EMMA BRIDGEWATER ON THE ‘SAD AND CURIOUS’ STATE OF OUR SHOPS

The interview does not begin well. My iPhone battery is low, so I use my landline, usually strictly reserved for friends and family. When I call her, she doesn’t pick up, but calls me straight back, just as I am at the door signing for a delivery. ‘HEY, HOW YA DOIN’? SORRY YOU CAN’T GET THROUGH. PLEASE LEAVE YOUR NAME, AND YOUR NUMBER, THEN ELLIE AND ROB WILL GET BACK TO YOU…’

Our De La Soul answer phone ‘rap’ echoes through the house. And Emma Bridgewater is listening to it. CRINGE, as they say.

Luckily, after the tone, I hear a chuckle and am relieved to discover that she has a great sense of humour. Or perhaps she is laughing at, not with. Anyway. After the apologies, and the interview, I ask her what the secret of her success is. Her business is now worth £14 million and her early pottery designs are highly collectable, fetching huge sums at auction. Does she ever peep at her own work on eBay?

‘Oh, God, yes!’ she confesses. ‘I’m only human. It’s so exciting and I’m immensely flattered that people collect the early stuff, but it’s not that surprising to me, because we do something of which there is not an awful lot left. We design and make in the UK.’

Emma despairs of the mass-produced homewares that fill the shelves of British high street shops today. ‘When you look at our products in the shops – they look very different from everything else there, because the way most things are designed now is by a highly-evolved buying team. They put together a moodboard of things they want their products to look a bit like. They flick through the mags and Google images – come up with some asinine ideas such as: ‘let’s go for a Chinese look’, or ‘let’s do blue’, then they take it off to a factory somewhere abroad where somebody – who has no connection to their customers – comes up with some stuff for them. And so, surprise, surprise, our products have a different effect on people.’

Emma is quick to point out that not all homewares that are made abroad are essentially bad. ‘The collections are often very beautifully thought through and the store buyers can be very rigorous about what they buy and all that. But they’ve absolutely ironed out the personal – all the idiosyncrasies.’

It’s the tableware offering that worries Emma the most. ‘When I go around the china departments in big shops now, I think to myself that it’s sad and curious we don’t have that rich diversity of Staffordshire tableware that we’ve had for 200 years.’ She’s right. Even blue and white Cornishware – so traditionally British – is actually ‘Made-In-China-ware’ these days. ‘There are discussions about bringing production back to the UK in the future,’ assures the PR. But still, of course, it’s much cheaper not to.

Just as Emma arrived in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1980s, she tells me, most of the other potteries were ‘chucking in the dish cloth’. Today, she is drawn to 1960s pottery that, when she was younger, she thought she’d never like. ‘We’re talking the soapware stuff,’ she says. ‘Marvellously crazy 1960s shapes, decorated with bright turquoise patterns and sunflowers and so on – I used to hate things like that but now, I love them so much.’ Why the change of heart? ‘They have a kind of charm. Largely because they represent a phenomenon that has gone. This country made tableware for the world – in loads and loads of independent factories. But, sadly, it’s almost all stopped. Bang.’

Filed in: INNIT, THOUGH, SHOPPING: HIGH STREET
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FULL MOON, HALF MOON, TOTAL ECLIPSE

You may or may not recall the Jaffa Cake advert, but Scandi-style monochrome half moon patterns are everywhere this season, from Ferm Living and Day Birger to Nionio and Habitat. I kinda like ‘em…

1: Half Moon wallpaper, 67.50 Euros per roll, Ferm Living; 2: Fernanda Neutral vase, £25, Habitat; 3: Storage bag, 54 Euros, Ferm Living4: Porcelain tea cup and saucer from House Of Rym featuring ‘Tu es la vague’ pattern, by Swedish designer Anna Backlund, available at Hunkydory Home5: Semi Circled chopping board, 28.50 Euros, Nionio Design; 6: Half Moon bolster cushion, £49, Day Birger et Mikkelsen, available at Amara; 7: Semi Circled round tray, 31.50 Euros, Nionio Design; 8: Arrows and Moons Four Half Moon necklace, $142 USD, Brandy Pham.

Filed in: SPRING / SUMMER 2013, TREND AHOY
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THE TOAST EDIT

Obviously, I have ancient pyjamas on because I work from home impossibly skinny, bare legs and am wearing hand-knitted slightly-slouchy chunky woollen socks, a linen smock and frilly knickers despite the draught. I hold a cold coffee hand-thrown stoneware mug of piping hot chocolate to warm my hands in my cramped south London house remote, rudimentary Welsh cottage / romantic, tiled Moroccan riad / etc. I am waiting for my grumpy husband who has popped out to Tesco Metro for some milk a traditional ‘Working Man’ who has gone out, wearing big boots and, natch, nice knitwear, to do something very manly indeed in The Great Outdoors such as fell a tree / wrestle a bear / climb Everest / go deep sea fishing in a tiny vintage boat. He returns still grumpy, clutching semi-skimmed ruddy faced and draped in fishing nets, but still with pristine accessories and we order a takeaway then watch 8 Out of 10 Cats because we’re both knackered wrap up in elegant striped linen sheets and patterned quilts (that are ethnic yet somehow on-trend, fairly-traded and stitched from reclaimed, recycled, biodegradable sari silks) then TOAST homemade crumpets on our rustic log fire while the cat silently leaves another beheaded bloody mouse corpse on the kitchen floor the sea breeze gently caresses us and the full moon rises.

(Some highlights here from TOAST’s lovely Autumn Winter 2013 preview yesterday. My favourites included: wooden cake stands, terracotta vases and felted cushions – sighs all round.)

Filed in: AUTUMN / WINTER 2013, SHOPPING: HIGH END
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COMING SOON: VANADIN

It’s sculptural. It’s delicate. It looks just like vintage cut glass. It’s IKEA‘s newest light fitting, due out in April 2013 (UK). It’s ‘Vanadin’:

Given meat-ball-gate and all, it’s an unfortunate choice of name, perhaps, but these are the same people who recently named a new plant pot: Cashewnöt. I know. Horse and nuts aside, the fact remains: this baby is just £13. Yes. £13. Form an orderly line, please…

Filed in: SHOPPING: HIGH STREET, SPRING / SUMMER 2013
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NICE NEW BOCONCEPT CUSHIONS

As Petronella lifted the woven Ikat bolster in tangerine and anthracite, searching in vain for the sofa, the dog – and her son – she began to wonder if perhaps her Cushion Problem had returned…

 

Filed in: INNIT, THOUGH, SPRING / SUMMER 2013
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DROP ME OUT – IT’S MELIN TREGWYNT

Channel what? Speidi who? Obviously, I have NEVER seen it (cough) but apparently, there’s nothing Z-list about the blankets in the Celebrity Big Brother house this season. Joining the product placement revolution is the Welsh woollen mill we all know and love, Melin Tregwynt

In a local newspaper, Eifion Griffiths (of Melin Tregwynt) commented: “Here we are, out in the country in Pembrokeshire and it’s strange to think the product is going off to do this celebrity stuff. I’d rather be here.” Wise man.

At least the St David’s Cross design has got the X Factor.

Filed in: INNIT, THOUGH
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IT MUST BE FATE

Following my back to basics rant (!) this simple-but-chic ‘preview launch’ store just caught my eye: Fate London.

It’s elemental, dear Watson – with products arranged by material: WOOD & PAPER, METAL, GLASS & STONE, FIBRES. I love the Fort Standard stone trivets and candle holders: raw materials + geometric shapes = achingly cool.

Elsewhere, you’ll find beautiful stationery and accessories (including woven laptop cases from Pendleton, an American woollen mill) and elegant olive wood bowls. The collection is set to expand – this is just a ‘preview’ taster…so it’s one to bookmark, me-thinks.

Filed in: SHOPPING: ONLINE
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BACK TO BASICS

The older I get, the less stuff I want. Over the past few years, my taste has become simpler and more specific. As my work life continues to speed up and I spend more hours than ever before in front of a screen, I have begun to crave simplicity, natural materials and peace at home. Perhaps it’s something to do with being more sure about who you are and what you like – and realising what actually matters in life: friends, family, love. People, not ‘things’. Then again, getting fussier about what I like (even if I conclude that I only LIKE simple, unfussy things…) probably means I’m more materialistic / shallow than ever before but ANYWAY…

I used to flit like a moth from trend to trend – my desires pulled hither and thither. I liked whatever I’d seen most recently which, in my line of work, was a lot. I was never able to commit to a wallpaper or a patterned fabric; By the time it was up, I’d be over it. SO last season. Every interiors love was a passing fad, a fleeting lust. However, I’ve started to gradually sort the wheat from the chaff, reducing my possessions bit by bit. A year of de-cluttering has meant fortnightly trips to the charity shop with bulging bags. Penning a feature about minimalism for a magazine recently, highlighted the fact that, despite being a consumer journalist specialising in ‘new home stuff to buy’ (oh, the irony) I am, weirdly, quite minimalistic these days. When asked, I struggle to think of things I want for Christmas – unless you count theatre tickets, wine or a few more (because, surely, you-can-never-have-too-many) Weck jars…

It all started with the mugs. A motley assortment of freebies and one-offs gathered over a decade – I opened the cupboard one day and decided: enough was enough – they needed editing. Now, we have fewer – but they are hand-thrown, beautiful stoneware pieces from a pottery. They’re a pleasure to use and will last us for years. Job done.

Next, it was the tea towels. A similarly mis-matched bunch, they have all been banished – expect for a few vintage linen ones and a job lot of industrial catering Linen Union ‘glass cloths’.

This is probably too much information (!) but even our toilet brush has been up-graded (or down-graded?) to a less-practical-but-infinitely-more-rustic Baileys-style wooden brush (£4 from Leyland) in a simple galvanized bucket, £3 from a florist. (Incidentally, Labour and Wait sells a similar combo for, like, £18. Just saying.)

One lady who’s been peddling a pared-back ‘Pure Style‘ look for many a day is Jane Cumberbatch, a stylist who lives in Tulse Hill. Her simple but chic way of living (check out her photography blog, her Algarve holiday home, and her little shop) has been inspiring wannabe purists (like me) to transform their lives into something vaguely resembling the Toast catalogue for decades. But, like most of us, she sells ‘stuff’. In fact, she’s just launched a new range of ‘colour bands’ – mini hand-printed rolls of striped wallpaper:

The idea is to use them as borders and trims – or instead of dado rails, headboards or frames. They come in a pretty spectrum of hues and, while I’m not exactly one for multi-coloured stripes on a chimney breast, a single band is a subtle touch of pattern that perhaps even those of us in the I-like-boring-plain-grey-walls-brigade could tolerate?

Filed in: INNIT, THOUGH, SHOPPING: ONLINE
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SARAH CAMPBELL AT WEST ELM

The lovely Sarah Campbell, of Collier Campbell fame, has collaborated with West Elm to produce a gorgeous new collection of accessories…

I was lucky enough to interview Sarah with her late sister (Susan Collier) in 2011, shortly before Susan sadly died. The duo worked together for more than 50 years, designing textile prints for the likes of Habitat, Liberty and Yves Saint Laurent. They welcomed me to their colourful Stockwell studio, let me rummage through their fabulous archive of designs, gave me the grand tour and insisted I stay for lunch, then fed me excellent fish cakes from the Portuguese café next door.

I’ve been so thrilled to see Sarah’s career continue to flourish after such loss. She just has not slowed down… there’s a new blog (always filled with poetic, intelligent and amusing observations on life accompanied by her lovely paintings), she’s been busy designing for M&S, teaching students, running workshops at the V&A and working on an enormous coffee table tome, The Collier Campbell Archive: 50 Years of Passion in Pattern which arrived with a satisfying THUD on my doormat and is launching in London tomorrow. What with all this frantic activity, I have no idea how Sarah has managed to team up with West Elm in the midst of it all to produce such a strong range, but somehow she has. She’s a real inspiration.

The prints are dainty, Japanese-inspired patterns – used on cushions, purses, trays…

…and magical paper flowers:

No international shipping option on these delights as yet, so we’ll just have to admire it all from afar. Luckily, there’s plenty of pattern to keep us going in the meantime on Sarah’s own website. All too often these days, big brands slap the names of celebrities, actors, bloggers or pop stars onto their ‘designer’ ranges in an attempt to gain publicity and kudos, so it’s great to see that West Elm sensibly sorts the wheat from the chaff and recognises that true talent and design expertise built up over many years produces top quality pieces that those who aren’t ‘real’ designers can never come close to.

Filed in: ARCHIVE: AUTUMN / WINTER 2012, ON THE BOOK SHELF, SHOPPING: ONLINE

GO TO THE CURTAIN FACTORY OUTLET

As every bargain hunter knows, sometimes you have to go the extra mile to get the best deals. And, sometimes, you have to get on a train to the arse end of Ballards Lane in NW12-or-something in freezing fog. In this particularly drab no-man’s-land part of Finchley (there’s an ugly pub and a bus station – and that’s about it, if ya catch ma drift) lurks The Curtain Factory Outlet, in all its, erm, splendour.

It’s hard to miss the ENTRANCE, which is lined with outdoor Christmas market style hutches filled with fabrics, suggesting they’ve run out of space inside. Which they have. The official line is that the shop has ‘500,000m of fabric in stock’. Who knows if this is true or not, and who cares? There is certainly A LOT. It’s a strange old place. If your name’s not down, you’re not coming in… when you arrive, the staff crowd around you and are very insistent that you sign in – ushering you towards a big book that’s balanced on a lectern with a biro. As you write your name and where you come from and how you heard about them, everybody eyes you suspiciously. You feel as though you’re entering a private members’ bar when you’re not a member, or a top secret cult. Once you’re ‘in the book’, you qualify for a map which explains the weird split-site set up. There’s a higgeldy piggeldy warren of ‘buildings’ (including outside pre-fabs, shacks and an empty house that reminds me of the 1960s building I did my crime prevention badge in as a brownie, or an abandoned bank) on one site, a ‘strictly trade only’ warehouse round the corner (although it seems anybody can enter actually because once you’ve signed in you get given a magical no-questions-asked TRADE CARD from reception), and a ready-made curtains shop just up the road. It’s all a bit confusing. But there’s a map – and plenty of passive aggressive laminated notices that leave you in no doubt as to who is in charge; And it ain’t you, sweet cheeks.

This is NO FRILLS shopping, so there are, of course, a number of trials to endure before you hit the jackpot. For starters, around every corner is a well-meaning lad with a pencil behind his ear (and lots of Lynx) who will ask you: “Awright, love? Need any help?” every few minutes or so. This wears a bit thin if you just want to be left in peace to browse. If it’s not the cheeky chappies, it’s officious clucky women who glare at you and – despite the bright yellow map you clutch – demand to know: HAVE YOU SIGNED IN AT THE DESK YET? This also gets a tad annoying after a while.  And then there are the ‘buildings’, which certainly aren’t going to win any architecture (or health and safety?) awards.

Rolls of fabric line the walls of room after skanky room, all of which are pretty much undecorated. Wires trail – there are poorly-fitted fluorescent strip lights dangling, ugly radiators and various patches of minging 1980s vinyl flooring which may or may not have once been somebody’s kitchen floor. It’s all very bizarre.

HOWEVER, it all adds to the charm. AND the prices are TO DIE FOR. I found Ian Mankin ticking fabrics for £7.99 per m. There were amazing designer fabrics from the likes of Sanderson, Malabar and Designers Guild, all for £6.99 per m. I KNOW. By bulk buying rolls directly from the printers and dyers, the firm keeps costs LOW and this is the secret to the whole set-up: It is eye-wateringly cheap, if not-very-cheerful. I found pure wool Voyage fabrics for £29.99 (normally at least £47) per m, and luxury velvets for £19.99 per m. They can’t spell ‘metre’ – but at these silly prices, who gives a monkey’s? There are Cath Kidston-esque prints for £9.99 and stunning metallic silks covered with Art Deco fans for £19.99. I mean, honestly. It’s insane. In the membrane.

The curtains shop up the road was untidy and the assistant was unhelpful, but the prices were ‘ridic’ as the youth of today apparently say, and there is a useful bespoke service, so you can order blinds etc. There was even a bargain box, where (if you were really desperate) you could rummage around and unearth a set of ghastly Linda Barker bed linen for just £9.99. Not that you would. But ONE COULD.

In short: once you pop, you just can’t stop. When I need some fabric, this is where I’ll shop.

Filed in: INNIT, THOUGH, OOT AND ABOOT, SHOPPING: HIGH STREET
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