I knew nothing about the catering world when I came to England in 1993. I grew up in Belgrade and was in my fourth year at university studying veterinary science when the war broke out and I decided to leave the country.
It was a very difficult decision to leave my family behind and come to a country where I didn't speak the language and my qualifications as a vet weren't recognised. I had to start again from nothing.
I had to get a job to pay for my rent and food, so I started looking around. I came for an interview for a chambermaid's job at Hazlitt's and as soon as I walked through the door I knew that I wanted to work here. In the end I didn't get the job straight away, but they called me back a few weeks later and I started the next day.
After a year as a chambermaid and improving my English, I was promoted to housekeeper. About a year after starting in that job, a position opened to work with the managing director, Peter McKay. Peter is one of the owners and oversees all the design and buying of antiques that fill the three hotels. Although I had always been impressed with the furniture in the hotel, Peter opened my eyes to what period furniture is all about. He took me to auctions and taught me about different styles, periods and materials. Peter is very demanding but he has vision. He has a huge picture painted in different colours in his mind, and it's me who makes it happen.
I realised very quickly that room design is not something you can do without specialist knowledge, however, so I started to teach myself about restoration and French polishing. I also spent a few days in the workshop with the furniture restorer we work with.
My days are now spent rushing around between hotels, checking on rooms and dealing with any damage in the rooms. Everything in the bedrooms has an exact place and no one moves anything without my permission.
One of my largest projects to date has been the Rookery. When we bought the building it had no roof, no windows and only a few walls. Every bedroom had to be exactly planned, and that takes a long time. All the wall colours, fabrics, furniture and flooring we use are researched to fit the appropriate period. We don't just go and buy fabrics and paint, we have them made and mixed. I also do proper research in to the history of the building to find out who has lived there over the years. Each room is then named after one of them.
After the planning stage, we have to find the right furniture. For the Rookery, it took me three months to plan the rooms and then two years of going to auctions about four days a week to find the right pieces. All the auction houses have different days for furniture sales, and then sometimes we go out to house sales or auctions in the countryside. It can be very hard work. I also have to drive down to Wiltshire with a van full of furniture for restoration. Then all the rooms have to be put together, which also can take a lot of time.
Having been a chambermaid, I'm always aware of the practical side of room design, too. There's no point getting something impossible to clean, however beautiful it might be. I also now run a day course called Furniture Through the Ages at least once a week for staff members. New housekeepers spend two weeks with me. The furniture is such an important part of the hotels, it's vital for the staff to understand the history and significance of the pieces.
My next project is going to be the restoration of the building next to Hazlitt's, so we can expand the hotel. You never know how your life is going to turn, and mine was turned upside down when I first came to England. Furniture is my real love in life now.
Just a minute...
What's the best part of your job?
Having the freedom to be creative. The other staff in the hotels have also been a tremendous support for me. I have always been very family orientated and the staff have been a real family substitute over the years.
What's the worst part of your job?
Postponing things. It's awful when you're all geared up to start a project and for some reason or other it's postponed and you have to wait for another start date.
Tell us a secret
As well as studying to be a vet, I worked as a professional photographer in Serbia for eight years.
Peter's Lane, Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6DS
Tel: 020 7336 0931
Standard double: £225
189 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5EX
Tel: 020 7584 6601
Standard double: £170-£210
6 Frith Street, Soho Square, London W1D 3JA
Tel: 020 7434 1771
Standard double: £195
By Jessica Gunn