AAs a teenager, Sera Hersham-Loftus expresses herself in two distinct ways. The first was in her clothes: Victorian camisoles mixed with creepy eyeliner for a Siouxsie Sioux encounter Tess of the D’Urbervilles effect (it was the 1980s). Decor was the other. “I was always painting the walls in my bedroom and moving furniture around. I would borrow my mother’s scarves and drape them over lampshades for romantic effect. It was all an escape from ‘strict and depressing formality’ from her school for girls.
School wasn’t for her – “I was the class prankster; always answering” – so she left at 15, relieved to be able to “earn her own money and feel independent”. Determination, combined with daring, landed him a job at Sadler’s Wells in the set design department. Despite having no formal training, she found she had a knack for bringing spaces to life with paint, fabric and ingenuity. When friends started asking her to redo their house, “it was as if I was predestined to become an interior designer,” she says.
Since then, she has always used her own home as a testing ground for decorating ideas. And this apartment she bought in 2015 in Little Venice, London – spread across two stucco-fronted townhouses – is a case in point. Its developer had “ripped the heart and soul” out of the Victorian building. Moldings and fireplaces had all disappeared; the stair railing replaced with “an ugly thing made of twirling plastic”. But it suited Hersham-Loftus perfectly, whose look – bohemian and boudoir with a touch of rock’n’roll – is very much his own. “I couldn’t live with someone else’s tastes. I am a purist in what I do. I like to start from scratch and create my own invented worlds.
His apartment has undergone several alterations. She created wallpapers and commissioned the handmade tiles in the dressing room, where the cabinets are made from old French shutters. At first, the walls were painted “pale mushroom… like the backdrop for a John Galliano fashion shoot.” At one point, she brought the terrace plants indoors so that “everything is dark and mysterious, like an urban jungle”.
While working on a townhouse in Amsterdam, she noticed builders tearing up the interior of the house next door. She rushed outside and made a deal to buy the decorative panels and the long, wide Baltic pine flooring. It has now been restored and fitted into its living room, part of a trio of grand but convivial reception rooms that Hersham-Loftus likes to call – ironically – its “salons”.
For her latest incarnation, she asked her longtime colleague, decorative effects specialist Andrea Bizzarro, to give the interior “the ambience of a Venetian palace that hadn’t been touched for 90 years”. The blended faded macaroon hues pair perfectly with reclaimed French fireplaces and Victorian armchairs, stripped to reveal their horsehair innards for a “theatrical” effect. “I always buy less serious antiques; they have a soul, but you don’t have to worry about damaging them.
Some aspects of the Hersham-Loftus look never change. “I don’t like the overhead lighting. I like my spaces to be mysterious – and transportive. And I always use natural materials, like linen or stone. I’m a fan of low seating and have no doors except for the bedrooms; you don’t really need them and they get in the way. Black ceilings are another hallmark. “You would think it would be oppressive, but it’s not, they help ground a room and its contents.”
She has always been drawn to recycling, transforming mundane objects into something magical. She persuaded the owner of a fancy London restaurant to give her the mollusk shells that now adorn the fire surround in the kitchen. She transformed antique shoe lasts into chandeliers, scalloped with shimmering glass droplets. Her latest creation is curtains made from scraps of antique lace – draped over windows and openings, they diffuse the light like silky cobwebs for a modern Miss Havisham effect.
Her Instagram fans love them. “There is a real revival in antiques and handmade, especially among younger buyers,” says Hersham-Loftus, who is currently working on an apartment for Charlotte Watts, granddaughter of the late Rolling Stone Charlie. “To them, it all feels new and different. I also think it’s a reaction to the digital age. People are looking for something comfortable and tactile – a place to get away from it all.
She brings a similar effect to the “wellness retreat” she is currently designing for Charlotte Church. Set in Laura Ashley’s sprawling former home in Wales, the singer’s memoir was “for a mystical ‘witch’s apothecary’ setting, full of antiques, old paneling and dim lighting”. A soul mate then? “We gel. I’m lucky that the people I work for adhere to my atmosphere, my style.
“It’s like home, you know,” she concludes, sinking into a pile of peach-colored silk cushions. “I can’t imagine living in a place that doesn’t express me and my ideas. This is my world.”
For more information, visit seraoflondon.com; instagram.com/seraoflondon