The Porta Romana House
Andrew Hills, co-founder and Creative Director, gives exclusive behind the scenes access to his and Sarah’s beautiful home in Hampshire.
In the Summer of 2018, I became Creative Director at Porta Romana. I forced them to let me do it. Although Sarah and I had founded the business in 1988, she and I had always been a team and we’d always worked on our designs together. This was the first time that I was to have sole creative responsibility, and I was very excited. The truth is that even though Sarah had now returned to her proper calling of being a painter, I hoped that she was always going to help me, and I knew her opinions were always going to be invaluable to me. Nevertheless, I was now in charge, and I needn’t tell anyone about my secret weapon! I was really looking forward to it, and Bohème was my first collection.
Within this piece I want to use the time to explain what my job involves, to tell you about what I like and don’t like, and to explain in pictures, how we have used all of the Porta Romana pieces that we most love to decorate our own home in Hampshire, Holyrood House.
Photo credit: Michael Sinclair, House & Garden Magazine
In February 2010 we bought Holyrood House, a crumbling vicarage surrounded by farmland in the part of Hampshire where we had lived for almost ten years. From some angles it was a beautiful house, but after 18 months and the efforts of three different architects who had tried to re-model it, it was agreed that we would carefully dismantle the old house and start again.
We lovingly set aside the brickwork and conserved the existing timbers; the old slates were piled up and we collated all the blocks of dismantled Malmstone. Over the course of the next two years we built the house all over again, on the same site, to the wish list that we had drawn up over twenty years of playing Grand Designs together.
To avoid fights, we separated out responsibility for the house from the garden, and in November 2013 we moved in with three children, Arnold the dog and Harry’s tortoise George.
Decorating your own house is a big help when you’re trying to develop a sense of scale, material and style for lighting designs. A lot of decorators talk about how much harder it is for them to put together ideas for their own homes because they feel under more pressure than normal. That’s why it can be good to spread the load and share the strain.
Many of our designs are a real collaboration and we rely heavily on the input of our Makers, sometimes, they just do all the work for us! In the case of the Adam lamp, pictured here in one of the bedrooms at Holyrood, this design was a gift to us from our long-term collaborator Adam Aaronson, a genius glassblower and a good friend who we’ve known for around 25 years. These classic ‘country house’ greens all work so well together, and I feel they deliver one of the most elusive gifts in interiors; a sense of timelessness.
In our industry we share a sense of love for anything hand made. If you have an old piece of hand thrown pottery sitting on your mantelpiece, it has a kind of force field around it, and it emits its own energy. Once you know that feeling, it’s very difficult to feel the same love for anything mass produced… and this becomes our curse!
I love all three pieces in this image: the bronze sculpture of a woman undressing, the painting by Ivon Hitchens with its casually confident brushstrokes, and the Boublé lamp with running green and brown reactive glazes. Whenever you look at these pieces, or touch them, you are reminded of their history and how they came into existence through the touch of another hand.
As we make almost all our lampshades at Northbrook (our workshop for around fifteen years) we use hundreds of different fabric colours and linings. That helps enormously in creating a harmonious colour balance amongst a group of objects like these.
I’m telling them through this post, that I’m unbelievably proud of all three of my children. In the background of this photograph is one of the large-scale abstract paintings by our daughter Maddie Rose Hills. This picture makes me think of the power and scale of the Universe. ‘Zoom out’ is a good motto when a problem feels too overwhelming and manageable. This picture is a good reminder of how far we can pull back.
Many of our lamp bases are sculptures really, and they can make a strong statement in a room. But they don’t always have to be like that. Here, with the vivid dynamic of Maddie’s painting behind it, the simplicity of the ceramic Sybil lamp in a Black glaze works very well as a quiet and beautiful silhouette.
We named our son Laurie after the writer Laurie Lee. He makes the most beautiful films. During Lockdown I was able to kidnap him for a few days, and he has taken all the still photographs for this series. As he’s a film fanatic we watched a film for almost every day that he was home, and he still hasn’t been able to knock The Godfather films off their perch as my favourites.
I love the story despite its tragedy, and to me the compositions of every scene are amongst the most beautiful on film. When we moved into Holyrood I wanted to have a Study with the same character as Vito Corleone’s. I envisioned a dark room full of books, dramatically lit and punctuated by a few highlights of colour.
All the bookcases are painted black and the only other finish is the dark American Walnut that we used for the shutters and the doors. At the building stage, all the doors in the house arrived unfinished and they were immediately shipped to Bruce Sedgwick. In a few weeks he gave them years of wear with a selection of hand tools that he’d crafted especially for this work. He painted all the doors black, and then removed almost all of the paint, just leaving the colour that had seeped into the grain. He then French polished them to his own recipe, cursing us all the time for the work. Hardly anyone who comes into the house fails to mention just how beautiful they are.
There are a few details in the room that are in polished brass or gold leaf, the lighting and the door pulls for example, the Miro Pumpkin Chandelier is a Porta Romana piece that I designed in 2013, and it’s still a firm favourite of mine. The Small Covex wall lights were designed by Gareth Devonald Smith.
High on our wish list of ingredients for the house were high ceilings, mainly because we had lived in cottages before. The ground floor ceilings are all ten feet high, which means you can use pieces with some scale. We learnt to use furniture of varying heights so as not to end up with everything of interest being at the same level, and we found that high cupboards can look good with ceramic vases on top!
We also had places for some of our larger wall lights like the Caged Flynn’s which feature in these photographs and create such dramatic vertical lines. I love this design because although it is so graphic in concept, there are two key elements that soften it, and steer it away from feeling soulless or engineered. They are fundamental factors in all our designs, and I think they are part of the ‘hidden handwriting’ that makes what we do so special, and it’s all about creating an interesting surface texture. Firstly, the metal, once cut into strips, is heated and then forged and beaten to achieve a textured surface that is unique to each piece. In this process it picks up little pieces of what a Blacksmith calls Swarf, from the floor of the forge. This all gets incorporated into the finish and makes the texture so varied and interesting. Secondly, in our own workshops at Northbrook, one of our team will apply a decoration. We’ve lost count of the number of different gold leaf finishes that we offer, or how many layers of leaf, tinted lacquers, waxes and other secret ingredients we use, but the final effect is always subtle, layered, complex and wonderful!
So good we used it twice… used here to a very different effect on either side of a drawing by our son Laurie in the Basement at Holyrood.
Living amongst artists as we do, art and paintings are never far away in the conversation.
Adébayo Bolaji is a writer, film-maker and artist living in London. In 2018 when we were raising money for SOS Africa he agreed to paint a Porta Romana Shido lamp for us as an auction prize. There was no state of reality in which anyone was going to outbid us for that lamp, and so it’s ours! It sits in a corner in one of the sitting rooms at Holyrood and it’s one of the things that we love the most. Thank you Adébayo!
That year our team of around 100 people at Northbrook worked endlessly to raise money in every way imaginable. By the end of 2018 we had built a primary school in the Western Cape of South Africa!
In any collection of new designs, it’s always exciting, and often a surprise when you discover after a year or so, which pieces have become the most successful!
Sometimes, it’s the simplest designs, and in the case of Bohème, the Holden pieces emerge as the winners. All of the names from Bohème were taken from either favourite writers or their most memorable characters, so Holden is Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. This family includes a table lamp, desk lamp, floor lamp, wall light and ceiling light has been a huge success.
It’s not one thing that has made it such a success, but perhaps a combination of its versatility (highly useable), its scale (quite small for a Porta Romana piece), it’s colour and texture (interesting, layered and fairly neutral) and possibly it’s price (comfortably low)!
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is the opportunity to meet and collaborate with some of my favourite designers. Our first great success was developing a series of pieces with Gareth Devonald Smith. After that we went on to work with Tord Boontje with whom we had pieces exhibited at a special review of his work at Sotheby’s. We had a remarkable collaboration with Royal Academy of Arts when our 30th anniversary coincided with their 250th, and last year we partnered with both Viola Lanari and Dylan Bowen. As I’m writing this, we developed a series of beautifully animated pieces for Kit Kemp launched in 2021.
The Tier lamp in this shot, was part of a range of pieces that we developed in 2018 with Martin Brudnizki. Martin is really the King of Hotel and Restaurant design, and his interiors for clubs like Annabel’s and the most iconic hotels, have become the hallmark of style and the paragon of excellence. What I so admire about Martin is how his touch will make even the most modest sized room feel layered, interesting and beautifully curated.
The Tier lamp in this beautiful reactive glaze (called Garnet) and the Sway Lamp in solid Polished Brass are the standout pieces from Martin’s collection, and often appear in his own schemes.
For every decorative piece in our collection, there’s probably its practical counterpoint!
The Arc floor lamp is a really useful light source when you don’t have too much space for a side table where you might otherwise have used a table lamp with a lampshade. The base of this piece will slide under the sofa almost completely, so it keeps it right out of the way. The lamp is adjustable so you can re-direct the light very easily, and the design is extremely versatile so I’ll often use this piece when you’ve already got quite a busy space.
Here we often sit down and read, so we have one at each end of this sofa in the family room at Holyrood.
The address of our first workshop was 401 1⁄2 Wandsworth Road. The building was full of hopeful artists and ceramicists given space by Michael Haynes, whose mission was to support us all as we embarked on our artistic careers. Amongst the tenants, one stand-out success story was of the portrait painter Howard Morgan. His studio took up most of the first floor, and the story was he only drank Champagne.
The endless stream of glamorous and beautiful sitters that trod the grubby staircase to Howard’s room was endless, and he painted the portrait in this photograph of Belinda and her Giant Poodle. Once Belinda had sat for her portrait, she was free to go, but the Giant Poodle was chauffeur driven to the studio every day for a fortnight until the painting was complete.
In this shot, the two-way Infinity mirror creates a seemingly endless tunnel of lights which lends a night club atmosphere to the games room.
After three years of building work and another year or so of decorating, we ran out of steam, even though some of the rooms still had squares of cardboard for curtains. To keep everything going, we asked for help from Paolo and Phillip at Nicholas Haslam in Holbein Place.
This photograph is in one of the guest bedrooms at Holyrood that Paolo decorated for us. It’s a very mellow and neutral scheme with a beautiful Bennison wallpaper, some Nicholas Haslam fabrics and the pinkish cushions were made in a Schumacher print with Paolo’s signature fringing.
On the bedside table is the Porta Romana Shisha lamp in a custom Hazelnut coloured glaze which we are introducing as a new colour on a number of our ceramic lamps this autumn, because we loved it so much.
This table is the first thing you see when you come through the front door! The garden at Holyrood is so amazing that a part of it had to make its way inside. Since we built our greenhouse it acts as a field hospital for all the plants that show any signs of suffering from being inside, so there’s a constant rotation, and come to think of it… we haven’t seen the lemon tree for a while!
The hall table was made for us by another genius maker who has been part of our team since the beginning. He is Francis Russell and we would never have got off the ground without his help and support and skills. I really can’t say enough in praise of this hugely talented designer and maker… Certainly not to his face anyway! For three decades we’ve advised one another, opened new chapters in our respective businesses, and had some hilarious episodes. We’ve always been able to rely on him to make some of our most beautiful things.
In a great example of what a really successful collaboration can produce, in 1999 I sent Francis a drawing that really looked nothing like the lamps you see in this picture. What came back was the elegant, perfectly proportioned, and tribal sculpture in this photograph. Honestly Porta Romana had never had anything so magnificent before. It became the Manhattan lamp, which we make in either a Burnished Copper or Nickel finish. Painted here in Indian Red they look just as stylish and have the same gravitas today as they always have. We only placed these lamps here quite recently and we couldn’t be prouder to have them on our hall table at home, with all the memories they hold.
A lot of Paolo’s work has a sense of balance and symmetry. In this guest bedroom, we managed to find a pair of old chests of drawers and then a pair of large, carved wooden swans. I painted a pair of our Twig mirrors to match the wood colour of the furniture, and finished this wall, which frames the entrance to the bathroom, with a pair of Sybil lamps in a Stone coloured glaze.
We dug out a basement at Holyrood mainly for what you call Plant. There was a small space left for wine storage, and the rest we made into a games room with a bar, a snooker table and a cinema screen, and is decorated like Ronnie Scott’s. This room was an open bribe to keep our children at home for as long as possible!
The Porta Romana Salvatore Nest of Tables works here as a series of coffee tables in front of the Clive sofa. The Willow Wall Lights are paired with deep ruby red velvet shades to enhance the mood of the room.
Sarah and I fell in love with the Barovier table lamp design, made in Murano in the 1950s. They resembled a pair of vases, lit from the inside, and crusted on the outside with hundreds of glass spikes. The technique is called Rostrato. When we finally tracked down a pair, we chose them for our dining room because they give off such a beautiful and sparkly evening light.
For a couple of years, we asked every glassblower we knew if they could make something using the same technique because the Venetians had long since given up on it. The only person brave enough to tackle such a challenge was Andrew Potter. Since then, he has mastered the technique, and has not only made our adorable Hedgehog lamp, but the stunning Thorn Column lamp which is 90cm high and has around 120 individually pulled glass spikes.
In developing new pieces, we love to create detailed and intricate shapes, and we’re always looking for something that can be described as sculptural. Chris Welch is our ‘go-to’ model maker, and we would never have been able to produce so many beautiful shapes without his amazing sculpting skills.
In the case of the Mussel Shell mirror, Chris created the model for us using hundreds of actual mussel shells, polluting the air quality in his Workshop for weeks! Because we’ve worked together for such a long time, he has a great understanding of what we’re trying to achieve, so we now talk to each other in shorthand!
When in doubt, we always tend to over-scale our pieces on the basis that it’s better for an object to look generous, rather than mean. This mirror is actually quite huge, and we are often torn over whether to make certain iconic items on a smaller scale.
Some time ago we designed the Motu Lamp which has a very graphic architectural style. The two adjustable arms throw out little pools of light, resembling searchlights. We designed it as a desk lamp that would make a strong statement. Motu stands for Master of The Universe! Here it sits in one of the guest bedrooms at Holyrood on an antique, studded Indian trunk at the foot of the bed.
Last year, as part of the Bohème collection we introduced it as a floor lamp too.
Between Sarah and I, it has always been frustratingly obvious to everyone, which one of us is the real creative talent. Although I try, and I have ideas, I need to be collaborative, and I rely on our makers much more to help develop an idea together.
Sarah has the ability to visualise and produce a fully formed idea quite independently, and I’ve witnessed this on so many occasions. Walking along Sloane Street one day she picked up a seed pod that had fallen from a tree. It looked so complicated and intricate to me, and as she tried to explain what she wanted to do with it, I had no idea what she intended or how it could possibly be made into anything. Within a few weeks this had become the Urchin ceiling lights that were ultimately installed at Royal Academy of Arts.
In this photograph we used the Blossom wall lights, another of Sarah’s instinctive designs from 2005 that became an iconic piece for us.
Sources of inspiration are always really interesting. We become quite obsessive about new ideas and are constantly looking for shapes and colours and objects that could produce inspiration for lighting designs. Sometimes it may be a discarded item that you pick up off the floor, a crumpled piece of paper or some rough- textured metal. It may just be the shape of a shadow, or even something that you thought you saw, but wasn’t actually there. The only certainty is that to be inspired you need to have your eyes open, and to be looking at the most interesting things you can find whether in nature, or a gallery, or out on the street or whatever works for you.
Sometimes you can be lucky enough to pick up an antique piece, where nobody owns the design, and you can make your own version of that thing. Here are a couple of antique pieces that we have at home, that have formed the basis for two very popular Porta Romana wall lights, the Scallop Shell Wall Light and the Beatrice Wall Light.
The Jordan wall light is one of the most useful pieces that we make! I always use them and would always suggest them on either side of a bed. They are an extremely considerate reading light, allowing you to keep reading late into the night without disturbing your partner! We make them in a variety of different finishes and lengths, they have a very solid feeling dolly switch that turns them off and on, and as well as being enormously practical, I think they look very elegant.
Although this design does come on a smaller scale, I love the drama of this Large Leaf light which is our largest at just under 1.4 meters high.
It is another of Sarah’s creations which she had made out of stamped and rippled metal sheet. Where possible, we always work quite hard to avoid seeing the source of the light as it can be so blinding. One of the clever aspects of Sarah’s design is how the metal leaves overlap to let out exciting chinks of light right across the piece. It also stands off the wall by a few millimetres so that the light glows all around it. –
For the Bohème Collection we worked with the amazing British studio potter, Dylan Bowen. Dylan works in slipware from his studio in Tackley near Oxford and what he produces is fantastic. His pieces are in collections all over the world and I have no doubt that his reputation will endure as one of the icons of British pottery of this time.
It’s remarkable to watch him work and to see the confidence and instinct with which he applies his slip decorations. He decorates in his own unique palette of colours which makes his pieces instantly recognisable. In this photograph you can see the Conrad lamp which we launched in 2019. It has a timelessness that makes it so well suited to a contemporary interior but equally could have been one of Picasso’s shapes from the 1930’s.
We have loved designing mirrors over the years. When we first started, we created a flat framed mirror on which our artists used to paint the most wonderful and complicated decorations. The ‘Mantegna Rings’ mirror was one of my favourites with a frieze that was copied from a Mantegna painting. We’ve also been able to experiment with all different kinds of mirror glass, including proper silver-foil backed glass in varying degrees of antiquing, and textured rippled glass which, to me, produces the most beautiful reflections (but happen to cost the most!)
The Laurel Mirror is something much simpler, but it works so well because of its very elegant proportions. Only when you see it close up do you appreciate the detail in the frame, which was originally made up of twisted strands of metal, woven together like a laurel wreath.
Some time ago we created a system for wiring most of our wall lights with a sealed electrical component which meant that the great majority of our standard wall lights could be IP rated and therefore used in the restricted zones in bathrooms. Please do ask us about this if you’re not sure.
We have also designed some more obviously ‘bathroom’ bathroom wall lights like this Emperor Wall Light which we used in The Coach House at Holyrood, which is a guest cottage.
One of the things that troubles me on any ‘made’ item is a really flat and quickly applied finish. It’s obviously a cheaper process to apply a one layered finish, but the problem is, it always looks so boring!
I’m conscious of the fact that all these items that we’ve chosen to live with, we’ll want to be looking at for years and years to come. So, what you see has to have some depth and interest to it, and when your eye goes back to have another look, you want to see an aspect of the design or finish that you haven’t seen before. In our Workshop at Northbrook, we’re fastidious about creating textures and finishes that are layered and interesting, invariably not just creating an interesting surface, but creating a rich and varied patina across the piece.
In these Rameau wall lights (Rameau being French for a tree branch), the body of the wall light is textured with a very fine comb, to look like tree bark, the finish which is then applied starts with gold leaf over a coloured substrate, and requires nine distinct layers of patination.
There’s plenty of pattern, colour and decoration in the basement games room at home, including this striking geometric Bohemian Bangles wallpaper from Phillip Jeffries. So, the wall lights didn’t need to be anything too loud. The Willow design with custom gathered velvet lampshades add just the right amount of atmosphere.
I don’t have a picture of the Harry desk lamp at home, but it’s named after our third and youngest child Harry, and I know I haven’t mentioned him yet. When I told him at the beginning of August that we would have a holiday in Greece starting the 5th September, he set off on foot with a friend and told me that he would meet us there.
One of the wonderful things about being a parent is watching the story of your children’s lives unfold, they’re constantly changing and surprising, and sometimes amazing. We have no idea what Harry will do with his life but he seems to have a lot of options, because he’s constantly studying and enquiring; he brings back cuttings from all over the world, and there are often warning signs around the house, alerting us to the possible dangers of his current experiments; (I remember a cup of boiling oil that exploded in the sink when he was working on how to decaffeinate coffee). He will grow and prepare the ingredients for a single meal and spend an entire day cooking it. When he was almost 7, Sarah had a tooth that was causing her some pain. It eventually came out and he left a pound coin under her pillow. He’s studying Anthropology at university because he was too busy to look any further down the course list after the letter A. Who knows what might happen next?
We bought this dimpled brass lamp at an antiques fair… it’s really beautiful but we could never find anyone who could make it to look as good as the original. So it stayed where it was at home and we probably love it all the more for being a unique thing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the story, and I wanted to end on two really important points.
Firstly, that all of us in this industry share a love, or even an obsession, with hand made things, and as such, we’re very lucky to be living in the UK! Up and down this country, in small workshops, mostly quite scruffy, you can find the most dedicated and hardworking artists striving for perfection in what they do, and often never hearing the applause. Those makers and what they can create, are the backbone of Porta Romana and I hope I’ve been able to give an idea of that tradition, and how important our makers are to us.
The second point is that we’re making things that we believe are truly precious. There’s a responsibility on anyone who’s using a part of the world’s limited resources, to question how valid their cause is. The only justification we have, is our belief that the environments that we create for ourselves, our homes, are truly important to the way that we live and feel, and that the pieces we make are not only timeless in design but are made to last for very many lifetimes. So, I hope that if ever you’re thinking of buying a Porta Romana piece, that you’ll buy it because you’ve fallen in love with it, and that you can’t live without it, and then we’ll know that its place in the world is secure for many generations to come!