Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tea Party Crasher Exclusive: Q&A with Abigail Ahern

Today I'm incredibly excited to feature an exclusive interview with one of my favourite interior designers, the fabulously talented Abigail Ahern. I first came across Abigail's work last year and instantly developed a giant girl-crush thanks to her signature use of deep, moody greys combined with pops of bright colour and her ability to create gorgeously whimsical, alluring spaces. The way the London-based designer skillfully plays with proportion, transforms flea market finds into drool-worthy pieces and takes on any DIY challenge — while making it all seem effortless, of course — commands major respect. Her book, A Girl's Guide to Decorating, is one of the few design tomes I reference again and again; I can't get enough of the glamorous, modern rooms and the unexpected touches of levity. How cool is it to find a designer who doesn't take herself too seriously? Abigail's work is edgy and enchanting in equal measure, and I'm delighted to be able to share with you a glimpse inside her colourful, creative mind.

How did you get your start as an interior designer? Have you always been passionate about design?
I’ve always been interested in interior design — in fact, I can remember being about six years old and saving up all my pocket money to rip out the horrible pink carpet my parents had laid in my bedroom. I wanted to paint the floor instead!

I started my career working for Terence Conran’s publishing company, Conran Octopus. I was on the picture desk and worked on some amazing books about interiors. It gave me the design bug and the passion to change my career direction.

When did you open your shop, Atelier Abigail Ahern? How do you balance your time between the shop and designing for clients?
The store opened in 2003. I tend to work there three days a week, and the rest of the time I’m either working from home or out researching.

Can you walk me through a typical day in your life?  
A typical day starts very early — at 5:45 a.m. I head to the gym for an hour. That’s followed by a coffee from a fabulous coffee house nearby. I couldn’t live without coffee! I then collect my puppy, Maud, who is not such an early riser, and take her to dog club. It sounds bizarre, but a group of her friends meet in the local park and romp around for an hour.

If I’m store-based, it’s a quick 10-minute walk to the shop with Maud. Once there, I restyle various sections of the space or work on our new product range or yabber to customers. Days in the store are difficult to structure, what with the phone ringing and customers visiting. Days spent working from home are a lot more structured. I may be spending time researching for a client or perhaps coming up with designs for our new lighting range.

The day finishes around seven: it’s walk time for Miss Maud, then supper and the odd glass of wine. My husband and I work together so we never really stop talking shop, I hate to say!

How would you describe your decorating style?
It’s pretty eclectic – I like to think of it as an Aladdin’s cave of gorgeousness. One journalist called it Alice in Wonderland on acid! I like to mix styles, play with scale and combine humble pieces with luxurious ones. I don’t design with rules in mind; I just follow my heart.

What’s your favourite space in your home and why?
It has to be the lower ground floor, which houses the kitchen, the dining area and a snug. It’s really the hub of our home: here I cook, or sit by our open fire, or work and potter in and out of the garden.

What was the most interesting or challenging client project you’ve worked on?
Accessorizing a brand new spa for the Ritz Carlton in Miami was one of the most challenging projects. It’s a huge space (42,000 square feet), it’s in another country, and it took an incredible amount of research and thought. Worth it, though — it stretched me to the limit but I loved it.

Have you ever made any design “mistakes” or looked back on a space and wondered, “What was I thinking?”
I’ve had the odd off-moment with colour – luckily not with clients, but for myself. I once painted a room aubergine and it was so hideous I was painting it back before it had even dried, much to my husband’s annoyance!

 You’re a huge advocate of DIY, which is something many people fear when it comes to decorating. What advice would you give would-be DIYers?
DIY is all about confidence, so I would simply say go for it! In my book, A Girl’s Guide to Decorating, all the projects are small, mostly require just a few tools, and can be undertaken in a day. If you start with something small – say boxing out a shelf to fatten it up and make it super gallery-esque – you then get the confidence to work on bigger projects.

What are your favourite design-on-a-budget tricks? Where should you splurge and in which areas can you save?
Spray-painting flea market furniture is one of my favourite things to do — it completely transforms the furniture into something super sexy. I would say splurge on paint: the more expensive the paint, the higher the pigmentation and the more velvety and opulent it looks.

In terms of saving, I’m a huge fan of elongating kitchen and wardrobe doors with cheap wood and then
painting out. The cupboards become far more bespoke- looking, and cheap wood like MDF really reduces the overall cost.

What are your favourite places to shop around the world?
Merci in Paris has to be number one, as I absolutely love that concept store. I love Rossana Orlandi in Milan and ABC Carpet and Home in New York as well — and flea markets anywhere.
In terms of design, what are your favourite colour combinations right now?
Deepest, darkest grey combined with peacock teal and saffron yellow.

How do you cozy up your home in the fall and winter?
Throws and cushions come out from the loft, and an abundance of tea lights get scattered all over the place. Winter foliage and English hydrangeas in vases always makes me feel incredibly snug and cozy.

Which designers have influenced you?
Mr Jonathan Adler, Kelly Wearstler, and of course, Ilse Crawford.

What are your favourite décor magazines?
Every month, I always buy Italian Elle Décor, Australian Inside Out, British Elle Decoration and  Living Etc. — and now the online mag Lonny, which sort of replaces Domino, a magazine I loved and miss dearly.

What’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to home décor?
The most important thing to remember is a simple one: follow your heart and your instincts, and decorate and surround yourself with what you love. Don’t bother with keeping up with the Joneses or following trends – just follow your heart.

What’s the one design item you’re most coveting right now?
Anthropologie is about to open in London and I have my eye on their bright yellow chesterfield sofa.

What’s next for you?
We’ve just opened a new concession at The Shop at Bluebird, in Chelsea, so that’s keeping me pretty busy. Plus I am hugely excited about our new product range of lighting, which will debut early next year. We also have some fabulous interior design projects we are working on, and I’m dreaming daily about opening a store in New York. 

Thank you, Abigail! I'll definitely be keeping my fingers crossed for a New York location. Good luck! 

All photos courtesy of Abigail Ahern 
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