On the couch
Durban design and décor maven, Carol Cornwall is fast making a name for her edgy interiors and bespoke furnishings for exclusive boutique hotels and private clients alike. She shared her journey to success with Lori Booth
What would you say is the Cornwall signature style?
Contemporary, refreshing, uncluttered and sophisticated – yet understated. With every project I look for something which will create a point of difference, which makes a statement but doesn’t necessarily dominate.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Durban and studied clothing design and production management at Durban Technikon which gave me a fantastic grounding in design and co-ordination. In my final year I developed my own range of beach clothing and after selling it, I went on the typical ‘overseas stint’. In true Mamma Mia style I met a Greek guy and stayed in Greece for four years, opening and stocking two clothing stores in Ios and living between the islands and Athens. That taught me a lot about business, especially when the relationship ended and I left with nothing but my experience.
What inspired you to work in the décor field?
I had been back in South Africa a couple of years and in partnership in a nightclub in Cape Town when I went looking for furniture for my flat. I was in one of the top designer furniture stores in Cape Town, feeling rather uninspired, when I had an epiphany and said to my friend, “I’m going into the furniture business!” I researched the idea a bit, sold the nightclub, moved back to Durban, went on a buying trip to Bali and Java where I filled up a container and opened my first furniture business, Interior Warehouse, in 1996. At the time there was a great demand for décor from Indonesia, Mexico and India and we did very well, bringing in container loads of one-off signature pieces which stood apart from the rest. I haven’t looked back; I love what I do and I love furniture and design.
Furniture and décor is one thing, design another, how did you branch out?
After completing a few installations, clients started requesting the full interior design service so I knew I had to raise my game and my skill set. I taught myself Autocad and built up a design team. I also realised that I needed to look at the local market to fulfill my dream of providing “fashion for homes” and after finding a couple of quality manufacturers that I could rely on, started designing and manufacturing customised pieces for clients. A few years ago we changed our trading name to Cornwall International, emphasising the full turn-key solution to architectural interior design and décor, and we stopped stocking imported furniture.
What does Cornwall International offer that sets it apart?
I like to think we are holistic artists for living spaces, coordinating elements of architecture, building, design and décor to create a harmonious picture, something of beauty. But we always emphasise attention to detail, right down to the trimming on a cushion or the layout of the lighting – if the detail’s wrong, it’ll ruin the whole picture. As well as custom-designing and manufacturing pieces to fit in with the look of the interior spaces, we work closely with the client’s own ideas and favourite pieces so that there is always something personal about the place. We’re a team of six experts in each of our fields – design, project management, production, installations and décor – and in conjunction with architects and building contractors, we take a project right through each stage of the remodeling process; from consulting with the architect on interior plans, to getting the plans passed, ensuring quality control of building construction and finally the look and feel of the space.
Describe your response to the design brief for the newly completed Quarters Hotel in Avondale Road?
The brief was for a colonial style but instead of doing a typically Durban colonial look with hurricane lamps and oversized sofas I brought in something of the unexpected with 1.6m tall imported French carved chairs in the reception, custom-made fuchsia velvet and stainless steel bar stools in the restaurant and contemporary four-poster beds in some of the bedrooms.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
Inspiration can start from a colour, a piece of fabric or the style of a building. Once the theme is there, the process starts layering itself much like the palette of colours in a room. I like to create texture with colour so when you stand back the room seems to meld together, like the waves of the ocean.
What’s in the pipeline?
I’m working on a new Quarters Hotel in Hermanus; Upton Hall on Durban’s Morningside, a beautiful 1930’s mansion that’s being transformed into a very sophisticated boutique hotel; and in Mozambique the Casa do Capitao Hotel and a separate beach club resort at Barra beach, Inhambane. There are also several private apartments at the Pearls in Umhlanga underway – South Africans are mad about interiors!