Why Founder Sandy Mitchell was inspired by Humphry Repton to call his business RedBook

—7th March 2019

When word reached Sandy Mitchell that the Duke and Duchess of Bedford had produced a facsimile of Repton’s designs for their home Woburn Abbey and its gardens he knew they should collaborate on an event to celebrate Repton and his legacy. The result was a special event at C. Hoare & Co, co-hosted by the Duchess of Bedford and Sandy Mitchell. A distinguished panel discussed the theme “Projects and Clients, Past and Present”.

Left to right: Clive Aslet, Keir Davidson, Venetia Hoare, Sandy Mitchell and Dr Simon Thurley, who led the panel discussion at C. Hoare & Co.

Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I bought a house set in its own fields in West Berkshire. It was dangerously pretty. Dangerously? It was infested by rats, a ruin on the point of collapse, 800 years old, listed and a money pit.

I thought it would be easy to launch the project — to find the right architect, the ideal garden designer, and a sympathetic interior designer, as well as get the planning permissions to restore and enlarge it. I had successfully completed property projects in London before. How difficult could this one be?

Suffice to say I encountered such a dearth of accessible knowledge and advice on the ‘who and the how’ that I realised in a flash that those in the same position as I was, whether in London or the country, surely needed the kind of help I wanted badly. So after much research, and carefully putting together a team of the country’s most distinguished experts in design and fine houses, I set up a firm to advise discerning clients wanting to launch significant property projects: to help them handpick their team from the best in class, whether architect, interior designer, project manager or other key professionals, and to know better than anyone how their chosen candidates would perform and how they would charge.

I borrowed the name for the company from Humphry Repton’s Red Books. Why? I admired Repton so much as a designer; and admired him as a marketing genius just as greatly; above all I shared his excitement about the possibilities of what transformations can be achieved to property and domestic landscapes— a stirringly optimistic vision.

“I admired Repton so much as a designer; and admired him as a marketing genius just as greatly.”

Nearly 10 years after launching the company, and all those years on from the day my wife and I bought our listed house in Berkshire, is it still such a challenge for those who want to refurbish a home or build a brand new one?

After all, anyone can ask a friend who has used an interior designer or an architect for a recommendation. And the internet seems to have the answer to everything.  “Alexa — find me an architect. Alexa — build me a house.”

Other stumbling blocks

In truth, there are real limits to what the internet and friends can tell you. To take one example, the internet does not reveal how the fees of individual architects, interior designers or project managers compare. And even when you know what a practice proposes to charge, benchmarking that fee against others in the market, and understanding the fee structure – what you are really going to end up paying – is often near impossible without the help of experts.

Similarly, if you spot a practice whose work you love on the internet or in a magazine, how do you know how good that practice is at delivering and finishing their projects? Moreover, as much as 90% of the projects completed by the best interior designers are never published on the net or elsewhere because of confidentiality restrictions — so it is hard to know the range of any designer’s work.

Friends’ recommendations carry risks too. The chances of a friend’s taste, budget, property type and ambitions for their project being exactly the same as yours are probably slim. And each of those individual factors can make the difference between a great match of architect or interior designer, and one that is less than ideal.

What this means is that choosing the key members of your team can be like trying to pick a winning racehorse from a glimpse of the animal in the parade ring — without knowing the horse’s breeding, its form, or even the odds on it winning.

Meantime, the process of transforming homes is become ever more complex. Advances in technology — in building materials, web-linked control systems and structural engineering — are one positive reason for that. Our expectations of comfort and design are also rising as our homes are becoming even more like fine hotels, making projects more intricate.

A less good reason is that the national laws and local regulations surrounding building projects are becoming ever more complex, and utterly unrecognisable since Repton’s day, of course.

The Duchess of Bedford and Sandy Mitchell compare Red Book notes

The one thing that hasn’t changed since the day Repton left Woburn

We live in the age of Amazon Prime’s same-day delivery, and algorithms that can predict your desires before you have even formed them. Yet not everything has changed. Many people still share the ambitious vision — daring even — of Repton’s patron at Woburn, the 6th Duke of Bedford. They want to create their own superlative homes, on scales small or large.

In reality, this is a growing trend. A far higher percentage of property buyers want to take on ambitious building projects now than they did 10 years ago. According to our sources in the world of country estate agencies and property search, at least 50% of all those looking to buy a new home would consider a project, whether building a new house or refurbishing and substantially enlarging one. This figure has roughly doubled in a decade.

What accounts for this? I think it is partly because our design vocabulary has become enriched by Instagram, magazines and TV. We can visualise more readily what is possible. Coupled with this, I believe wholeheartedly that the quality of architecture and design is improving all the time. The buildings of the 60s, 70s and even 80s were frequently brutal or ungainly beasts, and too many show their age badly now. But with, some hideous exceptions, new ones going up are often extraordinary — inventive, elegant, subtle — way, way better.

The appeal of creating a home as a deeply personal legacy is undimmed. There is an enduring truth in that old German proverb: ‘You have lived life when you have brought up a child, planted a tree and built a house’.

RedBook is a specialist consultancy that helps clients and their advisers select the perfect creative and technical team for significant property projects.

For further information, please contact us on 0207 060 6222. Or email: enquiries@redbookagency.com