Kevin McCloud Grand Designs Interview

As part of our interview series, My Happy Home, Kevin McCloud defends the colour grey, reveals his favourite IKEA furniture, and tells us why our homes shouldn’t look like a shop window.

Kevin is a British designer, writer and presenter best known for guiding adventurous home builders on Channel 4’s Grand Designs. His colourful CV also includes Grand Designs Indoors, Grand Designs Abroad, Kevin McCloud’s Rough Guide to the Future, and Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home — a four-part series where he constructed a cabin in the woods with an emphasis on sustainable techniques.

The design guru is also the editor-at-large of Grand Designs Magazine and hosts the annual Grand Designs Live exhibition at London’s ExCeL and Birmingham’s NEC.

What makes you the happiest at home?

KMC: Sunshine and tidiness!

What’s the best home bargain you have ever snapped up?

KMC: I’m not a great bargain spotter. What does the word bargain imply? For me, it implies value. I’m in my early 60s, so it’s not like I’m planning for a period in my life when I can’t afford stuff. I’m still living with the IKEA furniture which I love. I’ve got a couple of pieces from when I was a student like we all do. In the end, no matter how much something costs, if it doesn’t provide daily joy then why I have I got it. What’s it doing? If it doesn’t remind me of loved ones, then why have I got it?

I’ve bought chairs cheaply, but in the end, they’ve been junk. I’ve got a chair — several chairs — that are secondhand or from junk shops even. I’m sitting in a chair right now, which is a leather Knoll chair that I found in a skip on the street. I had to do some work on it. The point is that this is not a fetish object. It’s just a lovely thing. And it cost almost nothing.

I was at the dump on the weekend to take some rubbish there. I found a metal base of a chair there and thought I could get something out of it, but it was 20 feet down in the bottom of the steel pit. I’m always looking for stuff.

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What’s the best decorating advice you’ve ever received?

KMC: I learned not to exercise judgment and my taste with evaluating other people’s homes. It’s when you look at their bookcase, their record collection, their furniture and their choice of kitchen. It’s all coherent, it’s all them.

There was a [Grand Designs] couple in Scotland, Richard and Pru, and they did a rather interesting long house in Midlothian. It was a beautiful building. He had this record collection, including this boxset of personal records that my father had. I hadn’t seen it for 40 years! He also had a clock on his mantelpiece that looked like one belonging to my mother. These simple connections made me realise just how important it is that your home is your home. If all you do is reproduce the window of a furniture shop in making your home, then you have failed.

‘If all you do is reproduce the window of a furniture shop in making your home, then you have failed’

Of course, do buy yourself the most beautiful lamp designed by the most famous Italian designer from a Swedish upmarket emporium. I’m sitting at an IKEA desk actually. In my room here, I’ve also got a couple of pieces from the 1960s. I’ve got a couple of modern bits, too. It’s all about mixing it up. Not everything needs to look like a showroom. You might as well just go and live in the window of a shop.

In our household, we’ve got this small metal cupboard from IKEA. I don’t want this sounding like an advert for IKEA! I often think where would we be without this essential? Or where would we be without beautiful Italian lighting. It’s all about mixing up past the present.

I don’t share my home on Instagram. I think it is incredibly personal. To me, showing my home to other people on Instagram would be like showing the contents of my underwear drawer. Why would I do that? Why would I share a photo of something that belonged to my father that has enormous and spiritual value to me?

kevin mccloud at grand designs live

Kevin at Grand Designs Live

Grand Designs Live

Where do you shop for the best homewares?

KMC: Well, obviously I shop at Grand Designs Live! I think Grand Designs Live has become enormously important for customers to be able to go along, touch an object, meet the maker, and understand the value of something. Whether it’s a cooker or a beautifully crafted piece of furniture, you get to meet people and talk about their passion.

I was given a pot, which was gifted to me by the potter. I don’t care if nobody else likes it. Through that object, I have this sacred relationship with another human being. That’s a magical thing. It doesn’t involve the transaction of cash. It’s about love. Meeting people, sharing a passion for the objects of craftsmanship, that’s truly sustainable. Because that way you can’t ever throw the object away.

There’s a joke in our house about when we order things online. It’s usually to do with size. You order something, such as a bag of Brussels sprouts, and it arrives with about three sprouts inside. I ordered some shelving and it turned out that it wasn’t made by the company I thought it would be. It’s 80 per cent of the size I expected. Everything is cheaper and nastier.

If you could have a snoop around anyone’s house, whose would it be? And why?

KMC: I’ve lived in slums and I’ve spent time on islands, filming people in the middle of the South Pacific in a shed. Despite the fact that I do love and enjoy design, I can cope with a little less. There are others in my life who might disagree and say I’m actually quite demanding!

The place I would love to visit is a hut in the woods in New England. It was built by author Henry David Thoreau, who wrote the 1840s book Walden. It’s a book I always have with me. It’s about his time deliberately giving up a more sophisticated lifestyle and getting to live in a hut by a pond in the forest. He does it to understand the values of a simple life.

I would love to have sat in that hut, and felt his presence and the magic of that place. I read the book because I love sheds and love being outdoors. I love the way being in nature is not just a neutral sock to absorb the stresses of live, but it’s actually a regenerative thing. The closer we position ourselves to nature, whether it’s through planting trees or gardening, the more civilised species we become. I’ve been around celebrity houses, but I just want to get out as quickly as possible!

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What is your most treasured possession at home and why?

KMC: As you’d expect me to say, it’s something very personal. They are A3 engineering drawings and I’ve framed two of them. They were drawn exquisitely in pencil by my father in October 1951. He was an engineer and came from a very, very poor background. My father went to Hull Technical College, which became Hull University. These drawings were part of his final examination. I look at these and I’m immediately emotionally connected to him. If the fire was burning the house to the ground, I would run in and get these.

What would your perfect night at home look like?

KMC: An early supper and probably a boxset. I’m obviously watching Grand Designs Well, I know how the episodes end, so at the moment I’m watching Poldark which is just great. Plus I also love The Chef Show with Jon Favreau and American Barbecue Showdown.

What does outdoor space in a home mean to you?

KMC: I work in the air. I like to be outdoors all day. I would probably be happy spending most of the night outdoors, too. For me, the outdoors is like a fundamental addiction. I can’t look at it any other way. I can’t think about garden design as a sort of adjunct to architecture — it’s a bit more primal than that. I am transported by the sound of birdsong. I love planting trees.

Outdoor space has enormous restorative value. Much like your collection of records, books or furniture, your garden should be a reflection of you, your love and your delights. I don’t particularly enjoy poinsettias at Christmas because of deep-rooted childhood problems, for example, but there are other plants that make me feel utterly transported, like roses.

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What would top your list for the worst decor trend?

KMC: Probably about living in a showroom, but I think allied with that is the trend for bling. It emerged in the first decade of this century and it’s a pretty appalling one. It’s appalling because you’d go to people’s houses and you’d see decorative extract things, like crystal chandeliers. I found it very anti-sustainability. It represented the very worst in architecture and design. It was like someone had taken a box of Quality Street and thrown it across the table.

I think there is a problem if you are seduced like a magpie to shiny objects, just because it’s shiny. You’ve already been seduced beyond any ability to assess its functionality, its usefulness and its durability. I just have to blame the advertisers because it was a seductive marketing ploy. Thank goodness we have passed this because so many hotels are now full of craftsmanship and relationships with makers and builders. It’s a joy to see this extraordinary variety of buildings and design.

I’m a big fan of grey. When people ask me if I like grey, it’s like asking if you like your sheep to be fatter or skinnier. I like my sheep any way. There’s no such thing as white, because white is sitting in shadow casting shadows on itself. Under our grey, cloudy skies in the UK, grey can be the most beautiful colour. It has done nothing wrong.

Which room do you spend most of your time in at home?

KMC: The field outside! It’s good thinking and charging space. I spend probably far too much time in front of a laptop or a desk. Other than that, I’ve spent the past two years in my camper van. This is where I lived when we were filming and driving around the country. But I can’t say in anyway that this is a personalised space!

If you could design your dream home, what things would you want to include?

KMC: That’s a really good question. I think it comes back to this point about learning from other people. We mentioned authenticity and autobiographies in homes, so that is of course important.

At the same time, it’s about trying to understand who you are and what really matters. So many things that bring us joy in life are about memory and association, whether that stems from our childhood or past happiness. One of the happiest times of my life was when I lived in Italy. I worked on a farm and on a vineyard. I still hanker after this idea in my head that one day I’ll have a little vineyard.

Equally, I’ve always enjoyed being able sit outside undercover in the rain with a glass of something. I love enjoying the sound of the rain but being dry. The other thing for me is to have a view of the sunset. How many sunsets do you get to see in your life? I think it’s the spiritual, emotional, and the remembered happinesses.

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Grand Designs Live will take place at ExCeL London from 30 April – 8 May 2022. The event will be hosted by Kevin McCloud, offering inspirational information and advice about the world of interiors, home design, self and custom build. For tickets please visit Grand Designs Live.

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