This week we headed out of London, for a bit of fresh air, and stopped by the beautiful green pastures of Hertford to visit the exceptionally talented furniture restorer Kelly Swallow.
In between filming a short video all about her beautiful work, we were able to grab a quick interview to find out a little more behind her inspiration and creative process…
When did you first realise you were interested in design?
When I was younger, I didn’t think I was artistic at all. I first started making my own things when I didn’t have any money and wanted new clothes. Using pieces of fabric that were around the house, I made myself a new coat from curtains and tops from pillow cases. I then went on to do some course and studied fashion design in more depth. Eventually more and more people started asking for me to do things for them and it progressed from there.
What made you turn your attention to interiors and furniture?
About 5/6 years ago we moved house, and I found my priorities started to change. We’d just bought this beautiful, old Victorian house and I started thinking more and more about what would fit well in the space.
Around that time, my mother-in-law gave us a chaise that had been in the family for years. We had a spot that it would fit perfectly in but it was very tired and sad looking in brown dralon so asked her for permission to do something a bit different with it. To brighten it up! People then saw what I’d done and loved it, so started asking me to do things for them and it just snowballed from there!
At the time I was starting to think that I wanted to change direction as I’d taken a few years off when I first had my son and he’d just started school. So it just seemed like the perfect business idea had presented itself, just at the right time!
Do you have a design mantra or philosophy that you like to adhere to?
My mother always said that ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ Because I like working with old pieces and sourcing old fabrics, you’re working within certain limits. It’s not like there’s a huge blank canvas to work from. You see something that has a little bit of a problem with it and that sparks off a new idea which leads you down a new direction which perhaps you never wouldn’t have gone down if you just had a complete blank canvas.
You work very closely with your clients, to personalise each piece, how do you get them involved in the creative process?
First it starts with a conversation about what they want and I try to get a feel for how involved they want to be. Then everything flows from there. Some clients just like to send me a photo of the room that the chair is going to sit in and they say these are my favourite colours, ‘go ahead, do it, I trust you!’ So I have completely free rein but others have a very definite idea of what they want, like the kinds of fabrics and colours they’d like used. Some clients, if they’re near, might come and visit and go through fabrics with me, which is a lot of fun.
But I normally have a chat with them about what they like and the purpose of the piece because the essence and ideas for the chair can come from that. For example one lady wanted me to make something special for her because her mother had passed away and left her some money. As we talked, the idea came around that it would be nice to have some little memories in there that would remind her of her mum. Her mum liked scrabble so I had some fabric printed with scrabble titles of her name, which might not mean a lot to everyone but it just sparks a nice memory for her to give the piece that extra personal touch.
What aspects of design are you drawn to?
Because the pieces that I work with are often old and a bit sad looking, usually in brown or green dralon, they need a real change and given a new injection of life. I love colour and the contrast of colours. Placing different colour buttons on a contrasting background so things are offset – I tend to break the rules a little bit, and basically do everything the opposite to how traditional upholsters would do things, as I don’t like things that are symmetrical or very match matchy-matchy.
I think it’s really important for a piece to be personal. I like it when things have a hidden meaning so it doesn’t jump out at everyone. It doesn’t have a big name or a big date embroidered on the front. In my pieces I sometimes like to just place a little date of birth, name or embroider a hallmark somewhere on the chair. So there’s a little secret hidden in there.
I also love things that tell a story. A while ago a customer asked me about old and vintage fabrics, which led me down a new creative route. I started sourcing really old linen grain sacks which have the dates and names of farms they came from printed on them. They’re really hard to find, but they’re absolutely beautiful. Some are hessian, some are really old antique linen. So the completed chair tells it’s own story through the fabric as well.
How do you source the fabrics you use in all your designs?
I love Designers Guild, Sanderson, and Zoffany for their beautifully bright colours, but I’ve been collecting vintage fabrics for years. I’m always on the lookout for new things anywhere I go. People get to know that I love fabrics and so I now have contacts who might have created a whole collection of fabrics for colour testing and don’t like to see them go to waste so I get all kinds of beautiful pieces.