The Aesthete: Tim Marlow opens his black book of style

The newly appointed CEO and director of London’s Design Museum loves smoked oysters, Chelsea FC and dreams of a room big enough for Lucien Freud’s bath. By Lucinda Baring. Portraits by Dan Wilton

Marlow at home in London
Marlow at home in London

My personal style signifiers are a suit, usually from Richard James, Paul Smith or sometimes Prada, if I can afford it; black or brown suede loafers, also by Richard James; and a white or pale-blue shirt made by a tailor at Jim’s Tailor Workshop, Hong Kong, who was recommended to me by Ferragamo’s financial director in Asia. I’d like to say hats are my thing – I have a beloved brown suede trilby I bought in Venice – but my family always tell me I look crap in them. 

The last thing I bought and loved was a small 1968 Picasso nude from his 347 series. I inherited some money recently from an adopted aunt called Olive, whose husband used to teach life drawing. One of his models didn’t show up one day and Olive gamely stepped in, so this nude on paper is my way of honouring her. 

One of Marlow’s best reads in the past year
One of Marlow’s best reads in the past year

And on my wishlist is an early desk by Charlotte Perriand – or, better still, her beautiful prefab mountain refuge, which I saw at last year’s Charlotte Perriand exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. It is an aluminium-clad polygon that could serve as a hideaway-cum-study. 

An unforgettable place I’ve travelled to in the past year is Chapman’s Peak on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. The winding road up there is one of the world’s best and I cycled to the top where there’s a view out over the Atlantic. It’s magical.

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The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a grey, ankle-length coat with buttons down the back by Danshan, a young design duo from Central Saint Martins I met in one of the studios at Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation. I was there to interview an artist-robot called Ai-Da, who was almost flirtatious, despite being programmed. It was a terrifying glimpse into our Ballardian future. 

The best books I’ve read in the past year are my predecessor Deyan Sudjic’s book The Language of Things, which articulates so well the importance of design, and The Life of Bryan by Andrew Lambirth, a biography of Bryan Robertson told through anecdotes from his friends in the art world. He was the funny and engaging director of the Whitechapel Gallery in the 1950s and ’60s and remains the most influential museum director in Britain, after Nick Serota – he gave Pollock and Rothko their first major exhibitions and was the first in Britain to show Johns, Rauschenberg, Antony Caro, Bridget Riley. 

His cherished surfboard
His cherished surfboard

A recent “find” is Hackney Cycles, a small shop in London run by a couple of locals who really know their bikes

An indulgence I would never forgo is my Chelsea season tickets. I have two seats and I’ll go with my brother, a nephew or my son. I had many reasons for taking this new position at The Design Museum: my belief in design; the fantastic building; the opportunity to take a great, emerging institution to the next level; the fact that design is so central to humanity. But it is also around the corner from Stamford Bridge, which makes midweek games possible.  

The restaurant at Villa La Coste in the south of France, with a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois
The restaurant at Villa La Coste in the south of France, with a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois | Image: Olivier Chevalier

My favourite room in my home is my garden shed. It was built as a place where I could write or work, but in reality just serves as a backdrop for my favourite things – like one of Ken Bradshaw’s battered and beautiful surfboards that Julian Schnabel gave me; I surfed on it once but I’m nowhere near good enough so now it’s mounted on the wall. And there’s Lucian Freud’s bath, currently full of deckchairs and cushions, but when I get the house of my dreams I’ll get it plumbed into a grand bathroom. 

The last meal that truly impressed me was at the restaurant at Villa La Coste in Provence. The food was exceptional and we drank delicious wine from the estate, but it was the art that blew me away. The room was built around a Louise Bourgeois sculpture and the landscape is peppered with amazing art. After lunch, we went to see a fantastic sculpture in the treetops by my friend Tracey Emin. I’m also keen to go to Dooky Chase in New Orleans, a local restaurant made famous when Barack Obama visited. Chef Leah Chase serves soul food in a white-tablecloth setting. Apparently, Obama loved her gumbo. 

Tweed-wearing artist duo Gilbert & George
Tweed-wearing artist duo Gilbert & George

The podcast I’m listening to is David Millar’s brilliant Off Bike. David is a former road-racing cyclist who teamed up with anthropologist Mikkel Rasmussen to ask people what happens when they get off their bike. It’s a launchpad for conversations about where cycling takes you in life. I love the Paul Smith episode. 

My style icons are Gilbert & George. I love their unwavering commitment to elegantly tailored tweed suits. I’ve seen them in lighter tweeds in 40-degrees Venice and heavier ones in a freezing-cold Chinese winter. What began as a reaction against the bohemian artist’s dress code has become a wonderful signature. 

Marlow’s present for his son, a Newbery cricket bat
Marlow’s present for his son, a Newbery cricket bat

The best gift I’ve given recently was a Newbery cricket bat to my nine-year-old son George. I lugged it out to Cape Town at Christmas and loved the look on his face when he opened it.

And the best gift I’ve received recently is a painting by Christopher Le Brun, For Tim, that he gave to me when I left the Royal Academy. It’s a veiled abstraction in green and yellow that reminds me of the first print I ever bought – also by Christopher – when I was a student at The Courtauld. 

Marlow’s Christopher Le Brun painting
Marlow’s Christopher Le Brun painting

The last music I downloaded was some Dusty Springfield songs. I was reading a book on lyrics written by Neil Tennant and his love of Dusty inspired me to listen. I love soul. 

The grooming staples I’m never without are Kiehl’s moisturiser – brilliant for my dry skin – and Penhaligon’s Endymion cologne, which I’ve worn for 15 years. I think its subtle woody spice subconsciously reminds me of my father and the incense-y smell of his cassocks. 

A Dusty Springfield album
A Dusty Springfield album

The design that changed everything doesn’t exist. Design is constantly evolving. It’s the alarm that woke you up and the news app on your phone, the glasses perched on your nose and the words you’re reading right now. It’s so embedded in our lives, we almost forget it’s there. 

I wish I had designed a cure for Parkinson’s. My father had the disease and I’d have loved to have been able to do something to help. 

Kiehl’s moisturiser, Marlow’s grooming staple
Kiehl’s moisturiser, Marlow’s grooming staple

I have a collection of modern first editions. Lawrence Durrell was my first love and I’ve got pretty much a full collection of his work. I also like JG Ballard: somebody once published a compendium of the books in Ballard’s own library and he used to have a medical textbook on car crashes, which is black and white and not as voyeuristic as it sounds. I found a first edition and added it to my collection. 

In my fridge you’ll always find Sancerre, beetroot juice, unpasteurised cheeses, fresh meat from The Ginger Pig in London or something cured from Cley Smokehouse in Norfolk, and some dark chocolate, which I have to hide or it disappears. In the cupboard you’ll find tins of smoked oysters – my guilty pleasure. 

Marlow’s collection of books by JG Ballard
Marlow’s collection of books by JG Ballard

The technology I couldn’t do without is any means of receiving live sports coverage. Radio, TV, phone, iPad. It’s how I switch off.  

An object I would never part with is an old pew in my study that came from my father’s church in Islington. He was later a canon at St Paul’s. And also my Rolex, which I bought a week after my son George was born and had it engraved with his initials and date of birth. I’ll give it to him on his 21st birthday. 

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The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Francis Bacon. When I was a teenager I bought a life-size poster of one of Bacon’s screaming popes. I had it framed just as Bacon did and it has hung in every place I’ve ever lived. 

If I had to limit my shopping to one neighbourhood in one city, I’d choose Staithe Street in Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. My family started going on holiday there when I was 11 and my mother has retired there. There’s a brilliant butcher, a great fishmonger and a deli, all owned by the Howell family for four generations. They’ve also taken over the bakery that used to be at the bottom of my parents’ street; I can still smell the still-warm baps that I’d devour on the beach with peanut butter and Marmite. Also on Staithe Street is Walsingham & Son, my favourite shop in the world. It’s a hardware store that sells everything and still has the same allure as when my brother and I bought an air rifle there and shot at people from my father’s church roof. It was confiscated of course. ML Walsingham & Son, 01328-710 438

My wellbeing guru is my Pilates teacher Hannah Adams at Hoxton Pilates. I have a one-to-one with her nearly every week. I have two degenerative discs in my back and this is my way of managing them.

My favourite website is Olio, a free website that allows you to minimise food waste by giving your surplus supplies to other local people – if you’re going on holiday and the fridge is full, for example. 

If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be gardening or building dry-stone walls, which I learnt one summer in the Peak District. It’s brutal work, but I love doing something manual.

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