few chosen practices if they would like to consider the project, and eventually they hold what he calls a “beauty parade”, where three practices from each discipline present their ideas. Mitchell is present for all interviews, advises and, once decisions have been made, keeps a watching brief right through until everything is finished.

One of his latest clients is an entrepreneur who was renovating a flat in Notting Hill. “It was my second time doing up a place, and the first time around the architect had been OK but the builder hadn’t and it was a real hassle getting it all put right and finding another builder. My brief to Sandy was that we wanted to maximise the space and light, improve security, reduce noise and make the most of the wonderfully high ceilings – we had in mind something like a Paris atelier. Sandy ‘got’ what we wanted and he brilliantly shortlisted three architects for us. It has worked very well and not only saved us masses of time but given us exactly what we hoped for.”

Occasionally, new clients call upon Mitchell when they are already mid-project. For instance, “a design-aware Scandinavian couple rang to say ‘We are in designer hell’. They had fallen out with the prominent interior designer (whom they’d heard about through friends) doing their house in Mayfair. The designer insisted all their furniture had to go and clearly didn’t like their art: a prima donna, they said. They felt overcharged too. They were so frustrated they were even considering selling up.” Mitchell persuaded them to try again and, after pinning them down further about their vision and tastes, produced a group of interior designers for them to choose from. “We sat in on the interviews to act as sounding boards and to adjudicate on the fee proposals. Just last week, five months in, they emailed to say ‘We are having fun. The designer you introduced is a genius.’”

David Forbes, head of Savills’ private office, says that in all his 35 years in property he has never come across anybody who offers this kind of highly personal and yet professional service. “When clients I’ve sold a house to ask me what to do next, I introduce them to Sandy Mitchell because I know they will like him, he’ll be tactful and he’ll give them tremendous advice.”

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