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My mother was an interior designer in the 80s. That meant I grew up with all the big names we still know and love today. That era was really over the top – swags and tails, wallpaper borders over wallpaper borders and very bright colours. I remember thinking how great it was to paint a room canary yellow! My sisters and I used to spend hours moving furniture and accessories around in bedrooms to make them look better and feel more comfortable – I suppose it was an early form of interior styling!
I started doing paint effects during my blip of a first marriage. I had a house to decorate and I couldn’t just do plain colours. I couldn’t afford wallpaper, so I started painting trees on the walls and the ceiling of my kitchen. I taught myself how to do paint effects and loved all the hand painting, creating trompe-l'œil false pillars and landscapes in the bathrooms. After I left my first husband, I had no money, so I set up a shop in Kendal in the Lake District and offered my painting services, as well as selling paint effects equipment and paints.
I ended up painting all over the country and in Europe. All the houses I lived in were featured in magazines and I used to teach paint effects and even had a 13-part TV series at one time. I was amazed at how many letters I got from that TV show, and it led to quite a bit of ‘before and after’ TV work for BBC2. In the end, I retired from painting when I was about seven months pregnant with my oldest son – about 23 years ago now!
Not going to art school was always one of my biggest regrets. I was so desperate to leave home and go to university, I chose the most boring course in the world – ancient history and archaeology – and hated it. I failed all my exams and left university with nothing. My older sister had done an art foundation course in Newcastle and went on to do a Fashion MA at the Royal College of Art. However, when I was 47, I found I had some spare time. I had sold a craft paper business I set up to a big company in Leicester in 2010 and had renovated the house we still live in. I suddenly thought, what am I going to do now? I decided to go back to college because I wanted to learn how to paint pictures to put on my walls. I thought I could do fine art or textiles, so I phoned the textile department at my local college. I took some things I had made and painted, and my interview lasted five minutes before I was told I had a place.
I loved every minute of being back at school and having three years to create at will. I learnt so much about industry and left with a first-class degree, which I was very proud of. I developed and produced my first collection in my third year, and still work in the same way I was taught. When I create a collection, I do lots of research and development before reaching the final outcome.
At college, I was old enough to be everybody’s mother – including the tutors! But everybody mixed so well. I’m very determined and good at self-direction, so I never worried about motivation. I knew I didn’t want to go down the screen-printing route – instead, I knew I had to combine my computer skills with my art and create my fabric digitally. I learned how to create a design from scratch, transferring it onto a Mac, making it a vector, drawing in the design programmes, adding colour and eventually getting the files ready to send to the printers. I’m lucky I know how to do every part of the process now.
Having my own business was actually plan B. Originally, I thought I could create designs and sell them to the industry twice a year in New York after visiting a trade show there. You could create a repeat pattern, and someone might buy it to put on paper plates or other products. But I soon realised people were selling their designs for nothing. I wasn’t going to do this, so I came home and decided to produce my own fabric and wallpaper. I had to invest in my business, find good printers and sell everything online, which wasn’t an easy task. Luckily, I had a business background. Having professional photos of my first collection was a real turning point and it got in me into magazines, which really helped my profile grow.
When it comes to decorating, it’s best to have a starting point. Often, clients ask us to keep something in the room, so we have to work around that – usually a sofa or something that might be expensive to replace. The other day I created a room around some headboards I had left over from another project, and incorporated wallpaper I was going to use elsewhere and an over order of fabric. I didn’t order anything else specifically – I just used what I had.
It’s so important to think about the accessories, like the cushions and the lampshades and bedspreads, too. Once I’ve decided on the main areas, I go shopping to look for other components in the space. I often do a mood board online, where I can make mocked up curtains, cushions and headboards. I have got to the stage in life where I can’t bear a “bargain” or something that looks cheap – I’m prepared to pay for quality. If I have to look at it every day, I want it to last and look lovely for as long as possible.
To me, it’s so obvious when people cut corners. It reminds me of these makeover shows where they put everything together with cheap paint and a staple gun – give it a few months and it will all look revolting. I think if you’re going to put the time and effort into decorating a room, you need to spend money on something good – and buy it when you see it, otherwise you won’t see it again. It’s probably an attitude that comes with age – I’ve done things on a strict budget, and I’m not doing it again.
The main mistake I see people make is thinking of only one fabric for the room. They’ll make some lovely curtains and never think about all the other soft furnishings – cushions, lampshades, upholstery and window seats. The other thing that drives me mad is painting the room before choosing the fabric. It’s an impossible task to find a fabric that will go with the paint colour, trust me. The only thing that happens is you end up with a fabric you don’t really like. It’s far easier to find a fabric you want to live with and then pick out a paint colour to match.
Also, it is important to put fabric samples in the room and not look at them under an electric light in a white space, because everything will be amplified and some colours won’t match. When you put them in the room, you’ll find they actually look good together and fit with the rest of the scheme.
I never play favourites with my collections – they are all different in their own way. Some sell better than others and some I get bored of and discontinue. What’s good is everything is printed to order so I don’t have to hold stock – if a print isn’t going well, I can stop selling it. One of the most successful fabrics and wallpaper is the Tiger Blue print I created in 2018. It has sold well all over the world – amazing when you consider how quickly I designed it.
Inspiration tends to come from museum trips and looking for different shapes. I then combine these shapes to create different patterns. Even after days of designing, I can decide I hate it all and forget about it. Then, I come back with fresh eyes and create something out of nothing. One design in my Stitchery collection came from a single brush stroke in my sketch book. I repeated it in a certain way and moved it around. It has been so popular – it goes with anything and can be used it in a traditional or modern house.
There’s usually a reason behind everything I create. I often honour people and name fabrics after them. My next collection is going to be named after influential women in my younger life who helped me find my artistic path. I also try to make the names and colour names easy to remember, so the printers don’t get muddled up!
When it comes to using pattern, you have to examine the scale. Start with a hero or showstopper fabric on the curtains or the headboard. Then, look for smaller scale patterns which remind you of a stripe or a spot. I usually keep the colour palette simple – blue, green, red and blue. If you try to mix big prints together, they fight and do nothing for the scheme. I like to have a focal point. Cushions are a great way to do this, and you can use prints to break up plain fabrics, too. I love a print because you can see through it. If you use block colour, you often can’t see beyond it.
I love using wallpaper and I often use it for a whole room. I loathe the feature wall trend. Wallpaper does so much for a room and can really create a lovely atmosphere when you walk in, while a feature wall creates a half-finished look and plain walls still need lots of pictures on them to make an impact. I love a wacky wallpaper for a small room, but I prefer to use a small-scale pattern for a larger room – something that isn’t going to compete against the fabrics. Ultimately, you have to decide if you want the wallpaper or the fabrics to be the star of the show. It looks like a dog’s dinner if you try to do both.
Some of my favourite places to shop include Chelsea Textiles and Soane for furniture, and you can find great antiques at Robert Kime. I love the art on offer at Birdie Fortescue and Sultan’s Garden by William Edwards is where I find lovely tableware. I really only buy antique glass – good, heavy-based whisky tumblers – or cheap wine glasses from IKEA because we seem to break so many! I’ve never seen much point in spending a fortune on expensive glass.
All of my favourite shops are in Pimlico. Being based in Northumberland, I always make the most of shopping in London when I can. My must-visits (other than the ones mentioned above) are David Linley, Edward Bulmer and Fermoie. I also exhibited at the Design Centre in Chelsea Harbour in March – it’s such an inspirational place for interiors, not just in terms of the showrooms but also the people you meet there.
When I first joined Instagram nine years ago, it was a very artistic platform. Now it’s all changed but I like to stick to my values and post good photos to give people inspiration. I don’t do collaborations because I think it’s better to mention only the products I’ve chosen. I like to be genuine and authentic – just a middled-aged fabric and wallpaper designer living on a farm in Northumberland and working out of a wooden studio and some converted barns. My followers like seeing the fabric and wallpaper in action and I often ask them for their opinion on new designs to help me. Over the years, I’ve learnt what colours people like – often blue, pink, green and red. I do enjoy doing a room tour, showing off my latest decorated room and explaining where everything came from.
Some of my top Instagram follows would be @Ibbi_Interiors – my dear friends set this company up about ten years ago and they have some lovey things and great style. Also, @JackDMarch is so active and funny – I really feel I’m living his life with him, plus, he’s done some lovely rooms in his house. Another lovely friend is @SusiBellamy, who does the same as me up here in Northumberland – we have a lot of off-loading sessions because we’re the only ones who understand what we do; that said, her style is totally different to mine, so we’re not in direct competition. For sculpture, follow @PatricaMitchellDesign – her art has grown so much, and she’s created a really professional business. Finally, @LadyChatterleysAffair is an amazing designer out of Australia – I’m on the same wavelength as her when it comes to print, pattern and colour.
With a bit of effort, you can change a room completely and make it look so much better and more comfortable than before. I hate gardening because you have to wait for results, but with decorating you can make instant changes. I love the diversity of it and the fact that there are so many styles out there. It isn’t led by trends – the interiors market is slow, and people are going to be decorating using colours that they can live with and enjoy for years to come. Often, they don’t want something strange they just want something that is comfortable and looks good.
Most people are not brave with decorating, but I even admit to thinking twice about doing certain things. You need to choose something you love, and then you can have as much or as little as you like. For example, you can always make your safe and calm scheme more dramatic by adding one small bright coloured cushion or a fun lampshade. Have a bit of an open mind if you can – I do lots of mock ups and pin different fabrics and wallpaper samples around the room. I walk towards the door and then I turn my head and look back. If I like it from a distance, then I know it’s going to work. Finally, remember nothing ever looks good when you are tired. Leave it and look at it again in the morning – you’ll probably have a completely different perspective on things.
All images courtesy of @CharlotteGaisford.