While working on Waddesdon, Mlinaric went so far as to visit the archives at Versailles in search of an 18th-century seamstress’s sketch showing how headings of drapes should be held together. In today’s climate—one he describes as “fueled by status and the pursuit of novelty rather than distinction”—this sort of meticulous quest for excellence puts the designer in a class of his own. Says Rothschild: “There’s no one else like him.”
Mlinaric was born on the eve of World War II to an English mother and an Austro-Hungarian father, a furrier who had emigrated to England in 1912 from what is now Slovenia. As a child with a surname few could pronounce, Mlinaric always felt like an outsider, and while he was educated in the English public school tradition, his outlook was far from conventional. On family beach holidays in Eastbourne, he would stand, with his back to the sea, studying the houses on the shore. “And when I played with my friends on London bomb sites, I’d be constructing in my mind how the buildings would have looked before they were destroyed,” he remembers.
At Downside, a strict Roman Catholic boarding school, Mlinaric’s best friend was an Irish boy who introduced him to the seedy romance of
Dublin and to crumbling Georgian country houses. A visit to Leixlip, the home of Desmond Guinness, was a mini epiphany: The castle’s irresistible mix of beauty and disarray created a memory that has never left him, helping to form the shabby-chic style that became his hallmark.
When the time came to leave school, Mlinaric knew exactly what he wanted to do, but Downside’s headmaster told him that interior design wasn’t “a real profession” and advised him to study architecture instead. It was a blessing in disguise. Although he switched after a year to the division of decoration, the formal grounding he received at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture is one on which Mlinaric continues to draw.
By age 22, with just enough money to pay the first month’s rent, he opened his own studio just off the King’s Road. It was exactly the place to be. “To have been young and in Chelsea in the Sixties was all you could wish for—nobody had as much fun as we did,” recalls Mlinaric, whose friends and first clients became icons of that era. Mick Jagger asked him to decorate the house in Cheyne Walk that he shared with Marianne Faithfull and still relies on Mlinaric’s firm to design his increasingly baronial properties. At the Baghdad House restaurant, the hangout of rock stars and aristocratic hippies, Mlinaric met Eric Clapton, who hired him to redecorate his mansion in Surrey and, later, his London house. But while Mlinaric cultivated the persona of a King’s Road dandy, there was always something that set him apart from his circle. “He wasn’t wayward like the people around him,” says fellow interior designer Nicky Haslam. “He’s always had a very serious undercurrent.” Mlinaric remembers getting bored at one outdoor rock concert and wandering off with Gibbs to look at churches. “We were both finding our way into English architecture and history at that time,” he says.