Oliver Messel - in the theatre of design, with Thomas Messel

Sumptuously illustrated talk about the life and work of Oliver Messel, the most eminent theatre designer England has produced


Oliver was society’s darling, designing houses, furnishings and interiors in Mustique for the smart set of the Sixties and Seventies. The Oliver Messel Collection at the V&A consists of around 10,000 individual items and has been housed by the V&A Theatre Collections since 1981.

Oliver Messel's career spanned the worlds of film, stage, interior design and architecture. Born into a creative family, Messel began his career in 1925 designing for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He became an internationally celebrated figure, branching out into drama, film, opera, interior design, textiles and architecture.

Romanticism and wit were hallmarks of Messel’s style. During the War, Oliver Messel served as a camouflage officer and used his already famous talents to disguise pillboxes as haystacks, castles, ruins, and roadside cafes. His theatre sets were famed for their exquisite delicacy, detail, subtlety of colour and inventive use of materials.

Messel was responsible for more than forty stage and film productions. His remarkable vision was immortalised in Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty, starring Margot Fonteyne, the first ballet production ever televised. It has been revived by the Royal Ballet and is showing at the Royal Opera House until December 21st.

His distinguished costume designs for films included: The Thief of Baghdad, Cesar & Cleopatra, and The Queen of Spades. He was also production designer on the film of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award.

Following his career as an iconic stage designer, from the 1920s to the post-war period, Messel entered the fields of interior design and architecture. He designed [numerous houses on the islands of Mustique and Barbados for the jet set of the 1960s and 70s, among them his own nephew Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon, and Princess Margaret.


Thomas Messel

Thomas Messel is the nephew of Oliver Messel and is one of England’s most eminent furniture designers.

He has won a number of prestigious design awards over the past thirty years, and has gained an international reputation for designing and creating furniture of classical beauty. After serving in the Household Cavalry, he spent three years with L Messel & Co in the City of London, before establishing his furniture design studio.

He lectures frequently. In Britain, to The Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London; The Inchbald School of Design, London; The Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The National Trust, England. And in the USA to The Colony Club, New York; The Royal Oak; The 21st Century Society, Cleveland; The Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach.

Thomas's book Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design has recently been published by Rizzoli International Publications. Thomas is also a contributing writer for House & Garden magazine.

2011Martin Keeley