A Chat with Emma Burns and Philip Hooper of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler

As the oldest interior decorating firm in Great Britain, SIBYL COLEFAX & JOHN FOWLER has mastered the comfortable English Country House aesthetic, in a deeply personal way that mixes present day appeal with old world charm. EMMA BURNS and PHILIP HOOPER are two of the firm’s seven decorators, as well as the Managing Directors. I spoke with them recently from my home in Connecticut, with (this being the age of the Zoom call), Philip Hopper in London, and Emma Burns in Greece. We will meet this coming week in San Francisco for the 40th anniversary ‘Ruby Jubilee’ of THE SAN FRANCISCO FALL SHOW, where Burns and Hooper will create one of the four Designer Vignettes to grace the Grand Entry Hall of the Show. I was eager to know what they have in store…
“Given that it is your ruby anniversary, our room is layers of red,” they shared. “We were inspired us to go down the Indian, Ottoman route, with red velvet panels. We came up with the idea to do divans, and banquettes around the room, giving the feeling of an opium room, lots of layers, very unexpected for us,” said Hooper.

Watercolour sketch by Philip Hooper of the Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler Designer Vignette for the 2022 San Francisco Fall Show

“The Colefax group is an umbrella and we (Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler) are the interior decorating arm,” explained Hooper.  “Our group of decorators each run our own businesses and Emma and I are starting to work together on projects. We have a constant dialogue about what we want to do, working together toward a common goal.”
The two recently worked on the guest bedroom at BELVOIR CASTLE in Leicestershire, England, with the renowned hand-painted wallpaper company, DE GOURNAY. Belvoir Castle is home to the Fall Show’s Co-Honorary Chair, The Duchess of Rutland, Emma Manners, and de Gournay is a major sponsor of the show. “We dressed the incredible 4-poster bed and used Colefax fabrics,” said Hooper. “We drew our scheme from that palette. All the furniture was original to the room, to maintain continuity. We curated this beautiful room using all new components and new de Gournay wallpaper in apricot and blue.”

Philip Hooper and Emma Burns at Work. Photograph by Dean Hearne

Another recent project was the WOW! HOUSE in London, the Design Centre Chelsea Harbour’s design showhouse, showcasing the work of 20 acclaimed interior designers. Hooper and Burns created the Drawing Room for the 2022 Showhouse. “We did a fabulous dark green wall covering, and a high gloss egg yolk yellow on the mirror over the fireplace. The result was beautiful—a nice refreshing take–it played with your mind—it looked gilded,” said Burns. I love this concept and how this translates to the process of creating timeless décor.

Sybil Colefax & John Fowler Room at the Wow! house, designed by Emma Burns and Philip Hooper. Photograph by Christopher Horwood

“It comes back to the layout of the space—which is vital, and not being seduced by trends,” said Burns. “Rooms change subtly, gently over the years. Living in it, you will know how much it has changed. If the volume of what you’ve put into the room is correct, the way the light comes in, the thought that goes into it, it lasts.” But they both agree trends are not all bad. “With trends—you might take something from a trend, but not abjectly follow it”, said Hooper. “Something as simple as a finish–high gloss lacquer, for example.”

Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler decorator, Wendy Nicholls’ London flat.

These days, Burns and Hooper are seeing a demand for more flexibility in their clients’ homes, a result of the increased time we have been spending there–rooms have become more multi-use. “Everything has to perform more than one function these days,” said Burns. “I think homes in general are more important, we don’t take them for granted. In some ways our firm has been cushioned from what is going on because most of our projects are so large they started pre-pandemic and were already in production. But with smaller projects, people want to put walls up vs. taking walls down–no more open floor plans.”
“There is a balance of things,” Burns explained. “You don’t want to have too much of one thing, too many museum quality pieces all together, but if you mix in some modern it balances out. John Fowler famously said ‘the little jug of primrose on the commode makes the room human.’ It’s about being realistic and honest about how you live and what you want to say about yourself.”

Wisconsin Bedroom, designed by Emma Burns for Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler. Photograph by Simon Brown

“I think you can also find a way in which the pieces talk to each other, through finish or color or texture. That’s what is healthy about mixing things up. If you get it right it’s a harmonious mix, adds Hooper” Hooper comes from an architectural background and as such, looks at a space from that perspective. “It is pointless doing decoration if the bones are not right. If you get the proportions right, what you hang on it will feel that much better. There is a skill in thinking in 3-dimensions, it’s a good talent to have! Everything we do is about planning and doing everything to scale. It really is as pragmatic as that.”

Verbier Project, Designed by Philip Hooper for Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler

To be successful, Hooper and Burns need involvement from their clients. “I need their commitment to their project, says Hooper, “they need to put in the homework and the legwork and the time. You need a client who is committed and understanding of what they want. It’s like a tennis match–you knock ideas back and forth.” Burns adds, “I have a wonderful client who likens the design process to a dog sniffing–you get down and down to what you want. There needs to be an openness.”

Connecticut home, designed by Roger Jones for Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler

Travel is a great source of inspiration for both designers, “travel, and seeing things with your eyes. It’s the most important thing you can do,” says Hooper. “And constant curiosity,” adds Burns. “The biggest joy about being able to travel again is being able to see things in person again. During the pandemic, it was all books, and photographs.” Armchair travel, armchair inspiration.

Architecture feature ‘Respect restored’ on interior designer Philip Hooper restoration of late-regency house in Hampshire, England. Interior view of main bedroom with striped armchair and footstool, carpet, window seat, pelmet and curtains and paintings on red wall. From House & Garden

I am always curious what elements designers find to be the most important in a room–without which, nothing else works. For Hooper, comfort is king. I can’t argue with that–if you don’t feel comfortable, it doesn’t matter how stunning the room looks; a room should be used. And Burns’s answer paired well with Hooper’s: “it’s the people in the room,” she concluded. They are the most important element. And that’s what makes a great team.
By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat
Ariane served as Show Director for The San Francisco Fall Show for 7 years through 2019. She is now the show’s Director-at-Large, living in Westport, Connecticut with her family. Follow Ariane on her blog, SOJOURNEST, where she focuses on all things home and travel and on Instagram at @arianetrim