Design duo Divine Savages on playful prints and decadent maximalism
Jamie Watkins and Tom Kennedy’s southeast London home is a showcase for their extravagant creations, says Katrina Burroughs
Maximalism has gone mainstream. Once the territory of a few cult labels, it’s being adopted in high-street interiors collections from Debenhams to George Home. Even Ikea is using the m-word.
The question is, who are the trailblazers of this decadent trend, and where are they taking it next? We found the answer in southeast London, in the excessive residence of Jamie Watkins and Tom Kennedy, also known as Divine Savages.
Standing beneath Brenda the stuffed peacock, and holding one of their four limited-edition Barbies — Tippi Hedren from the Hitchcock film The Birds, complete with attacking avians — the husbands behind the Divine Savages brand describe their aesthetic. “It’s flamboyant, eccentric, quirky and slightly edgy,” Kennedy says.
There’s art deco-style ornament, a touch of chinoiserie and a spritz of kitsch. The names of the patterns — Crane Fonda, Gerschwing, Safari Soirée, Faunacation — tell you, if you hadn’t twigged already, that they are having a lot of fun creating a playful revision of maximalism. And their “upside-down” home, with the bedroom in the basement and the kitchen and living room upstairs, is a showcase for their extravagant creations.
The Divine design story began in 2012, when the couple bought a two-bedroom duplex in an 1895 terrace in New Cross for £285,000. The Savages, both 38, met in 2006, “the old-fashioned way” — in a bar. “Jamie was the first strange man I ever bought a drink for,” Kennedy says.
That Jack and Coke proved a wise investment. They got married in 2014, celebrating at the Mildmay working men’s club, Stoke Newington. “It’s so cool — it’s stuck in the 1960s,” Kennedy says. “Gucci did its SS18 campaign there and it has been on Killing Eve.” Then, after renting in Fulham, they discovered south London and “realised how much more you got for your money”.
When the pair began refurbishing their new home, they bought mostly secondhand furniture. Sources included eBay, the Midcentury Modern shows at Dulwich College, Sunbury Antiques Market, Old Spitalfields Market, Vintique — and more eBay. They wanted wallpaper, but nothing in the shops reflected their taste. Can you guess what happened next?
Kennedy had worked in fashion after studying illustration and graphics at the University of Westminster, producing prints for Dr Martens, Fred Perry and Ben Sherman — so he took to his computer and started drafting patterns. His first design was Deco Martini, based on the classic Jazz Age fan motif. “Thinking about bold, all-over print for T-shirts was a good preparation for wallpapers,” he says. In 2016, he left his job at a trends agency to go freelance and work on a full collection of opulent exotica; and in October 2017, the couple launched the Divine Savages online boutique.
Tasks are split along strict lines. Kennedy is in charge of design, marketing and photography. Watkins, who for the time being has a day job sourcing content for a TV channel, is the business and organisational brain. “I like detail and keeping on top of things,” he says. “I like lists. I will make a list of what Tom has to do each day and send it to him in the morning.”
They namecheck William Morris as a distant ancestor of their look, but the spirit of their work is way more exuberant than the beardy father of the Arts and Crafts movement. Influences include de Gournay, Eltham Palace, the Natural History Museum, movie posters and paperback covers by Robert E McGinnis, and fashion brands including Versace and Gucci.
After living in their Victorian property for a couple of years, Watkins and Kennedy started their makeover in the basement, covering the floor in shiny white hexagonal mosaic tiles (£35 a sq metre; wallsandfloors. co.uk). The glossy ceramics extend from the front door round the foot of the stairs and into the bathroom at the back of the basement, a practical surface that makes it easy to mop up mud from Kennedy’s bike or Ripley the cat’s gifts of mice.
There was no natural light in the hallway, so they swapped all the doors for period-style replacements with reeded glass panels that would share light from the rooms above. Left of the front door, pride of place goes to a midcentury shelving unit displaying what Watkins refers to as “Tom’s toys”: a Kidrobot Kim Jong-un, figurines from the 1980s video game Street Fighter, X-Men comic books.
The walls are adorned with posters, including an Italian one for the film One Million Years BC, featuring Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, and pulp-fiction novels, displayed as artworks in Perspex boxes. Titles include She by H Ryder Haggard and Gay Paragon by Dick Dale (subtitle: “Greg had a body fit for a Queen!”). On the landing is a picture of Debbie Harry with the word Atomic picked out in yellow EL wire, a collaboration the pair did with Light Up North for the 100% Design show last year (£760; lightupnorth.com).
The bedroom in the basement, the last interior to be made over, was finished just a month ago. “The sun goes over quite early, and this room doesn’t get much light,” Watkins says. “It’s best to embrace the darkness and work with it.” They chose Off Black paint (£46.50 for 2½ litres of Estate Emulsion; farrow-ball.com), which they also applied to the frames of the mirrored closet doors.
They added fake curtains in velvet Nocturnal Fauanaction (£95 a metre) on either side of the wardrobe mirrors “to give a dramatic cinema-screen feel”. Fringed lampshades and wallpaper in the same pattern (£140 a roll; divinesavages.com) create an immersive effect.
The carpet, in an intense blue veined pattern like natural stone, is a collaboration between Alternative Flooring and Zoffany (Zoffany Boutique Serpentine Malachite, £58 a sq metre; alternativeflooring. com). Wall-mounted Lily lamps by Dutchbone (£99; accessoriesforthehome.co.uk) are positioned on either side of the bed, above upcycled cabinets from Design Retro — customised with Anaglypta wallpaper and Off Black paint (designretrobrighton.co.uk).
Upstairs, where the interiors are awash with daylight, the palette shifts to blush and green. The living room is papered in Deco Martini in Teal. Against that snazzy backdrop, there’s a menagerie of eBay finds: a china tiger as tall as a greyhound; two vintage Audubon prints; and Brenda the peacock, who hovers above the hearth.
She is named after Kennedy’s aunt, a film teacher who adored interiors and left him some money to treat himself. “She passed away in 2016, and I decided I would buy something with attitude that reminded me of her.”
The velvet seating includes a rust-coloured Scott armchair from Made.com(£599) and a Munich sofa in Kingfisher Blue by Swoon (from £1,249; swooneditions.com). The single rattan Bermuda seat (£275; therattancompany. co.uk) is an online treasure that nearly didn’t make it into their home. “We found it on Instagram,” Watkins says. “We love bamboo and cane, but we didn’t realise how big it was — we only just squeezed it in. We had to repaint the door!”
Kennedy’s workstation is cleverly camouflaged in one corner of the living room. Floating shelves, walls and a countertop at waist height, so he can stand up to work, are painted in Farrow & Ball Hague Blue. The dark backdrop means the black storage cabinet and computer screen are almost invisible.
Benefiting from large windows with views of the garden, as well as borrowed light from the glass-panelled door, the kitchen is the brightest room in the house. The couple kept the white Ikea units installed by the previous owners, giving them a facelift by substituting neat gold metallic pulls for the old silver bar handles and installing a richly coloured solid zebrano worktop (from £320; worktop-express.co.uk).
They chose Rose Mallow tiles by Artisan Equipe Ceramicas (£39 a sq metre; tiles-direct.com), then, once more stumped for a suitable wallcovering, Kennedy created a quirky coral-coloured bird print, Crane Fonda, to harmonise with the ceramics. They bought a 1960s extendable teak table and covered the accompanying chairs in velvet fabric that matched the wallpaper (£95 a metre). The finishing touches were a host of succulents and some mini gardens from London Terrariums (from £60; londonterrariums.com)
With their home finished, the chaps plan to concentrate on expanding their design brand. A new range of five patterns, available as wallpapers, fabrics and cushions, is on the cards this autumn, created in collaboration with Kennedy’s favourite museum, the National History Museum. Indicating the tyrannosaurus rex model over his workstation and a velociraptor skeleton in the hallway, he says: “It was always my favourite place to visit if we ever came up to London as children.”
Watkins got in touch with the South Kensington institution and found that the feeling was reciprocated: “They had seen us online and really liked what we were doing with a number of our prints already inspired by the natural world. Tom has been Indiana Jonesing it, raiding the archive, and we’ll launch the collection in October.”
They are tight-lipped about the details, but it seems likely that the next generation of maximalism will be more Jurassic Park than Arts and Crafts. How divine.