Oliver Messel (1904 – 1978) British theatre, film and interior designer

Oliver Messel theatre designs
Oliver Messel theatre designs

Oliver Messel was a British theatre, film, and interior designer who lived from 1904 to 1978. He worked professionally in London and Barbados.

Education

He attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

Biography

He met Rex Whistler at the Slade, with whom he began making papier-maché masks. These piqued the interest of Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned Messel to create masks for the Ballets Russes production Zéphyre et Flore in 1925. For his 1928 play This Year of Grace, Noel Coward commissioned sets and costumes.

Oliver Messel black and white photograph
Oliver Messel black and white photograph

Messel created the sets and costumes for the 1935 film The Scarlet Pimpernel and the costumes for a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Columns, entablatures, drapery swags, and baroque ornamentation were among Messel’s historicist designs.

Oliver Messel theatre designs
Oliver Messel theatre designs

To commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, he designed a commemorative silk scarf and the exterior decorations of the Dorchester hotel in London in 1952. He finished the Oliver Messel Suite at the Dorchester in 1953.

The Penthouse Suite debuted in 1953, and the Pavilion Room debuted in 1956. Messel’s hotel rugs were woven in Bangkok. The hotel’s décor was restored in 1991 by John Claridge, who had worked on the original project. The decoration was inspired by Messel’s designs for Sadler’s Wells’ 1946 production of The Sleeping Beauty.

He executed commissions for lavish parties and weddings through his social connections, including the 1955 marriage of Princess Ira von Fürstenberg to Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe-Lagenburg.

Barbados – a new career

He retired to Barbados in 1966, intending to paint and relax. Instead, he embarked on a second career as a garden and house designer, including the estate ‘Prospero.’ In Barbados, Princess Margaret lived in a Messel house. He used non-traditional, improvisational procedures in building his homes, incorporating humble materials and simple building techniques. He liked the look of lush gardens. Messel was instrumental in establishing much of the architectural tone on the islands that exist today. Messel designed the houses on the 1,200-acre (500 ha) Mustique parcel for Lord Glenconner in 1959.

Messel died before Glenconner’s “Great House,” which he described as an “Indo-Asian ragbag.”

Fustic House courtyard Barbados designed by Oliver Messel
Fustic House courtyard Barbados designed by Oliver Messel

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

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