James Swan

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Episode 218: Serena Crawford

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Serena Crawford was born in South Africa, and grew up in Johannesburg where it was all about the house and entertaining.

In Her Own Words:

I won a post graduate scholarship to study Architectural History at Florence University in Italy. This marvelous experience changed my life. It was such an exciting insight into a rich European sophisticated style with layered history … but mostly I studied the fabulous people and their houses, and grand villas and even the odd castle where I was a house guest. This experience influenced me enormously, to the extent that I believe I was Italian in a previous life.!! I love it so much and feel totally spiritually at home there.


On graduating I returned to SA and met and married my wonderful husband, who is the love of my life .We have had a fascinating life ever since then.

He had just built a house in Johannesburg and it was the first South African house to be featured in Architectural Digest USA. I also helped source interesting houses from South Africa that were featured in that magazine.We are both passionately interested in houses and building.

From then on we became serial movers around the world, due to my husband’s international business.

I think it became apparent that my design and in particular decorating passion came to the fore when my husband bought an abandoned stone castle on a cliff edge on the tip of Africa around the time he met me and he started to decorate and design it. A few months later he graciously handed it over to me to do and I think this house was the beginning of me getting my confidence as a designer. It was an extremely challenging house ; we renovated it three times, and very radically the final time. It became a famous house because it was in such an extraordinarily beautiful and dramatic position and  it was so quirky and fun. Everyone loved coming to stay or to come to the endless parties we had there. It was photographed in many international and local magazines and books. But I only decorated it once  and it stood the test of time. A room that I decorated for that house over 35 years ago was picked up by Mark D Sikes a year and half ago and put on his blog and Instagram and from that my Instagram following went from a few hundred  people to where it is now (20, 000 followers).

We lived in London for 6 years in the 80s and I studied decorative Arts at the Victoria and Albert museum. We bought an historic Grade 1 house, with Great Halls and 18 bedrooms, and a Arboretum in the English countryside.  This was an extraordinary experience that eventually lead us away from England and with my encouragement we moved to Sydney Australia which was more understandable to me than isolated country life. I was cured of a Brideshead Revisited view of the world.

Sydney is a lovely happy sunny place and I renovated my first house there and then subsequently built from scratch  and designed my first house there.  I have spent my life knocking down houses and building new ones in their place.  I think this first house I built from scratch became quite well known as it was so different from anything else in Australia at that time. Many people still say it is their favourite house that I have designed. It was based on Cape Georgian architecture which is my great love and the theme of most of my houses. I also built an outdoor covered room — open on three sides — that had proper linen sofas, and was decorated like a room and had an outside fireplace oven. This was unheard of at the time and subsequently properly furnished outdoor rooms have become my trade mark. Especially African looking ones. They are the best rooms and everyone wants one. Everyone wants to live outdoors, be part of the garden but be comfortable.They are the most romantic spaces.

I then went on to build three  more houses in Sydney from scratch.…always because we left Australia and then returned and left again. I had a bit of a revolving door thing happening with Australia. I actually became my own client through this process. As a result I  stopped being as emotionally attached to the idea of owning a property forever. I build my homes always for myself and they always are and always have a piece of my heart. But what I learned was I loved the process of building and creating so much..and that I can let go. That part astonished me and still does. But moving countries has propelled me to be this way. Each house has taken approximately three years to build and finish…Australia taking longer as it is mind numbingly, shatteringly bureaucratic to build a house there.

In between I built another house in South Africa and have recently built another one in Cape Town which is my present home.

I have been called in for years with my friends and people who know about me to work with their architects, to look at plans, and give them design and decorating advice. In the past my life was quite overwhelming, I have moved 32 times since I got married….that was when I last counted.  So most of the work I have done  for other people has been very quick consulting.

My husband and and I and our two children lived in our own houses on three different continents for many many years. My eldest daughter went to University in both New Jersey and Cambridge in the USA, and then stayed on in New York, so I spent 12 years jumping on a planes to watch her in plays and anything else she was up to. I based myself in NYC and loved it so much. Eventually we moved to NYC for a year when she was working there  and spent half the time in the Hamptons..what an experience. I love love America and only read American newspapers and prefer American magazines. I’m an Americophile. I love American design. I was so deeply influenced by my time in NYC and the Hamptons. I was once again so lucky and met fabulous people and saw INCREDIBLE houses all over America and especially in Dallas. What a place! I also love Los Angeles and San Francisco … and love its design sensibility. My other daughter spent a year living in Santa Barbara and that’s another favourite place with the best houses in the best houses in the world.. I’m obsessed with its historic architecture. Some of my  favourite contemporary domestic architects in the world are American. One is Mark Appleton from Santa Barbara and the others are Greg Tankersley and Bobby MacAlpine…and a darling and brilliant  friend of mine Ankie Barnes in Washington. These are the architects I would commission if I was building a house or the couple who have built that beautiful Ojai Farm. They have the best bathroom in the world. I find my talent lies in working with architects and making sure the house works and can be decorated and be as interesting as it can be. It’s also all about emotional resonance with me.

Apart from my homes, and designing for other people, I have designed my own luxury boutique Villa hotel which won many prizes and accolades, my favourites awards coming from Conde Nast USA Traveller and Conde Nast UK Traveller. I’m a hotelier and housekeeper in my nature and the thing I have loved most has been working on luxury boutique hotels and safari camps and in particular designing the whole way it works from the  staff uniforms, how the beds are made, to how the food is served, flowers, and room details. And of course the decorating and designing the whole guest experience.

I’m a details queen. My favourite thing was helping one of my best friends, Ineke Henderson who is a brilliant designer with he safari camps she was involved with decorating and designing. She lived in Zimbabwe where she had to create and make everything from scratch for these camps and for the famous Victoria Falls Hotel. I have never had more fun. There are huge challenges working in the middle of nowhere in Africa and hearing the lions roar at night, while you are working out how to arrange the furniture.… … If you break something it can take another 6 to 9 months to replace. The level of creativity required makes it such exciting work. Southern Africa is now famous for its Safari Camps. They started a revolution and the concept is copied all over the world.

That’s the thing about Africa…. so little is available that you just have to get it made. I’m a great commissioner of things and getting them made. Or I find everything through one of the incredibly creative people here who are doing something so extraordinary that you have to buy and use it in one of your projects.

You have no idea how many exciting people are  here in the design world and the fabulous things they are doing here. It’s an explosion!! Im a great supporter and promoter of these people. I’m a great admirer of South African designers and decorators. They are just too fabulous world class beyond and I count many of them as my personal friends. I especially love and admire Stephen Falcke as one of the greats. He is one of the nicest people in the world as well. I think Boyd Ferguson is a creative genius of the highest order. I work here with a wonderful and brilliant architect Philip Briel My favourite in the world. Creativity is huge here.

My next project is to go small and I’m planning a small London flat. It’s a whole switch in sensibility as I’m used to a big canvas. So now I’m thinking micro design and minimalism my way. (Back to using Pinterest again which I ignore for months at a time. And then suddenly in a flurry I’m back on it.)

I think my international life and  experiences have made me open to the world and its people. I source and buy things from everywhere in the world. I have sourced everything internationally for my own houses and in all my projects. I’m not afraid to buy anything or commission anything  from anywhere. I’m an internet freak and know what is going on everywhere. I love it !! And I’m lucky enough to attract and find amazing things, ideas and people wherever I go.

At the moment my daughter Siena Crawford and I are designing home-wares  and and handmade embroidered linen for a Singapore company .  I’m so excited about this project. It will only be emerging next year. Gosh everything takes so much time. Patience is the lesson of my life this lifetime!

I’m also trying to keep my life more simple, but it is actually getting bigger and more fun!!

Discover Serena’s Website here

Pick-up a copy of Serena’s book recommendation, A Pattern Language, with one click here

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