Interior designer David Mlinaric’s earliest memory is of taking shelter during an air raid in a riverside grotto, which he sensed had once been very special. In the 1720s, poet Alexander Pope built this subterranean passageway to link his villa on the Thames with his garden across the road, encrusting its walls with shells, shards of mirror and myriad geological treasures. Although these decorations had long since been stripped away, Pope’s creative hand was somehow still evanescently present to the sensitive three-year-old. “Its rockiness was incredibly romantic,” Mlinaric remembers. “I think I was conscious of the fact it had been made.”
That realization was the first glimmer of Mlinaric’s ability to intuit the past life and future potential of a building, to—as his longtime client Lord Jacob Rothschild puts it—“read its character.” It’s an innate skill that has served him well over the course of his 50-year career, and one that has resulted in some of the most successful restorations of great English interiors.
Many of these projects are on view in the new book Mlinaric has written with Mirabel Cecil, Mlinaric on Decorating, out in October from Frances Lincoln Ltd. Prefaced with fragments of biography and full of evocative photographs, the retrospective chronicles Mlinaric’s numerous achievements, most notably a nearly 30-year collaboration with Rothschild, who commissioned more than a decade’s worth of work on Waddesdon, his palatial, French-style manor, and entrusted Mlinaric with the salvation of Spencer House, one of the few remaining aristocratic London mansions. In addition, Mlinaric was responsible for the masterly rejuvenation of the Royal Opera House, as well as other venerable London institutions. Recording the process in riveting detail, the book also covers Mlinaric’s “mending,” as he calls it, of his own country homes and includes chapters on private commissions ranging from small urban apartments to atmospheric houses in Corfu, Greece; Mustique; France; and Ireland.
Sitting in a sunny alcove of his pied-à-terre in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, Mlinaric, a youthful near-septuagenarian (he turns 70 next March), is much more fun and forthcoming than his status as the establishment figure of English design leads one to expect. He’s also resolutely self-effacing. Cecil, he says, had tried to persuade him to coauthor a book 30 years ago, but he hadn’t felt ready. “I hadn’t done enough work that I really cared for,” he says.
Such high standards—what Rothschild calls “David’s incredible range of excellence and punctiliousness”—have made Mlinaric’s reputation. “He’s very demanding,” says antiquarian Christopher Gibbs, who has teamed with Mlinaric on a number of projects, including the interior of a superstar’s French château and the facelift of the Victoria and Albert Museum. “He’ll insist on seeing 23 different shades of paint to find precisely the right one, and he can get extremely tetchy. When we did the V&A renovation together, one of my roles was to calm…David…down.”