photo of ragdoll cat sitting on a coffee table in a sunny plant filled room
Interiors

Feathering an empty nest

At the ripe old age of 44 I am, for the first time in my life, living alone. (No the cat doesn’t count). First it was 17 years of family homes, then a shared college dorm, a string of shared houses on campus, then immediately into a house with my future husband, then 20 years later just me and the kids. And now? It’s just me and the cat and about 60 houseplants. Hold the crazy cat lady jokes please.

When you start a family at a young age – I was 23 – a tidy, quiet house and any amount of headspace is something you rarely experience and therefore something you often crave. With both children no longer living permanently at home, overnight I have the tidy, quiet house and all the headspace I could want. I relished it for about 2.5 days. I rearranged cupboards, installed my home office in my son’s room and my prop cupboard in my daughter’s. I de-cluttered, deep cleaned, and reorganized.

And then it hit me. THIS IS IT. That period in my life that had always existed only in the distant future? Well it had arrived. I was in the nest and it was empty. OK, the house has never been more clean and tidy. And the coffee table is no longer strewn with half empty water glasses, nail files, and empty crisp packets. But there’s a reason people say you’ll miss those things when they’re gone. Because you bloody well will!

When your entire adult life has been built around your children, whose needs always come first, it’s easy to fantasize that an empty nest is going to be a dream. No-one else to think about! No-one else to shop for! No-one else’s mess to moan about! But when it finally happens it’s just weird and sad and lonely and you have to work insanely hard to adapt before you get swept up in a sea of emotions that threaten to pull you under. The only friends who’ve commented that it must be great to have the place to myself are the ones with no children. Once your children lodge themselves in your heart, their absence is felt in a way that is difficult to describe.

I’m not here to offer advice on how to handle being an empty nester. I have none. Talk to me in a year. But I will say that creating a home that calms and comforts you and one that serves your new needs, should be your priority. In the past few weeks I’ve found myself making minor tweaks to my surroundings, in part to keep busy, but also to adapt to life alone. (Don’t feel sorry for me, my boyfriend lives round the corner and I do have friends!) The hallway no longer has three people’s shoes and coats and bags, so the coat rack that took up space and always got knocked over has now been put away. The spot on the kitchen counter where my son’s cereal boxes used to live (I’m not a cereal fan) is now a tidy coffee and tea making station (I am a big coffee fan). You find ways to look on the bright side, even seemingly small things like this.

I’ve also found myself once again gravitating towards a calmer, more muted palette and – shock horror – a more minimalist approach at home. Note I said more minimalist, not actually minimalist. This is still me we’re talking about! I no longer want to have quite as many cushions on the sofa or knick-knacks on the shelves. The same thing happened when I separated from my husband, so it must be my instinctive way of dealing with loss. It’s impossible to say if this would’ve happened anyway – maybe it’s a middle-age thing, maybe it’s a Covid thing, maybe it’s an empty nest thing – honestly who knows? More likely it’s a perfect storm of all these factors.

Anyway, the homes I’m currently loving still have the essential elements to which I’m always drawn – texture, rough & imperfect finishes, and a sense of authenticity in the styling – but they are softer, quieter, more gentle than my usual bold style. In my own home I imagine I’ll continue to strip things back, inspired by homes like these, and then ever so slowly the colour and pattern will creep back in. After all, our homes are often a reflection of our emotions and the inner workings of our minds. Both my mind and my home are currently getting a reboot, stripped back to what’s essential in preparation for the next chapter. Who knows what’s next, but I’m doing my best to ease myself into it gently.

Photographer Lorenzo Pennati
Kristin Perers‘ Flower Factory
IKEA
Kritin Perers’ Flower Factory
Armadillo
Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel
Creativity Before Consumption, Interiors

creativity during captivity

The heading is dramatic, but it’s not far from the truth, my truth at least. I am one of the fortunate ones who hasn’t had to work on the frontlines of healthcare during the Covid-19 pandemic. I haven’t had to stock supermarket shelves, only to see them emptied in minutes by frenzied shoppers fearful of running out of pasta and toilet paper. I haven’t had to drive London buses, ferrying key workers to and from their jobs. All I had to do was stay at home. I didn’t have any income or government help and my bills were (and still are) piling up as all my styling work was cancelled overnight, but I had a home, I had my children and I had money for food. When life itself is threatened by an invisible and deadly virus, it quickly becomes crystal clear what is actually important in life.

As an introvert I wasn’t fazed by the idea of having to stay at home. That bit was easy. In fact, I enjoyed those first few weeks of government mandated lockdown a bit more than it’s probably appropriate to admit. My creativity and resourcefulness kicked into high gear within days. On social media two tribes quickly formed. On one side the message was “You may never get this time again so enjoy doing nothing! You don’t need to learn a new language or to play a new instrument. It’s ok to binge watch Netflix”. On the other side the message was “You may never get this time again so make shit happen! Try that sourdough bread recipe, redecorate that bedroom, paint that still life”. You can guess which tribe I fell into. There was a bit of backlash toward the do-ers, some shaming even, as if those who were keeping busy (and sane) by being creative were trying to make others feel bad. But it was never about that. My chronic busy-ness was just a way of coping with my own fear and despair for the future. Some people cope by watching boxsets, others cope by making stuff. They’re both totally acceptable and equally useful.

Like a lot of freelancers, I am used to being a self starter. Without the security of a full time job I am always, always thinking of new ways to use my skills to make a living. Partly because I like making money (there is no magical money tree after all) and partly because I’m inexplicably driven to do it. At heart I guess I’m an entrepreneur, always thinking of the next big idea. You know how you hear of businesses selling for gazillions of pounds/dollars and you wonder why the now filthy rich former owner has already started a new company when they clearly never need to work again? I think that would be me. Yes I’m driven by money (and I would certainly enjoy my gazillionaire status) but more than that I’m driven by the bit that comes before you make the money. I’m driven by the promise of something, the possibilities. I guess I’m always chasing that dangling carrot!

Lockdown changed the rules for many. Suddenly freelancers who weren’t getting any financial help had to be even more creative to try to bring in some cash. We had to take it all online to still be visible. Luckily for me I’d already built a good online presence and connecting with my followers became a lifeline financially, creatively and emotionally. And I tried it all in an effort to keep my business afloat: I sold my books via Instagram; I painted and drew postcards and bookmarks, selling them far and wide; I offered remote interiors consulting; I made interiors videos for Instagram; I designed online courses. I just kept doing and trying and creating (with the occasional off day/week where I lost my mojo and couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel). All that ‘doing’ gave me a purpose at a time when the future was uncertain.

Even though none of the ideas I dabbled in have yet to grow into my next big business, the dabbling itself was an essential part of the process. I’m not now an established artist, selling my prints to millions. Nor am I suddenly selling out online courses (although they haven’t yet launched so that carrot still dangles enticingly ahead of me…) But for me lockdown was a strangely safe space to dabble in creativity with literally nothing to lose.

If there is a lesson to be learned (aside from the obvious don’t eat weird shit at wet markets) it is this: Do your own thing. If you’re a creator, create. If you need to chill, chill. And most importantly if the world seems like it’s ending, remain hopeful.

Interiors

The Red Thread. Literally.

Entirely unplanned, I’ve somehow ended up with a pop of red in all my homes over the past 20+ years. The decision at the beginning of my adult life to buy first one piece of red furniture, then others in quick succession, and the later decision to hold onto these pieces as we moved around the world (even though they no longer suited my taste), means there has been a red thread throughout all my homes ever since. Of course I could have rid myself of these pieces as my taste changed, but I tend to value sentimentality over aesthetics, at least to some degree, and holding onto certain things brings me comfort in their familiarity even if they no longer represent my current style. Thinking back to all my homes of the past twenty years and their red accent, it got me thinking about how there are very few examples of the successful use of red in interior design. Red gets a bad rap. Whether you associate it with Christmas baubles or Valentine’s hearts and roses, it’s unlikely to spring to mind when you think of stylish design.

While researching this post I was reminded of the concept of The Red Thread – a Nordic metaphor for a common element that runs through a creative work, be it a story, a film, or the design of a home. In interior design it can be a colour, texture, or material which links the rooms in a home, sometimes it’s obvious, other times more subtle (read more here about its role in interiors, by Kate Watson Smyth). Today I’m not actually writing about the red thread concept specifically, but upon realising that the actual colour red is the thread that connects all of my homes, it seems worth mentioning.

Above image: 1999. In case it wasn’t clear, the theme was red and navy

I no longer love the colour red as much as I seemed to 20 years ago – at least I don’t buy red things with quite the same frequency. In 1999 I was pregnant with my first child (just a year after graduating university) and had recently moved into a tiny apartment in Burbank, California with my then boyfriend. As we began fixing up our rented apartment before the baby came, I fell in love with and bought a red velvet wingback chair from the discount section of IKEA, on sale for $150 which was a splurge at the time for two 23 year old, broke parents-to-be. At the same time we painted the walls of our bedroom burgundy which we printed all over with a Fleur de lis stamp dipped in gold paint (Can I blame my ex for that decision? Surely I wouldn’t have made that choice…) There were also red brocade curtains draped over the bed (which was actually a platform of pallets) and our bedding set was a red botanical/paisley silk from Ralph Lauren which I bought with my first ever credit card (and subsequently took ages to pay off and taught me that credit cards are BAD). Not stopping there, I also sewed red chiffon curtains with navy tabs for the living room, (to go with the navy walls, obviously because yay, matching!) If you’re wondering if I was that person who also dressed in head-to-toe red, I promise I wasn’t. Although I did have red silk slippers bought in Chinatown, as evidenced above, which I paired with, oh – just a pair of knickers and a giant belly. Casual.

Above image: The bowling pin/leopard lamp somehow saves this, doesn’t it…?

The red theme continued a couple of years later when we lived in Seoul, South Korea for two years and bought a beautiful red cabinet hand-painted with butterflies (opening image) for $350 – I seem to remember the price of all the significant purchases. When we settled back in LA a couple of years after that, the TV cabinet we chose for the house we’d just bought was red and I carried pops of red elsewhere in the house, on chair covers or light fixtures. And now I live in an apartment building whose exterior is painted bright red. Perhaps there’s some psycho-analysis needing to be done here to unpick my attraction to the colour, but for now we’ll keep that analysis purely superficial. I liked red, it made me happy, the end.

Above image: 2007-ish. Our first home in Highland Park, LA. If you can still only afford IKEA and charity shop furniture, go bold.
Above image: The same home – an IKEA chair updated with a vintage fabric seat cover and a charity shop chandelier sprayed red

Two designers come to mind when I think of red in interiors, not because it’s their signature style by any means, but because of their deft use of it to make a stylish statement, be it bold or subtle. Ilse Crawford, whose interiors I’ve admired for many years, and Beata Heuman whose work I only discovered a year or two ago, both have brilliant examples within their portfolios which are simultaneously modern and timeless.

Many of Ilse’s designs prove the power of a single piece of red furniture, as shown in the below three images. It doesn’t have to be red walls, red sofas, red rugs. Small doses go a long way, particularly when the finish is glossy paint or enamelled metal. Red can be youthful and a bit funky, it can add a tongue in cheek playfulness to a more traditional setting, and it can work with a surprising variety of colours.

Above image: Ilse Crawford’s design for Soho House. An image I’ve loved for many years.
Above and below images: Two more Studio Ilse designs

Beata Heuman has taken a varied approach to her use of red, from high impact to a gentle hint. At home, her summer house is decorated head-to toe with red patterned wallpaper and red painted woodwork. In another of her designs, a red and white striped headboard is paired with red-flecked artwork. And in her own living room, a red and white cushion adorns a shell rattan chair, a subtle and easily changeable way to begin to introduce red to a home.

Above image: Beata Heuman’s summerhouse in her back garden. The contrasting patterns of the floral sofa and the wallpaper are what make this room so perfect.
Above and below images: Two more Beata Heuman designs showing the impact of a pop of red and the many colours which make it sing.

The thing about using red in interiors is that it’s undeniably bold (duh) and it dominates. Unlike even a vibrant blue or an electric green, a red object or surface will always become the centrepiece of a room. The eye will automatically be drawn to it, whether it’s a glossy tomato red armchair or a cherry red throw on a sofa. It can also be challenging to find the right shade of red and to know what colours to pair it with, to avoid it becoming garish and reminiscent of a circus (although I’ve always loved the madness of circus style). Hint: don’t do floor to ceiling burgundy and gold like I did circa 1999. But with careful research and some experimentation you can hit upon the perfect combination to breathe warmth and vitality into a space. I know it’s not for everyone, but I also think it’s worth re-considering if you’ve always ruled it out as an option. A literal red thread in a home can be modern and joyful and bold in all the best ways.

Behind The Scenes, Interiors

Modern Rustic Nostalgia

This month it will be six years since my first book Modern Rustic was published. I was planning to write a post about the book – how it was made, share a few photos of that time – but as I was thinking back on that period, I had a bit of an aha moment. I realised that I was looking back fondly on a time that was actually quite difficult. This got me thinking about memory and perception and the past and the present. Deep, I know 😉 And here you were thinking this was a blog about interiors!

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Behind The Scenes, Interiors

Becoming an interior stylist

Part Two: London

In the past few weeks I’ve sat down many times to write the second part of this story, but each time I’ve struggled to begin. Mainly because the details of my story aren’t easy to pick apart. My journey to the career I have today has been a constant uphill battle, with brief moments of feeling like I’ve reached the summit, only to realise there’s another mountain to climb. (If you haven’t read the first part of how I became a stylist, click here).

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Behind The Scenes, Interiors

Becoming an Interior Stylist

Part One: Los Angeles

Not a week goes by without me receiving emails from aspiring stylists asking for advice. I’ve always done my best to reply to each one because I remember writing the same emails to stylists when I was starting out and they very rarely replied. But after years of writing the same message and occasionally not having time to reply at all, I thought I’d share some insight here as well. Every stylist will have a different story about how they made interior styling their career. There isn’t one fail-safe route and everyone’s circumstances will be different, so the only story I can offer is my own in the hope that you might glean some valuable information if you’re hoping to follow a similar path.

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