There are now 257 butterfly bookplates adorning the restaurant walls of Chess Club in London — a distinctive new addition to Mayfair’s private member’s scene — and every single one can be traced back to a pilgrimage taken by the interior decorator Fran Hickman.
Last summer, on vacation in Tuscany, Hickman took the train north to Turin to tour the apartment of the late Italian architect and designer Carlo Mollino. “It’s fabulously eclectic,” she says of the space, which has been meticulously reconstructed and turned into a private museum by the curator Fulvio Ferrari and his son Napoleone. “The Turin apartment is so unusual because Mollino never really intended on living there. He made it just for himself throughout the 1960s. In a way it was a set for his photography. There’s so much art, and everything is weighted with symbolism.”
Nowhere does this ring truer than in Mollino’s bedroom, a bijoux shrine inspired by the symbolism of ancient Egyptian tombs — an intensely opulent room dreamt up as his place of passage into the afterlife. (Though he actually died in his studio, in 1973, from a heart attack.) There’s a nautical 19th-century bed on an aqueous blue carpet, and eye-catching leopard print walls, but it was the room’s 316 butterflies, potent symbols of Egyptian funeral rites, that left a lasting impression on Hickman. “They were incredibly arresting,” she says. The custodian of Casa Mollino shared with Hickman the source of these bewitching butterflies — the 1950s photography book, “Joyaux Ailes, un atlas des plus beaux papillons du mode,” from which the plates were torn out and framed for the room. “I ordered six copies from AbeBooks as soon as I got back to London,” explains Hickman. At the time, she was in the throes of planning the interior scheme for Chess Club, a Regency townhouse with a long history as a private members’ haunt (Ringo Starr had his wedding reception there in the 1980s) that had lain derelict for years.
“The way the butterflies have been printed has a depth and shimmer that gives them a really lively quality. The color is extraordinary,” Hickman says. “I love how they pick up the light, particularly in the evening when the space is candle-lit.” The jeweled notes of these winged motifs formed the sartorial starting point for Hickman. “Using art in a space like this is quite difficult. Often it’s the thing I come to last, but it has really set the tone here — everything else has fed off the butterflies,” she says, gesturing to the burnt orange and blue dining chairs, and sunshine yellow Kvadrat textile banquettes. They set the scene for the menu created by chef Jackson Boxer, who sources much of his seasonal fare from his family farm in West Sussex. The naturalistic note continues upstairs, where the bespoke textile and wallpaper artist Anna Glover has created a painterly series of silk screens conjuring a nocturnal Garden of Eden that’s strewn with serpents — and of course, butterflies.
“We wanted to create somewhere that felt like home,” Hickman says, “with better food and drink, but more joyful and colorful.” The richly dramatic interior of the club, which is backed by the French events firm Experimental Group, most widely known for its exceptional cocktail repertoire, is certainly a departure from the serene homes and punchy retail interiors that Hickman has conceived for clients including the designer Emilia Wickstead and Moda Operandi. True to its Turin source, Chess Club shows off the sultrier, more decorative side to Hickman’s aesthetic. So for a designer who has only ever employed butterflies incidentally before, on a panel of de Gournay wallpaper, what do these delicate creatures signify? “Carlo used the butterflies to represent transition and transformation,” Hickman says. “But I’ve used them for the hue and playfulness — and as a reminder to live for the moment.”