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My outward style is very much a reaction to how my brain works. My brain is very busy, so I like everything to be very quiet. Not boringly empty or minimalist, but quiet and really well made. I also love things that show the hand of the maker – not in an obvious crafty way, but in a spare but detailed way. A nest and a silver candlestick. A silk shirt and handmade leather shoes. My furniture is always covered in antique and hand-woven cloth and my clothes will always have a hand sewn detail. But they will be quiet in form.
I grew up in New Zealand and was a teenager in the late 80s. My peers were very into that whole 80s aesthetic, whereas I loved wearing vintage clothes from the late 1920s and 30s. Or I’d make my clothes – using old patterns and beautiful silks, linens and wool. I also drove a very old Morris Minor and owned etched champagne coupettes as a teenager, so you could say it was quite defined quite early on.
I knew from a very young age that I preferred my own company, being lost in my own world and making things. I didn’t see the world the way most other kids did and my school reports always said things like ‘Cassandra is in her own world’ or ‘she has a very big imagination’ or ‘she is prone to distraction’. I could sew and draw and cook and write as a girl. I didn’t see that there was anything less creative between the different industries. If you could cook, I thought you must also be as deeply interested in clothes and food and plates. I also loved to read – always non-fiction and almost always about civilisations, or ways of living, or people or making.
I’ve always needed (not wanted) to be surrounded by quiet en terre colours. Faded couture, dusty streets, Tuscan ceilings. Until I began Atelier Ellis, I didn’t know how to put all of this together. Now it feels like breathing.
I was first inspired by Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet. I was obsessed (and still am). Couture from that time was perfection and these two women were everything to me as a teenager. I wanted to train in couture – it is one of my few regrets. But I reference the palettes and that beautiful material intelligence in what I do now, every day.
Today I’m almost always inspired by all female entrepreneurs. Those that sit in and around the things I’m interested in – but they do it in a way that to me is incredibly beautiful. Aesthetically, emotionally, financially and with rigour – all beautiful. Lyn Harris, Rosa Park, Alice Waters, Christina Kim and Natalie Chanin are my first thoughts.
I started in set and event design. I like to build worlds and tell stories and, if I can create the frame, why not the colour, the table and the food. The outcome of people being content and enriched is always my goal and I don’t like leaving things to chance. How I make and think is always rooted in how I could make someone feel. I’m very grounded by our job now, as it is quite simply to help people tell their story of home. To make them feel safe, protected and uplifted in where and how they live. It’s a privilege to make something a ‘necessary’ product – but to make it with true depth and love.
I really love Italy. And my favourite two places are Bologna and Capri. I can’t explain my deep love for them, but they have everything I need and want.
I collect books – so many books. There are so many things I don’t know – and I want to know, so books above all. Next on my shopping list is The House of a Lifetime by Umberton Pasti and Ngoc Minh Ngoi. For a teenager growing up in small town in New Zealand, Mirabella from Grace Mirabella was an extraordinary magazine from the 90s – it was like a beautiful door opening.
Recently, I’ve also started collecting animals. Our family dog count has risen to three. I decided to give in to it. I’m sensible about most things, but I love animals and so George has joined the gang.
In terms of objects, I like a perfect stone as much as a beautiful chair. Collecting for me is more about living with the perfect balance of spare but detailed.
I love film – and generally I’m not very good in a theatre. Perhaps because film can be a very enjoyable solo activity. Merchant Ivory was always my go to and A Room With A View is my favourite movie of all time. Words, costumes, characters, thoughts – all beautiful. It has to be beautiful – visually and nuanced. It can’t be violent in any route that violence can seep into.
Cooking is such a big part of our family life. We discuss dinner at breakfast. It’s as much the gathering around the table as the food. Life happens there – happiness does come from a plate of deliciousness.
I funded my way through university with a catering business – and food is now a big part of our business. We have a large company allotment where we grow greens and flowers for our store and team. I’m not a master at any element of food, but I am deeply inquisitive, careful and abundant. My pavlova is the stuff of legends, but I can pretty much turn my hand to everything. Cooking for 20 doesn’t even break a sweat! Rochelle Canteen is my favourite place to each lunch – in the sunshine on a Saturday, with friends and dogs. Everything is delicious, simple and generous.
I admired Maureen Doherty of Egg hugely. It saddens me every day that she is no longer here. It is hard for me to find creatives who are brave enough to leave the looseness of humanity in their work. Maureen was definitely one.
Funnily enough, I’m mostly enthused by people outside of interiors – food, clothing and flower growers, rather than interior designers. Perhaps it’s because these people are at the nub of what we actually need, rather than want.