An English Rose in the tropics - Elizabeth Hay interview

Interior Designer Elizabeth Hay on the Singapore tropics, the Devon countryside & how to decorate in style with colour, print & whimsical detail. 

Singapore-based English interior designer, Elizabeth Hay creates beautifully layered interiors combining colour, pattern and print to imbue the feeling of lived-in, deeply comfortable homes for projects all over the world - from Singapore to the Hamptons, London to Ibiza. 

Landing her first job at Colefax & Fowler, Elizabeth then went on to train with Veere Grenney and has been designing in her own name now for almost a decade. 

Elizabeth's design ethos has evolved over time - from her English countryside upbringing and influenced by her family connection with Kenya, her many travels and her interest in and appreciation of other cultures. Her small design studio in Singapore focuses on detail and originality and every project reveals Pandora’s box of beautifully rich textures, surprising yet thoroughly considered details, bespoke furniture and a marvellous mix of colour and pattern. Working on briefs from modern, clean and minimal to layered, ethnic and vibrant, Elizabeth appears to work her magic in a range of design incarnations.  “I absolutely love mixing very traditional English style with an ethnic feel, such as a really classic chintz but with an Indian antique textile all layered together in a room,” explains Elizabeth.

One of Elizabeth’s latest and favourite projects is Gracie’s cottage, deep in the Devon countryside, which she uses for her family visits, but is also available to rent. A labour of love overcoming logistical issues - not least the fact she was unable to make a site visit during the project due to the pandemic. Gracie’s cottage connects Elizabeth with her beloved English countryside and provides a home for her family - with three young children and another on the way, when returning to England on holidays. “We totally fell in love with the cottage when it came onto the market and having grown up in Devon I will always be drawn back there. The cottage is in the Yarty Valley - an AONB and is so quiet and a total retreat once you are there” she tells us.

Elizabeth’s Singapore home - a rented landed property and colonial ‘black and white’ house in the foothills of Mount Faber has been transformed over the eight years they have lived there and combines a classic English sensibility with layers of collected textures and objet, layering Elizabeth’s signature bold colour and print choices with elegant bamboo, rattan and antique furniture. 

One look through Elizabeth’s portfolio of projects will have you wanting to redecorate with brave choices and her online shop offers an array of wonderfully curated products to get you started. 

Here we chat with Elizabeth about her idyllic upbringing in rural England and her connection with Kenya, ideas to give your own home a refresh, an exciting new product launch later this year, her tips for 48 hours in Singapore, and we play favourites - hint: it’s all about the English Rose for Elizabeth…

Please can you tell us a little about your upbringing in England and your connection with Kenya?
I grew up in the Devon countryside.  We had a very outdoorsy upbringing spending masses of time with friends from the village exploring the woods and making camps.  it was an idyllic upbringing. My mother was born and grew up in Kenya and my 96-year-old granny is still there. Kenya was a huge part of our lives and we went every year.  Being from there we were incredibly lucky with the off the beaten track safaris that we could do and we were some of the last to be able to set up our own camp in the Ngorongoro Crater.

How did your upbringing and travels inform your design aesthetic? 
My childhood was filled with wonderful creative influence from my mother, from cooking to decoupage to watercolour painting.  She would encourage us when travelling to watercolour all of the fish we had seen snorkelling and we would keep scrapbooks of all of our experiences.  When at home in Devon there was always a project on the go from decoupage, rock gardening with alpines, to making our own marbleised beads. I had so many passions and collections growing up, I collected trade beads from Africa, I had my own rock garden and I loved to help my mother cook and this has definitely influenced me creatively in adulthood.  

What about your earlier career before starting on your own. You trained at Sybil Colefax and John Fowler and then became senior designer at Veere Grenney?
Yes, I started off working in the North Room on Brook street with Sybil Colefax.  Here we would work on very small scale projects for walk-in clients and sometimes assist the designers.  It was a great starting point in the industry.  From there I went to work for Veere which is where I really cut my teeth in the design world learning how to manage and run very large scale international projects and the attention to detail required for high-end projects. 

How has your design style evolved?
The more I travel and the more I see the more this inspires me in my work. from wanting to do a certain type of specialist mural inspired by some wall paintings I have seen in Bhutan to wanting to incorporate all of the wonderful art and antique textiles I come across in our projects.  I absolutely love mixing very traditional English style with an ethnic feel, such as a really classic chintz but with an Indian antique textile all layered together in a room. 

You’ve completed projects all over the world - from Ibiza to Jackson Hole - what have been your top 3 favourite projects?
I just completed a house in Connecticut which was a really fun experience,  mostly because the clients were fantastic and I was thrilled with the result. Often it is the experience with the client that leaves the biggest mark.    

We are also working on a traditional Peranakan shophouse in Singapore which I am really enjoying, I love it when a house has a history to it that you can research and use to influence your design.  

My other favourite project was working on our cottage in Devon, it is such a charming house and bringing out the slightly kooky charm of the cottage was a total pleasure.  

Tell us about your beautiful home in the hills of Fount Faber in Singapore…
We have lived in this house for coming on to 8 years. We are right next to the jungle and being surrounded by greenery and amazing wildlife makes me feel happy every single day. We did a light renovation before moving into the bathrooms throughout and we completely redid the soft furnishings from scratch. it has definitely been a work in progress though and evolved over time with more and more layers and perhaps more chaos as our brood has expanded!

Currently, in England, it’s almost impossible to get a builder and yet more than ever we want our homes to be beautiful and comfortable. What is your tip for a home refresh we could do ourselves? 
You could repaint a room a different colour for a change, or paint a stencilled border around the room or doors.  Stencils and borders are such a fun way to add another layer and pattern and are easily doable yourself.  Another easy refresh is to rethink the floor plan of a room reconfiguring the space and the orientation of the furniture.   I recently saw some old photos of our house from 25 years ago and they had their sitting room set out in a totally different way to ours - it's amazing how a few small changes can totally refresh a space and your mind! 

Your online shop is filled with beautiful textiles, antique finds, wooded bone inlay boxes and the most wonderful lampshades - what do you look for when curating and creating products for the shop?  
Here I just totally go with my gut and include what I really love myself!

How do you use flowers and nature in the home - in Singapore and in Devon? 
I find being in Devon such a delight being able to just go out into the garden pick flowers or herbs and create wonderful arrangements. In Singapore, we have fabulous tropical plants and flowers which are really fun to play around with. One of my favourites are tree ferns which grow in our garden - they feel so tropical and exotic.  

Do you collect anything?
Gosh, I have a bit of an issue with collecting things!  Jugs! Murano glass, antique textiles, sea urchin shells, opaline boxes the list goes on and on!

Your best entertaining tip?
To be relaxed. no matter how beautiful everything looks or how delicious it tastes if there is an uptight atmosphere no one will have fun or enjoy themselves!

What’s next for Elizabeth Hay Design?
In the Autumn we are launching a lighting collection which I am super excited about.  It is a range of table lamps that I have been working on for years now and we are finally nearly there. We are also launching a new range of lampshades.   We are working on projects in Geneva, another one in the US and a lovely house in the English countryside as well as some wonderful local projects in Singapore. So watch this space!

Tell us about Gracies Cottage...
We totally fell in love with the cottage when it came onto the market and having grown up in Devon I will always be drawn back there. The cottage is in the Yarty Valley and AONB and is so quiet and a total retreat once you are there.   We tenanted it out full time initially but as our brood increased we realised we needed a base in the UK when we were there so we decided to give it a bit of an overhaul and to use it when we were back and to also let it out on short term lets.  A very old cottage like that can’t be left empty for months on end so it did need to be used.  We renovated it during the peak of COVID and my mother was overseeing all of the works for us which was a godsend as we couldn’t leave Singapore! We did absolutely everything remotely even the photoshoot at the end with Jonathan! It was a real experience but just shows you what is possible.   

The cottage is very quirky and wonky and I wanted to embrace this with fun, playful interiors but with a classic cottage country feel as well.   Each room has its own strong personality and it is hard to pick a favourite.  But, I do love the master bedroom which we tented in wallpaper and when the wisteria is out all around the cottage the room is constantly filled with the most divine smell.

Elizabeth shares some of her favourite Devon hot spots in our round-up here. 

For a 48 stop-over in Singapore, what would you suggest we do?
Stay - Raffles, it’s a classic and totally spoiling
Shop - Joo Chiat for a wander around, some independent shops and restaurants and the Peranakan architecture. 
Eat out - The world is your oyster here in Singapore, you can eat the best sushi from Japan, and have the best dim sum or chicken rice!  You could go to Tiong Bahru hawker for a food market experience followed by a wander around for some great coffee at all of the independent cafes such as Tiong Bahru bakery or Forty Hands and enjoy the Art Deco architecture. 
Go for drinks - Atlas Bar
Visit - National Gallery, Peranakan Museum
Walk - A walk around the Botanic Gardens, especially the orchid garden. 

Let’s play favourites - 
Flower - An English Rose
Fragrance -  Anik Goutal Absolue Rose
Wellness - a really good probiotic. I take Bioglan.
Clothing brand - Sea NY
Jewellery - Land of Giants Studio by my wonderful friend Suhair Khan. Beautiful Jewellery and all proceeds go to support wildlife conservation in the Himalayas
Novel - Wild Swans
Travel destination - Kenya or Bhutan

For more of Elizabeth Hay's work, go to:
www.elizabethhaydesign.com
@elizabethhaydesign 

Imagery of Singapore projects by Alecia Neo
Imagery for Gracie's Cottage by Jonathan Bond

Interview by Emily Armstrong 
@emilyflorence_