My ritual on most evenings when I’m making dinner is to turn on HGTV (yes, guilty pleasure). There are several shows I have in the queue, but my favorite is “Love it or List it.” I’m such a fan of the way Hilary Farr can transform a house where its owners always disagree about what needs to be done—never mind their totally unrealistic expectations for what can be accomplished on their budget. So when I saw she’d be in High Point this fall introducing a furniture collection for Braxton Culler and rugs for Kaleen, I asked to speak with her.
She could NOT have been more gracious with her time and observations. Here she is, discussing her new collections, her work as a designer, and her background growing up between England and Africa (before moving to Toronto, and now the United States!):
Tell me about your upbringing.
I grew up in England, and my father was in Nigeria. We would go and visit him every school holiday. My mother was very English. My mother was someone who was incredibly concerned with the earth and I’ll never forget—my father very proudly brought her a gift from Africa, he brought her a coat made of cheetah fur. Everyone was wearing cheetah fur in the 60s—Sofia Loren—everybody—it was all the rage. My mother was horrified. I, of course, thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen! But that was the beginning of my connecting beautiful things to how they had been made and where they came from and the cost to the planet and/or some poor creature. We’re English anyway—we’re all mad for animals. Animals always come first, pretty much.
How did that inform your new collections?
I was always taught, you look after the animals and then you deal with yourself, so if you’re starving hungry and you come home and you’re dog’s hungry, guess who’s gonna get fed first? Cut 1,000 years later, and the environment is an issue, we know, and wildlife is in danger, we know. I’ve been to Africa since, I’ve volunteered and taught in Kenya, saw a lot of it first hand, and it upsets me, deeply. So I started my collection, and one of the big must-haves is for at least an element of sustainability be involved in every category.
What are the inspirations behind these patterns?
Inspired by the earth! [With Critter Comforts,] I have zebras and I have giraffes and I have butterflies and I have bees and I have beetles. A lot of people are freaked out by beetles, but it’s a scarab! Dung beetles are essential—without them the earth wouldn’t work. [With Paranican tile,] I took these tiles, this was in the ’20s—it was a very interesting time in Singapore then—the English were there and so many people were there. And there are so many different influences with hand-tufted wool, which is pretty much going back to my childhood with Oriental rugs on the floor. ‘Classic with a twist’ [with Knotted Earth] in that some are an interesting color, or I’ve taken the design and morphed it a little bit, but the elements are there. It’s a classic, classic rug.
How about your furniture collection with Braxton Culler?
I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve always bought it off the rack and found what I liked and found what I didn’t. I’ve been the consumer. And by the way, because you know what you like, and you may have great taste, it doesn’t mean that it’s that easy to create on your own!
How would you describe your aesthetic?
That’s the hardest thing. I haven’t been able to do it. We encapsulated it at one point by calling it Brit Chic. You are formed—everyone is formed—by their childhoods, and mine was in Britain. I’ve lived here [in the United States] as long as I ever lived there, but I am still, it’s in my blood, you just ARE, so that’s how we came up with Brit Chic. Chic is universal, so that’s the best I can do in terms of designing a description. It’s classic and whimsical and quirky as well. It has to be a little bit whimsical and quirky and not take itself too seriously, that’s the biggest thing.
Did your design experience—either with private clients or on your show—influence anything in your collections?
Everything that you see I would put into a client’s house, or I would even find a spot for it in my own home. Everything has to be user friendly. What I’ve always found with U.S. clients is that they are very focused on the practicality of it, and I try and keep it in mind, but I won’t be driven by it. … Everyone’s worried about the stains. I don’t think that I can design and be driven by that, but I am cognizant of it, so my carpets, for instance, are very durable—even washable in some cases—so that’s important, but I’m not going to design in crumb color. Although I had a client once – million dollar renovation – and she said, ‘OK, so you need to match the couch to this color because the cat throws up and that’s the color it will be.’ And I did!
I love your transformations on “Love it or List it”—you walk into some seriously messy homes. How do you think people get stuck like that, in a home that doesn’t give them any joy or comfort?
I find that with clients, they know it doesn’t work. They’ve they’ve done it themselves, but because they have no knowledge of scale, of how to manipulate scale, of how to manipulate space, of how to maximize space—all the elements that we know—they make the classic mistakes. It’s a small room, and they will decide to put small pieces of furniture into a small room without understanding that a large piece of furniture can actually work and change the sense of it being a small room. But they do it, they think they put it right, and they still know it’s not quite right, which is when they ask for help. But then there’s a resentment of having to pay for the help because, after all, they went and did in the first place and was it really that bad? Yes, it was, but maybe they would rather live with that then spend a ton of money. I think it’s a very difficult road that we’re on.
What are some of the reactions when you come in and make it right?
A lot of crying—from the husbands as well as the wives. It’s almost as though I have the privilege of seeing people who are exhausted by the process, or exhausted by life, come in, and the look of true wonder, like a child, washes over them, and that to me is incredible.
One final question: What is your fondest memory of home growing up?
There was a very beautiful, intricately carved walnut chaise—upholstered—that sat in a bay window where the sun would come in in the morning and my mother would sit there, covered in her cats, reading the Sunday Times, and that was where she loved to sit, with the sunlight coming over her shoulder, and it’s now in my bedroom. It brings back memories every time I see it. I could cry.