There was even more than usual to celebrate at this year’s Inchbald School of Design Spring Lunch. Over 80 percent employment success rate for last year’s crop of graduates (the post boom national average hovers below 30 percent) would be enough for most schools to uncork the champers. But there’s more. The trailblazing founder and Principal, Jacqueline Duncan, has ensured the school has now remained top of its game for more than half a century. There’s more still. The icing on the baked vanilla cheesecake with berry compote is Jacqueline has been awarded the Order of the British Empire. Her husband, Colonel Duncan, raised the toast to her accomplishments at the Cavalry and Guards Club on Piccadilly.
Looking immaculate as ever, in between courses of home cured gravadlax, asparagus, charred artichoke and quails egg salad followed by poached salmon and fennel carpaccio, Jacqueline revealed the origins of Inchbald. “My first husband (who died recently) Michael Inchbald and I had a big house in Chelsea. We’d a 40 foot long drawing room. Upstairs was a big apartment on the first floor. We had dances there but otherwise it was an empty space.” Jacqueline soon had plans for putting it to good use.
“I’d no managerial experience. Before getting married I worked as a secretary and then I became an antiques dealer.” This didn’t hinder her deciding to launch the first interior design school in Europe. The year was 1960. “It was terrifying! I needed seven students to cover costs for the first term. The Monday before it opened I had my first applicant. That was all. But by the following Monday I had eight. It did become less terrifying as time went on. The following September I had 40 students.” Inchbald was the first of its kind to offer interior designers qualifications leading to professional status.
So what is the secret of her success – and longevity? Turns out to be a mixture of things. “I employed very good lecturers from the outset. Most of them were practising designers themselves. We ran a very successful PR campaign. It was fantastic! I didn’t lose a night’s sleep. It was a lot of hard work though.” The hard work has paid off. Inchbald’s syllabus now ranges from postgraduate and masters courses to introductory online courses. The internationally renowned school embraces interior design, interior decoration and garden design. It’s long outgrown Jacqueline’s former first floor apartment. “We now have six directors at our school at Eaton Gate and Eccleston Square,” she confirms.
An OBE for services to design is the latest and greatest accolade to be bestowed upon the debonair doyenne of design. “I stick with quality! It’s terribly important to me. Other people don’t. I’m so particular about quality,” Jacqueline emphasises. This is the lady who told Mrs Thatcher to go get her hair sorted and gave the then prime minister the name of her own hairdressers. Mrs T was spotted in the salon the following week. “Extending the perception of quality is Inchbald’s underlying philosophy. It’s been a lifetime’s work.”
Jacqueline Duncan still carries out her Monday and Friday morning walkabouts of Inchbald. She’s a lot to be proud of as the school continues to go from strength to strength. Alumni set up their own practices like Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill and Nina Campbell or go to work for high end companies such as Candy & Candy. But instead she is incredibly modest. And great fun. “Is your grandmother still working?” she asks with a twinkle in her eye.