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A description by Jean Muir of her 'White Flat'

From 'An Englishwoman's House' edited by Alvilde Lees-Milne
photographs by Derry Moore, Published by Collins - ISBN 0-00-217344-1

Available from Amazon

Ten years ago we were living in a flat in Pont Street, full of colour, pattern, ornaments and paintings. Work was increasingly hard. I was dashing backwards and forwards from America, and as the pressure grew, so did the feeling that we should simplify the way we lived. The concept we had of a way to live that would balance the working life was, in a sense, a reflection of my love for the workrooms - the feeling of space around you, good proportions, decks cleared, a studio atmosphere and beautiful light.

As the feeling became a necessity, we began to look for more space and a friend who lived in the building introduced us to a marvellously proportioned flat behind the Albert Hall. It was rather grandly built by a Victorian speculator who ran out of money before the block was completed, so the story goes.

I do not remember that we consciously decided 'We will have a white flat', but that is what it seemed right to do. A good decorator painted it white from one end to the other. The walls of the biggest rooms are lined with a particularly rough hessian as a base for the paint, which gives a good texture, and there are fine white blinds at all the windows. Alan Irvine, the architect and a fellow Royal Designer for Industry, led us to some good synthetic white flooring he found in France for an exhibition he was designing. It is matt and not cold to touch nor underfoot.

One day when the flat was ready, instead of going home to Pont Street, my husband and I simply came here instead and were joined by our housekeeper Carmen, who has been with us for fifteen years. All we had with us were our toothbrushes and make-up, and I don't think we went back to Pont Street for five or six weeks. By then, although our old flat held fond memories, it looked far too busy and complicated. We wanted to jettison our possessions, and very, very few things made the journey with us to Kensington.

Here we have only what we use: lovely bare white spaces and one or two essential and moveable pieces of furniture and a good kitchen and bathroom. What we did not want was ever to have to say 'This is the dining-room' or 'This is the sitting-room'. We have ten white calico seating units, designed for visitors to margin5ture galleries, and these usually go along the length of one wall to make a long sofa though they are moved constantly. Our four tables, all alike, were carefully worked out and designed with John Minshure to be linked together or moved apart. Everything rolls smoothly across the floor - tables, chairs and the clinical trolleys where one stacks make-up or linen.

Once you have eliminated all the things you don't like you get down to the bare essentials and the formula that is perfect for yourself. Just as I begin a dress from the proper proportions of the body and resist additions, I have learnt to simplify my life in all directions. If, for instance, you don't want to come home to a clutter of letters, the way to deal with it is not to keep tidying but get rid of the desk itself.

The effect of the empty white spaces is to give a lift to any colour that enters the room. Food looks wonderful in the flat, as do books, a pot by Fiona Salazar and Mo Jupp's sculpture. People also stand out - it worries some.

There are two ideas for the flat that we thought through but never completed. The walls of every room are wired for sound, but we never connected up the system. We had plans to project slides onto the walls so that we could have a perpetually changing exhibition of margin5tures. The one thing we did take enormous trouble with was the lighting, which consists of very small white spotlights placed at intervals around the margin5ture rails, very similar to the lighting in the showroom in Bruton Street. There is a wide and very long arched corridor that runs from the front door to the far end of the flat, and in the evening with the lights turned low it has a cool, classical look to it which reminds me of Greece in late evening: calm, still and free.

The only large room whose purpose is immediately obvious is the bedroom. The bed has a white embroidered linen bedspread made by nuns in Cyprus, and all the walls are veiled by white curtains hung from ceiling to floor. These on one side cover the window, which shines through, and on the other hide a large built cupboard where I hang my clothes and keep my shoes and handbags. Clothes need to breathe not to be crushed.

We have only two pieces of decorative furniture in the flat, and they are both in the bedroom: a chair and double seat in heavy, finely engraved Venetian glass, bought from Christopher Vane-Percy and apparently from the palace of the Nizam of Hyderabad. They repeat and catch the varying lights. On the bed and the chairs are a collection of pillows and small cushions in lace-edged linen and cotton with embroidery and drawn thread work. Most of them were made in my workrooms by sewing together the traycloths I had collected over the years. It is Carmen's particular pleasure to keep these absolutely snow white and perfectly pressed. I treasure a white patchwork cushion made of tiny white moire triangles starred with small silver sequins, a gift from a good friend, Naomi Langley.

Where a room has a function we wanted it to be completely efficient. A good, well-equipped kitchen and a comfortable, attractive bathroom were essentials. Harry and I are both good cooks and enjoy making our own meals, particularly when we are in London at the weekends. The kitchen was the only room we thought out and planned in great detail, in consultation with a firm called Kitchen Planners. It was beautifully executed with a bank of well-finished cupboards, drawers and surfaces in black oak, and the central unit accommodates gas, electricity and even calor gas, ready for any emergency. The equipment came from a superb German firm called Poggenpohi; it has stood the test of ten years and still looks marvellous.

To anyone who saw the flat in its original state, the bathroom would probably be the most surprising room. From a tiny, depressing closet it underwent an amazing transformation when we covered all wall and ceiling surfaces with enormous panels of glass, and found a wide triangular ivory bathtub to fit across one corner, making the most of the floor space. The step in the ceiling, which accommodated part of the structure of the building, adds to the effect of standing in a tall gallery of mirrors throwing reflections back and forward to each other.

The only other rooms in the flat other than Carmen's are a spare bedroom and Harry's dressing-room and bathroom, with a wooden sauna and a wall of books and more books - our great indulgence - opposite the cupboard where he keeps his clothes and fishing gear.

One aspect of the flat which gives me great pleasure is the evening light as it slants in and filters through the fine blinds. I love the perspectives of the view. Surprisingly close, you see the details of the frieze that circles the Albert Hall, and beyond, the Albert Memorial lifts its spires above the trees of Kensington Gardens.

The life that goes on in and around the Albert Hall gives a particular character to our life here. When they raise the immense ventilators in the glass roof you can hear the music quite clearly. From our windows you can look down and see not only the musicians but perhaps the Boys' Brigade lining up with the band, the Institute of Directors, the Salvation Army or the Prom crowds. One advantage of living here is that if we go to a concert we can come home for a drink in the interval. How thrilled I was last year to speak at the AGM of that wonderful institution the Women's Institute.

From the flat, the drive to Bruton Street through Hyde Park, or to our new premises in Farringdon Road through Knightsbridge past Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and along the Embankment, takes us through the heart of London. Depending on what time we leave, the park has a particular cast of characters. At 7.30 to 8 am there are the joggers, and sometimes the tramp with her suitcases of old newspapers. Half an hour later there's the man who does military exercises by himself in a corner of the Gardens, and the horses from the barracks being exercised in the Row, and so much more.

There are other areas in our lives where we accumulate and revise, but the original concept, to find a way of living at home which perfectly suits our London life, found its equation in this flat. We haven't wanted to alter it, we have resisted adding anything, and it has remained a perfectly satisfactory solution for ten years. When will we move on? Who knows? Instinct will tell.

To die for – Shades of White

Caroline Roux Saturday September 10, 2005 – The Guardian

Not long ago, I went to the London home of the late Jean Muir. The austere-looking fashion designer, who never set foot in public without a heavily white-powdered face and noirish lipstick, died 10 years ago, but the interior of her Kensington apartment is spookily intact. It was bought by a Muir fanatic who lives in Hong Kong, but has until now insisted on the absolute preservation of its decoration - even for renters who can pay top Kensington prices.

It was recently on the market for £1.3m, which - according to local estate agents M2 Property - isn't at all bad for a spacious apartment in Albert Mansions. This is one of those ornate, late-Victorian blocks (in this case, right behind the Albert Hall), whose luscious communal parts are designed to make inhabitants believe they own an apartment in a palace rather than in a block.

Muir's home, however, defies the surrounding rococo de luxe. It's probably the most minimalist interior I've ever seen - and there was us thinking we'd invented that look in the 1990s. Miss M, it turns out, was working the many shades of white way back in the 1970s. Still here is her shiny white vinyl floor and walls hung with interestingly textured papers and fabrics, but then painted over in ivories and palest creams. When Muir was in residence, it was sparsely furnished with angular and mirrored pieces, but full of fabulous ceramics, glass, textiles and rugs. How very now.

Her own fashion designs - exquisite dresses in cashmere and jersey, and waistcoats and jackets in softest suede - were remarkable for showing no interest in pattern or decoration, and every concern with form and fluidity. Her taste in interiors appears to have been the same. Except, that is, for the bathroom. Entirely lined in mirror and with a generous corner bath that suggests recreation rather than hygiene, you get the feeling she can't have been quite as strait-laced as her image would have us believe.

Luxury with Lucia

STYLE THAT'S STRICTLY FOR THE LADIES

LUCIA VAN DER POST - The Times 3rd September 2004

There will be those among you who remember the name of Jean Muir one of fashion's grandes dames. She was rather austere in her tastes, never wearing anything but navy blue (very wise) and living in a famously pure white flat near the Albert Hall. All this was long before the nation fell in love with minimalism and a sea of beige and cream engulfed the country's interiors.

After she died in 1995 her husband, Harry Leuckert, went on nurturing the business with the design team she'd built up, but there has never been a Jean Muir shop — until now. It opened this week at 48 Conduit Street, London WI (020-7434 9077); fans of the strict Jean Muir look will find that much of her signature style still lingers there.

Her style, for those who are too young to remember the formidable Miss Muir, was rather austere and distinctly ladylike, though this was a very metropolitan, intellectual lady" with nothing of the suburbanite about her. You get some idea of her appeal from the sort of women who are her fans – Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Charlotte Rampling, Julie Walters, Saffron Aldridge, Rachel Stirling and her mother Diana Rigg, Anna Ford. None of them a pushover.

Muir herself described her way with fabric as "engineering in cloth" - it had a rigour about it that is not often found in clothes today. They were all intricately constructed and often had great detailing - lots of fine stitching, for instance. I've always had a soft spot for that rather chaste aura, which seems to hint at hidden fires beneath. Men, it seems, love to see their women in Jean Muir - it's that overtly demure look coupled with the sensuous flow of the fabric. She was a past master at using and cutting matt jersey and pure wool crepes, not to mention giving us the softest, most seductive of suede coats, jackets and waistcoats.

The strong handwriting gave the label a style which in its heyday was instantly recognisable. Today a team of four women, all of whom trained and worked under the formidable Miss Muir herself, still do the designing, so the aesthetic DNA, if you like, is in their blood. While the signature Muir look is still evident in much of the clothing — the matt jersey, the pure wool crepes, the intricate stitching, the ladylike aura - there is also a raft of pieces clearly designed to bring in some of those eminently desirable beings, the "younger set".

It's seriously good news that there is a place where one will be able to find properly grownup clothes (Miss Muir never did "cute"), beautifully made and with a certain sensuous classicism to them. Apart from anything else, those who wonder why on earth more people don't make clothes in the endlessly flattering (and chic) navy instead of so much black (which can kill stone dead certain skin tones and colourings) will find a ready cache of Miss Muir's signature navy blue. There's a particularly useful dress in matt jersey which has a V neck edged with rows of topstitching and three quarter-length sleeves and which skims gently over tummy and hips, ending just below the knee. Very grown-up. It costs £590 and comes in - of course - navy blue, but also in aubergine (or "myrtille" as the shop prefers to calls it), peony pink, black and truffle brown. The shop itself sports an all-white interior - shades of Miss Muir's own brilliant flat - with marble flooring and lots of glamorous mirrors, glass and brushed steel. But don't forget, too, to check out the suede jackets and skirts with the signature hand-punched borders.

Jean Muir finally has her name over a shop

Daily Telegraph 30/08/2004
Photo: RDW Norton

Jean Muir, for 30 years the doyenne of British dressmakers, finally has her name emblazoned over a West End shop - almost 10 years after her death. The label, famous throughout the world, has housed itself in premises in Conduit Street where it opened its doors two weeks ago, although the official opening will take place tomorrow.

The Jean Muir label, which came to prominence in the 1960s and made her a household name until her death in 1995, is run by her widower, Harry Luckert. During her lifetime she never had her own premises, preferring to sell through other outlets. But a spokesman for the company said "it was time to go forward".

The all-white shop, with white walls and Tassos marble, is evocative of Muir, who was an instinctive minimalist. "Her own London flat was entirely white. So we think she would very much approve," said the spokesman.

Muir, an intensely private figure, favoured navy and black outfits for herself. She described her work as "engineering in cloth", and it was her use of the fabric matte jersey and particularly her dresses that made her legendary.