Oliver Messel, celebrated as the premier British stage and costume designer of the 20th century, enjoyed a distinguished career that extended beyond the theatre to painting, interior design, architecture and film. His work, characterized by romance, whimsy and charm, has a dedicated following that ensures its preservation, most significantly in the incredible homes he created in the West Indies.
Born in 1904 in London; Oliver was the third child of Leonard and Maud Messel. His parents enjoyed a heritage of artistic talent, which they shared with Oliver and his siblings; they were surrounded by beautiful furniture, paintings and collectibles, as well as artists, connoisseurs and scholars from an early age. Maud was a very artistic woman; she had an innate knowledge of interior design and horticulture, transforming their family home with such creative flair that it no doubt influenced Oliver's later success in architectural renovation.
Theatre and Film
At the age of 17, Oliver decided he would be an artist; he was inspired by the great Italian Renaissance masters and spent time visiting and learning from theatre designers, dressmakers and other craftsmen. Oliver was encouraged by family friends to leave Eton to attend the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he studied under the tutelage of Professor Henry Tonks. At Slade, Oliver first created his papier-maché masks, which he exhibited at the Claridge Gallery in 1924. The exposure received by this exhibit ultimately led to Oliver's illustrious career in the theatre; he worked on productions with Georges Braque, Noël Coward, Cole Porter and other renowned producers, mastering stage and costume design for drama, opera, ballet, musicals and revue.
Messel also designed sets and costumes for eight films throughout his career, highlighting his attention to detail, period research and creative whimsy. He worked with such stars as John Barrymore, Vivian Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Douglas Fairbanks.
Interior Design and Architecture
Oliver's innovative stage designs influenced interior designers of the time, and he ultimately made a relatively easy shift to decorator himself, working on a range of projects including murals and rich interiors for hotels, shops and theatres as well as party decorations for balls and formal receptions in both London and New York.
By the early 1960s, Oliver suffered from terrible arthritis, leading him to spend increasing amounts of time in the West Indies, especially Barbados. He had first visited the island in the 1950s as a guest of architect and developer, Victor Marson, and subsequently purchased his own home, Maddox House, in 1964. Oliver's transformation of the derelict seaside plantation was so exquisitely executed that it led a second career shift into architecture; over the next decade Oliver built or renovated 26 houses in both Barbados and nearby Mustique.
The Messel Style
His theatrical style emphasized 'indoor-outdoor living' space, taking full advantage of the beautiful tropical environs and the region's innate character and charm. Oliver loved bringing the outdoors in, with a real genius for combining house, gardens and landscape through innovative use of lighting, architectural elements and nature. His designs incorporate elliptical archways, jalousie shutters and dramatic picture windows to frame stunning views out to the gardens and sea, which he felt were so important to the enjoyment of the homes.
Oliver used many recurring elements in his architectural designs, including his signature colour, a light sage affectionately known as 'Messel Green'. The muted shade softens the transition between the elegant rooms and lush gardens, creating an easy flow between the interior and outdoor living spaces.
History adapted from Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design, edited by Thomas Messel.