Great interior designers: Robert Adam

‘Adam Style’ is synonymous with the classic English country house look. But how much do you know about the brilliant Scotsman who created it?

Here’s our guide to Robert Adam, plus some tips on how you can bring some of his style into your own home (with the accent, as ever, on lighting)...

Are great designers born or made? In the case of Robert Adam, a talent for design was almost certainly in the genes: his father was Scotland’s number one architect and his older brother John was extremely successful too.

That inheritance was enhanced by a strong Scottish work ethic, a classical education, and a visual imagination fired by the obligatory 18th century Grand Tour. All served Robert Adam well and enabled him to become one of the most celebrated architects and designers of his time.

And, while ‘Adam Style’ may be synonymous with the English country house, its influence spread across Europe and North America.

In this post, we look at Robert Adam’s life and career, the essential elements of Adam Style, and why his legacy is still very much alive. We’ve also put together a selection of lighting and accessories that would, we like to think, grace any Adam interior – or bring a touch of Mr Adam’s style to your home.

Robert Adam’s early life

Born in Fife in 1728, Robert was the second son of Mary Robertson and architect William Adam. Robert and John trained with their father and John would take over the family practice after William’s death.

Robert was not the healthiest of children: illness would continually interrupt his education first at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and later at the University of Edinburgh. Despite the gaps - and the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion – Robert Adam gained a solid grounding in the classics, logic, metaphysics, mathematics and anatomy.

White Satin Bedchamber, Hopetoun House. William Adam worked on the extensions to Hopetoun, Robert and James were responsible for the lavish interiors. Image credit.

Apprenticed to his father in 1746, Robert worked on major projects including Inverary Castle and Hopetoun House and in 1749 travelled to London, on the first of the journeys that would expand his architectural and design horizons.

Five years later he set off on the Grand Tour to Belgium, France and finally Rome, where he studied classical architecture and drawing under the great Piranesi, as well as familiarising himself with classical archaeology and art history. What he learned in Rome and how he applied that knowledge would underpin his future success.

The Adam brothers’ London powerhouse

By 1758, Robert Adam was back in London, bursting with ideas. He and James set up their own architectural and design practice, working mainly on complete schemes – interiors as well as exteriors - for large houses. The underlying influence was the popular Palladian style (which Robert Adam would later reject), but the brothers wove in elements of Greek, Byzantine and Baroque styles too.

As with some of the other great architect-designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the brothers were fanatical about detail, insisting on complete control of every element of each project, from walls and floors to ceilings, furniture and architectural ironmongery. It was here that Robert Adam would develop the elements of what would become known as Adam Style and his theory of movement in architecture, described by the V&A as ‘the rise and fall, and advancement and recession of forms’, which drew on his study of antiquities.

They were to be the cornerstones of his success: Robert Adam was on his way.

The magnificent ‘Adam Style’ Marble ballroom, Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. Image credit

Grand designs – the ascendancy of Robert Adam

Robert Adam’s services were in demand (by those who could afford him) from one end of Great Britain to another, with commissions for extensive building works and decorative schemes. The list of major houses and buildings on which he worked is staggering. Scottish projects included Yester House, Culzean Castle, Dumfries House and Paxton House; in England he worked on numerous schemes including Harewood House, Kedleston Hall, Stowe, Bowood House, and Saltram House.

The sensational Gallery at Harewood, Yorkshire. The Adam ceiling is considered a masterpiece of Georgian design. Image credit.

His stamp could be seen in many of the finest homes in and around London too, such as Syon House and Home House, as well as the Duke of Wellington’s home, Apsley House, and Osterley House, both of which featured in Pooky’s great interiors series. Kenwood House, Hampstead, which houses a magnificent art collection, was another fine example; it underwent major restoration in recent years, with particular attention being given to Robert Adam’s original features and designs. If you plan to visit, look out for the distinctive Robert Adam blues.

But even as successful a designer as Robert Adam can come a cropper, as he and his brother did with the Adelphi building – an upmarket terraced housing development in Westminster. Four years after they purchased a 99-acre plot of marshy land near the Thames, the brothers’ ambitious project failed, leading to colossal debts and the loss of 3,000 jobs.

Still, set against a lifetime of architectural and design achievements, not to mention becoming MP for Kinross-shire in 1768, the Adelphi fiasco should not cast too long a shadow across Robert Adam’s career and legacy.

By the time of his death in 1792, Adam had won all the glittering prizes, the last of which was to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Each of his pall-bearers – one duke, three earls, one lord and one baronet – was a former client.

The staircase at Culzean Castle, one of Robert Adam’s final commissions; he died before it was completed. Image credit: National Trust for Scotland.

Adam style – the essential elements

While early Georgian interiors stuck to strict mathematical proportions, Robert Adam favoured curved walls and domes. Plasterwork was intricate and detailed; pastel colour schemes dominated, with a much broader colour palette than previously seen in grand houses. Adam opted for greens, blues, lemons, lilacs and pinks (while not being averse to darker colours if the room required them).

Sugared almond ceiling and walls at Kenwood House. Image credit.
Although Adam’s predominant decorative style was neoclassical – think classical medallions, urns, vines, nymphs and so on - he enlivened it with neo-Gothic elements, borrowing motifs from other period. If you are visiting an Adam House, look out for Egyptian or Etruscan touches. He was particularly keen on pilasters, panels and painted ceilings and ornaments, and frequently brought in leading artists such as Angelica Kauffman, Antonio Zucchi and Pietro Maria Borgnis to add more than a touch of magnificence.

Osterley House in Isleworth, London, displays the full range of Adam’s imagination. The Entrance Hall is cool classicism with decorative elements. The Eating Room is gorgeous pastels. And the Etruscan Dressing Room shows one of his favourite borrowed motifs from history. Images: ©National Trust Images/Paul Barker

Robert Adam – the legacy

By the end of the 18th century, the intricacy favoured by Robert Adam had gradually ceded to Regency style, a simpler version of the neoclassical look. Nevertheless, Adam Style did not sink without trace and enjoyed a major revival almost a century after his death. There are plenty of individuals and organisations fortunate enough to have been entrusted with the care of an Adam house who have gone to great lengths to preserve or replicate original features. Ugbrooke House, home to the Clifford family for 500 years, is a superb example and definitely worth a visit if you are in Devon.

For an alternative Robert Adam experience, you could head to one of our other amazing interiors, Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, which is home to the major part of Robert and James Adam’s original designs. In 1833, Sir John paid £200 for 8,856 drawings; that’s just under £24,000 in today’s money or less £3.00 each… sounds like a bargain to us.

Robert Adam drawing for a glass drawing room. Image: Sir John Soane’s Museum
Finally, if you are visiting the V&A, be sure to take stop off in the Print and Drawings Study Room (room 503), where a copy of the Adam brothers' The Works in Architecture is on display.

Robert Adam style – in your home

Grand designs almost always require deep pockets (although we have to give due credit to the owners of this Robert Adam inspired garden shed!) and, let’s face it, we are probably not going to be incorporating pilasters into our own homes any time soon. But if you have visited any of the extraordinary houses that he designed, it would be hard to remain uninspired. So why not opt for just a hint of neoclassical? Here at Pooky we have been putting some of our designs to the Robert Adam test, in terms of style, colour and embellishment and here are some of our favourites.

Where better to start than the classically named and styled, Hera, a lightly waxed wooden table lamp? Even better, marry Hera’s simple and elegant column with Matthew Williamson’s grey and pink Palm lampshade for an eye-catching modern interpretation of Adam Style. For a floor lamp, go for something timelessly elegant, like the stranded column Wrappling. Curved swan neck style wall lights are very Adam - the Anthea wall fitting has two of them. And for a touch of the fluted column in a large glass pendant light, take a look at Scallop – classical lines and an antiqued brass fitting.

Your very own touch of Adam doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, as the shed owners demonstrated; Pooky’s small but beautiful Charles mirror, set into a carved, gilded oval frame, would grace any wall, either on its own or complemented by Blanche and Phillippe. - Unfortunately these mirrors are no longer available, but please take a look at our extensive range of mirrors here


Pooky makes beautiful lighting for beautiful rooms. Browse our range of affordable designer lighting here.

Enjoyed this? You'll probably like these too:

Amazing interiors: Osterley House

Classic interior design styles and how to light them: English Country House

Great interior designers: Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Top: Robert Adam, portrait by Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), Aberdeen Art Gallery and Musuems