I can’t help thinking that if Tara Bernerd didn’t exist, Jackie Collins would have to invent her. The interiors expert and “‘Pussy Galore of the London design scene”, as GQ magazine described her, prides herself on being unapologetically “fabulous”.
This much is obvious from my first sighting of her. I’m stood slack-jawed with wonder outside the stucco-fronted home she is selling, wondering how much a 4,000 sq ft pad that looks directly onto Hyde Park costs these days, when a willowy blonde approaches. Wearing spray-on white jeans and dripping in jewellery, Bernerd is, naturally, in the middle of calling somebody “Darling” on her mobile phone.
This is a woman that understands the good life. I might even call her an It Girl, but she turned 40 in January, so it seems a bit unfair. She hates the term, too. Can you blame her?
Born rich (her father is Elliott Bernerd, a property magnate worth hundreds of millions), she left school at 16 and worked her way up the interiors trade. She was a partner at Philippe Stark for years before founding Target Living, her highly successful design firm, a decade ago. She has just rebranded herself as Tara Bernerd & Partners, and appears to occupy the special place in rich people’s hearts that Kelly Hoppen once did – though thankfully with a lot less dreary grey and beige.
She guides me up the stairs and through the front door that leads straight into the front room. Previously, I thought front doors that opened straight onto front rooms were the preserve of lowly worker’s cottages, but apparently not. Bernerd has taken “knocking through” to a new levels – most of the ground floor is given over to an enormous sitting room, roughly the size of a hockey pitch.
Dotted with different seating areas, sculpture, objets d’art, furniture in warm plaids the colour of biscuits, offset with dashes of colour, a huge pool table and a set-piece spiral staircase that runs to the lower ground floor, the whole place looks like an elite private members’ club.
Unfortunately Bernerd’s home life has been a little less fabulous than her home of late. We take a seat on sofas in the farthest reaches of the room as she explains that she’s only been in and out since she and James Archer (son of Jeffrey) called time on their marriage. They wed in Rome in 2005, but separated two years ago and didn’t have children. The flat is on the market as they divorce.
“I have to move on emotionally,” Bernerd says. “I’m sad to walk away from here because it was not just an investment into a home, it was into a life. That’s a hard thing to ever fully let go of. Of course, I put everything into it. But I feel re-energised. Ready to make a new home.”
The property occupies the lower two floors of what used to be a bank – her bedroom is where they kept gold bullion – on the north side of Hyde Park. After buying it six years ago, the couple lovingly did it up in Bernerd’s signature style. “I’m not a designer who buys homes, does them up and goes. I don’t really want to leave. Part of me thinks I might buy the other half back,” she says, referring, I imagine, to buying Archer out and having the whole place for herself. “I love this apartment. It was a dream for me to find a ‘loft’ when there was none left. Space today is the hardest thing. It’s hard to find 4,000 sq ft in the heart of central London.
The flat is built for entertaining. As you glance around the sitting room, you appreciate what a clever job she’s done. With all its little socialising areas, beautifully lit and adorned with quirky furniture finds and impact art, it manages to be both cavernous and cosy, though I can’t for the life of me imagine how to live a normal life here.
Where would you kick off your trainers and how would you remember where you’d left the paper? Bernerd claims to love sitting on her own in an enormous space but I suspect she’s an exception. That said, it’s a party paradise.
Have you had some good blowouts here? “What do you think?” she says, practically winking. “Yes, yes, yes. But what goes on tour stays on tour.” How would you describe the Bernerd ‘look’ then, I inquire. “I think my work is handsome, as opposed to pretty. I think it stands the test of time. I love colour but I’m not trend-driven. I work loyally with a space. I stop and listen to a space. I know that sounds mad.”
A little, I concede, though I suspect her success is also linked with her social skills, or certainly with her Rolodex. Tatler one hailed her as one of the “most invited” women in London – hardly bad for business. She is prone to gushing: “My friends are my treasures, my jewellery. I’m not good at boundaries,” she says, tapping me on the knee for emphasis. “Often my clients become friends. I have very close relationships with them.”
It’s just as well. When it comes to non-business clients, she is notoriously hard to book. “If I don’t feel a click,” she says, snapping her fingers, “then I think it’s mutually beneficial to just leave it there. I don’t pick up if I don’t feel right with someone.” She might do as few as five private homes per year. Past clients include the restaurant mogul Richard Caring. So who has she has allowed onto her books at present? “I’m doing one in New York. He’s my James Bond of clients, a single, cool and intelligent bachelor. He just said “Tara - over to you.”
Bernerd’s bread and butter (or blinis and caviar) are hotels, restaurants and luxury new developments with the sort of penthouse that might sell for £20m. She survived the recession by going on “Tara’s world tour,” drumming up business in Hong Kong, Japan and Qatar while London wobbled. Not that her work is exclusively top-end. The day after we meet she is due to go to Center Parcs to sign off the prototypes for the fifth lot of holiday cabins she has designed for the middle-class family fave.
Did she really need to bother doing all of this in the first place? Surely she could have just finished school and hung around, waiting to marry someone even richer that herself. “Yes, I could have just got married….once,” she laughs, noting that she is already on her second divorce. (Her first husband was the property developer John Hitchcox, with whom she had a “starter marriage” a decade ago.)
Appropriately enough, her own home is a temple to the good life. Interspersed with the posh art are scores of photographs of tanned, smiling men (Archer and pals) and wonderful parties. Downstairs, the kitchen dining room is a Nigella Lawson fantasy with a giant central unit, warm colours and fairly lights tangled nonchalantly around the dining table’s legs. Then there’s the Moroccan-looking bar area, which has cushioned seating areas and a shimmering wall of glass shelves that house every drink known to man. The master bedroom is pure hotel suite.
Nothing is so trendy it’s dated, yet the whole place smacks of pre-crunch aesthetic, when hugely expensive lacquer doors and cookers that cost six figures were the norm. For some people they still are – but for the rest is, such overt luxury seems out of kilter with the spirit of the times.
Does Bernerd have any design bugbears? “Oh yes,” she says, “Curtains to the sill. That’s a big problem for me. I’ve never been big on overly large leather sofas, either. Or trying to keep up with all the latest trends. Homes should be a reflection of oneself. The saddest homes are the ones that feel soulless.”
Glamorous though it is, the one we’re in has perhaps lost a little of it’s soul since the breakup. There are telltale signs of a split – missing art and a lack of plump to the cushions – though the enormous red cow sculpture Archer have her as a love token still stands forlornly in the kitchen.
Yet Bernerd is not one to get bogged down. She is already seeing a new man, a Turk, whom she visits regularly in Istanbul. She may even buy a home there, but in the meantime will make do with a new place around the corner and trips to the family’s chalet in Switzerland. “I was there last week. I left Istanbul in the morning and was in Gstaad for lunch. A hot day in the mountains is heaven. Heidi would have been gone in a bikini.”
As I said, she is gloriously Jackie Collins. She freely admits her world is stranger than fiction. “My soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law, Jeffrey Archer who I have a tremendous fondness for, once said to me something like, “Life’s stories are so much more strange to a novelist.” She pauses, glancing around her echoing soon-to-be-ex-sitting room, recalling all those great parties. Or perhaps dwelling on her own life. “How right he was.”
The Old Bank is for sale through Domus Nova for £4.95m; contact Ben Podesta at Domus Nova (020 7727 1717, domusnova.com)
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