Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson explores how media values have a huge role to play in influencing customer taste.

THOUGH YOU MAY BE READING this in early spring, deadlines dictate that I am writing it in that liminal time between Christmas and New Year, looking forward to the year ahead, and particularly to hosting two panel discussions at the Surface Design Show in February.

Their topics are very dear to me. One is on the repurposing of old buildings. The other is on sourcing locally – being determined to minimise environmental impact by taking care of how and from where you resource your schemes.

It was in the preparatory conversation for this latter talk, with architect Richard Penman and interior architect and designer Camilla Leech of Element Studios, that some really tough problems were revealed for UK-based designers in trying to source locally and well.

One was the shortage of local makers and crafters to provide the services required, from joinery to upholstery. Th is skills shortage is caused by an education system whose recent mission, it seems, has been to devalue or eliminate exposure to and experience of working with your hands – underpinned by an economy that has outsourced almost all its manufacturing elsewhere.

But there is also the impact of Brexit, which has not only driven away many of the talented crew who had filled in that particular gap, but also made sourcing materials and skills considerably more expensive – exacerbated by crises in Russia and China, the former apparently the source of most of the UK’s plywood and the latter most of our fabrics and steel.

We discussed the wasteful practices of both retail and hospitality sectors, thanks to the perceived need for constant reinvention and refurbishment. Says Penman: ‘I used to do lots of retail. I worked in-house for a fashion brand for some time…We opened 54 stores in one year. The next year we closed 32. This was 10 years ago. Rather than up-cycling or recycling furniture, it had to be destroyed because of intellectual property. This is endemic in a lot of design industries.’

Just as problematic, Leech feels, is the difficulty in persuading customers that a mixture of contemporary and vintage is the ideal choice for both style and sustainability, when the message from the magazines and media their clients follow is all about chasing the latest trend, preferably as quickly and cheaply as possible. How do you reinforce the value of going for something beautifully made, pre-loved or antique when that eclectic look has not received the consumer lifestyle seal of approval? Says Leech: ‘The majority of residential clients, they are just not interested.’

This is obviously where the design media can play a vital role. We need a shift in the looks that are perceived to be aspirational – venues which show how, with a little flair, the re-use and repurpose ethos generates spaces with far more character, more style.

For that reason, I was pleased to hear an interior designer friend recently praising Th e George Hotel in Rye for its vintage/modern looks. A sprawling 16th century Georgian coaching inn, its recent refurbishment (as well as great food) has drawn rave reviews from travel writers of all kinds – Th e Sun as well as the Daily Telegraph – not to mention a top 100 listing in the Sunday Times’ ‘Best UK Hotels of 2022’. But vintage is nothing new for owners Katie and Alex Clarke, who bought the inn in 2014. As the couple say on their website: ‘Inhabiting a 16th Century building means reclamation and reuse are in our blood.

Whether restoring salvaged materials or rescuing antique furniture, our ethos has always been to reduce waste and stop beautiful resources from ending up on the scrap heap.’

With the post-fire refurb, as before, former set-designer Katie worked collaboratively with her long-standing friend Maria Speake of Retrouvius, whose thriving North London business combines salvaging architecturally interesting components and redeploying them to great effect. The resulting blend of periods, colours and styles delivers 41 vibrant bedrooms: some featuring opulent, handblocked wallpapers in deep greens and oranges; others with pale walls they have contrasted with bright, salvaged upholstery on bedsteads and in curtains. For the public areas – equally charming – the standout fi nds this time around are an antique Thames barge sail which now graces the restaurant wall, and a reception desk formed from a repurposed church altar.

Although it’s clearly better for the planet to design this way, was it any cheaper, I ask Clarke? She says: ‘It depends whether you factor in my time. This was my lockdown project. I spent a lot of time on It gets you into every auction room in the country. I had searches on everything I was collecting. It was a real labour of love.’

She feels good about sidestepping the wasteful cycles of constant renewal in the hospitality sector. ‘I think people refurbish every ten years or so – you need to because the interiors get a lot of wear.’ Most contract furniture can’t take the strain. ‘But because we have lots of antique pieces, we can get things re-upholstered, put new carpets in. You have to keep on top of it. I have three full-time maintenance people and an army of people I use locally, including French polishers.’

As for the response from customers: ‘They love it,’ says Clarke. ‘People say it feels like being in someone’s much loved house. There’s that sense of care about it. I do genuinely adore everything that’s in here. I don’t like buying new things.’

She agrees there’s a problem with the design media pushing constant newness, but the vintage sensibility is growing: ‘There’s a whole new strand of people who are trying to influence on Instagram, who are doing what we do. I think people are getting more confi dent. But then people want to copy exactly that lampshade.’

The fact that Maria Speake was crowned House & Garden’s interior designer of the year in 2019 implies the vintage movement is still gaining momentum.

By blending modern tastes with a vintage chic, The George Hotel has a welcoming and ‘lived in’ ambience for its guests. Image Credit: Mark Cocksedge

The warm-toned upper deck of The George Hotel’s Grill Restaurant.

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