Interior Design Masters, the newest interior design show from BBC2, has been particularly thrilling viewing for Bristolians as one of our very own residents was not only a contestant but also the winner of the whole competition. Celebrating the profession of interior design rather than focussing on the drama of upsetting clients, a la Changing Rooms, this programme culminated in a fantastic opportunity to design a bar at a top London hotel. After the first episode I messaged Cassie Nicholas of Dighaushizzle saying I knew she would go all the way to the end of the competition and I’m so glad I was right! I caught up with Cassie to find out more about her experience on the show.
Huge congratulations on your win! It must have been next to impossible to keep everything secret for a year?
Yes, saying I was working away all the time was weird enough let alone explaining why I was weird and tired and stressed. I just wanted people to watch it and it was really nice to have so many people around to watch the final.
How many did you cram into your house that night?
There was about 45 of us. It was nuts. We had the TV on in the lounge, the computer on, the laptop on and synced it all up so everyone could watch.
Were you nervous meeting so much Interior Design Royalty?
Weirdly I wasn't that nervous.
I expect you were too busy to be nervous!
In our antiques business we've dealt with loads of interior designers before so I was just really excited to hear what they had to say and to be judged by them. I never knew whether they were going to like it or not. I was just really excited about everything
Did it take long for you get used to the cameras being in your face al the time?
Yes, so long. They do a lot of camera checks and stuff before and they came to our house. We’ve done loads of bits so I don't know whether they do that to get you used to it. In the beginning people would just talk forever and they’d say ‘you’re not really giving us anything’ then by the end you kind of get used to the fact that you've got no time left to finish the room but they need you to say something about it. By the end you get used to saying what you need to say a bit more concisely. It’s so hard.
It might have just been the edit but you seemed to be the only designer that did drawings - is that true?
No I don't think that is true. I’m a little bit old school so I don't really focus that much on CAD design. I’m also kind of like a maker, I like to make lots of things, so I always had drawings to give to my builders of how to design and make it. I just think, how are going to explain to other people exactly what you want, because y’know we are not all mindreaders. Everyone has got different ways of communicating their ideas and for me I can’t explain things just with words. Even if it is the worst drawing in the world.
> I’m always saying that too <
I cant understand people’s vision until they set it out clearly for me. I was quite lucky that most of my final designs actually looked just like my drawings, because I knew exactly what I was going to do. When you go to tell your tradesmen what to do they can see it instantly, so they were able to work quite quickly because they could see what was going next and what it was supposed to look like.
One thing I noticed about all your schemes right from the first episode is that the level of sourcing was just a cut above, for example the iconic Bauhaus chair in the show home (episode 1), and there was a sense of a complete concept, like an extra layer of design awareness in everything that you did. It seemed like you really understand the visual language of a piece and what it means or conveys when you put it all together in a space. Do you think that comes from your background in antiques and fashion photography?
Yes I think so and I’m really chuffed that you noticed that. There’s no reason why you can’t do a show home or something really contemporary with things that are from the past and that’s what iI tried to do with that one and I think it worked really well.
I just can’t be the person that goes into Home Sense or Dunelm and go and buy all my stuff. I only had a week to source everything so I know I definitely made life harder for myself by trying to find everything individually but to buy everything new off the shelf isn't good for the world anyway. I think that’s what most people should be doing anyway - go and find pieces that you love that you want to keep forever rather than just keep changing the look every few years. I was trying to keep things quite classic and I suppose that partly what I’m about.
I imagine that with you antiques business you have a bit of a shorthand of where to find things when it comes to sourcing, as you have already built up that knowledge bank?
Yes exactly and I knew that was something I should play on as it’s definitely one of my strengths. As a designer I’m always going to be based in finding things, it’s where I find the most inspiration from. In the second episode (the chocolate hotel) it wasn't so popular with the general public but they are all pieces i bought and would loved to have kept. It’s all part of it, finding things I think people would like to keep forever.
It’s the opposite of most commercial design particularly showhomes really, which are often just so ‘throwaway’.
Exactly. I felt like that was more of a genuine home maybe than how a showhome can feel, going to one shop and buying everything.
Did you enjoy having Abigail Ahern as your mentor for the barber’s salon challenge?
Abigail was really great and we did have a really nice chat at her house, more than anything about confidence, and about my business now. She was really happy with my design and I decided to just go for it, although it wasn't exactly what was asked for. The client wanted it to look old, he asked for trendy….. vintage industrial but I don't think you have to go that far with it, with the filament bulbs and everything - you can make it a bit more historical because it had been there for 50 years. So I thought let’s make it look like you've been here for 50 years.
It was beautiful to see Frank grow and improve his attitude SO much and it’s really nice that you ended up becoming friends. Did you go through personal growth as well?
I did. It was really the hardest thing, ever, because I was trying to run a business and you know you're away for a week and back for a week and but then as you know as well to prep something in a week and source everything as well ,you cant really do anything else around it so I was very consumed by it. The week we did the chalets and it wasn't going so well with me and Frank and Kyle it was a really tough week because I had to still stick to my guns. I just had to quietly be right on some things and push where I could because I still had to be on board with them. it was quite a lonely week and the crew really stepped up and all became really good friends. I definitely grew from the perspective that you get knocked down and you get back up again.
I really admired that you fought for your ideas but without being unpleasant, and how you just got your head down and got on with the work without any drama - like a professional!
I tried my best! It’s really difficult when people say things like ‘Cassie is really hard to work with and she’s really opinionated'. But it’s really difficult when your opinions are really different to everyone else’s! So I think that’s why it gets said like that. I don't think I put them across any differently from anybody else but I just felt so differently about so much. I didn't realise going into it just how hard it would be.
It’s no surprise to me that all the semi-finalists had related creative careers already. Do you think your background gave you an edge?
Yes definitely. I was really lucky in one sense that I haven’t actually done that much interior design before but I've been antiques dealer that has worked with a lot of interior designers for years and so now there are quite a few who trust me to turn up with stuff and they can just say to me ‘can you style it up over there, we’re running out of time and everything is turning up today’ so I’d just say yeah. We do that kind of stuff for people and style photoshoots. It’s always going to be about finding authentic and original things for me. I wanted to show at points that I can do the trends but generally I don't want to. I’m happy for people to not come to me for that! I suppose I am just more niche and I’m happy to stay being niche. I did look back at my rooms and notice that maybe they weren't finished off with lots of small little bits. For me I suppose I couldn't just spend a couple of quid in Sainsbury's to buy some little bits because I just don't believe in it. I just can’t do that, so it’ll maybe look a little bit bare but I’d rather have one amazing lamp that cost three times as much and forgo putting all the little bits around it.
Quality not quantity. I think this is really important and valuable particularly for our industry in light of where we are with climate change. What was your favourite moment - apart from winning?!
I think probably my favourite moment, apart form winning, is just before when we sat on the sofa and they started to explain. Honestly those judges were so nice to me and I've since become really good friends with Matthew Williamson and he has encouraged me so much and just been so kind.
Having someone who likes your style and can support you has been amazing. He said some fantastic things to me just after I won because it was very overwhelming.
It seemed like the judges were almost searching around for a difficult question to probe you with because they obviously loved your work so much!
It was genuinely all so much nicer than it maybe seemed! Another really nice time filming was in Bournemouth, one evening when everyone, cast and crew, went out and had fish and chips on the beach and a beer, and it was just ‘this is now a weird holiday’.
Haha! Were you given a more sensible amount of time for the prize - the hotel bar project?
Ha yeah. I hadn’t worked for a corporate company before so everything just took forever. I first went to see them in November last year and we finished in June. So it took quite a long time but its just getting things signed off, its just how long it took and generally takes. It was a massive learning curve, doing budgets for different departments and that kind of thing.
Well it looks absolutely amazing! I love that its got a Hollywood, Wizard Of Oz vibe to it. It’s like set design, its got that extra layer of story and depth about it.
I’m glad you think so. The building is already amazing. It used to be an old cinema and they had Audrey Hepburn on the wall and Marylin everywhere and it just seemed so wrong to go against all of that. It should be with this old school Hollywood glamour. There were lots of things that could not be changed obviously because there’s wood paneling throughout the lobby so that had to stay, and trying to everything on a budget while having to replace eighty chairs - that pretty much is the budget. It’s quite difficult but we managed to make it all work in the end.
What is next for you now….?
That is such a scary question! A lot of people have been asking me. The main thing that’s changed about me actually, thinking about your question about growth, is that I’m much more of a yes person now. When I started this I almost pulled out, just before. I got offered it and they just assumed I’d say yes and I said ‘oh no I have to think about it’. My husband said ‘you should definitely do it’! So I’m a bit more open to doing things now. I haven't got loads sorted out but there are lots of different things coming up. I recently shot Matthew Williamson’s lamp collection. I’m just being open to whether I’m an interior designer, an antiques dealer or photographer.
So its like shotgun, fire, then aim. You can be all of those things.
I feel like I've always felt more like a jack of all trades so I’m just enjoying seeing where that takes me.
Can you imagine if you had said NO to the producers? Its unthinkable!
Thank you so much for your time and sharing your story with me today Cassie.
All photographs with kind permission of Cassie Nicholas (c) 2019