Thursday, 19 April 2012

On the front line of interior design

Channel 4's Get Your House In Order has turned a makeover show into must-watch telly. We meet Abigail Ahern, whose style is super-exuberant

Written by Hugh St Clair

‘A space coordinated to within an inch of its life feels too static. Actually, I would even go so far as to say that it feels self-important.’ Thus speaks the design world’s latest darling, Abigail Ahern, whose fans include Heston Blumenthal and Mary Portas.

Abigail Ahern has nothing good to say about taupe, cream, bleached and distressed furniture or what she witheringly describes as ‘matchy matchy’. She doesn’t do calm and pastel either. Followers of her widely-read blog (abigailahern.wordpress.com – ‘guerrilla blogging from the front line of interior design’) are encouraged to clash bright colours against a background of black or inky, dark skirting, walls and ceilings. This, she explains, will make everything in the room ‘pop’. ‘Fill your house with stuff so the eye doesn’t know where to look. Tantalise, surprise, intrigue and stimulate,’ Abigail orders. She is currently popping and prescribing and putting paid to the idea of a pale interior on Channel 4’s Get Your House In Order, where she de-clutters and redecorates the homes of compulsive and indiscriminate – some would say insane – hoarders.

HouseApr20-01-590 Left: an elegant sofa sits on textured rugs, both sisal and brightly patterned. Right: strong grey walls support the drama of a bright, period picture and a bold, painted rocking chair

Abigail does not mince her words. ‘It’s so boring and miserable I might as well kill myself,’ she tells one of her victims, post-clearance, who is suggesting a calm, rust colour scheme. The house owner takes this on the chin, perhaps because Abigail has a style all her own when delivering insults – bouncing up and down as she talks, like an overexcited child. ‘I want the house to be elevated, happy, squishy, boho, arty, really funky,’ she elaborates breathlessly. Needless to say, the previously reluctant, very cautious homeowner was persuaded to go for a look that, prior to meeting Ms Ahern, she would never have countenanced. And, of course, she’s thrilled.

Abigail’s shop in north London is her showcase. As you enter, you are engulfed by banks of beautiful white wisteria, pink peonies, powder-blue hydrangeas and roses. Her sister Gemma, a trained florist, is a partner in the business. Go deeper into this space and you’ll . nd rooms decorated with dark-brown paint, furniture upholstered in patchwork and shelves dotted with turquoise ceramic pots and glass decanters – all original and not expensive. Then there are the lamps – an Ahern signature design – such as a large plaster cast of a 1950s ceramic poodle topped with a tiny black taffeta shade.

HouseApr20-02-590Glossy painted floorboards offset a quiet seating area

Today, Abigail has been up since 4am, refreshing the displays. She’s a woman who works hard in pursuit of her passion: ‘My kind of decorating changes lives,’ she says on her blog. Vanessa Tait, a long-time reader, admires that confident and proselytising approach. ‘She is very American in some ways; direct and upbeat. I like that. She turns received wisdom on its head,’ explains Vanessa. ‘A pretty French mirror would have gone so well in my bathroom but it didn’t feel right, so I turned to Abigail, who recommends dramatic tension, ie, you need something to throw you off a bit. I put in a heavier mirror and it worked so much better.’

Abigail grew up in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. Her mother was an artist. ‘Our house was typical 1970s style: strong colours, dark greens, oranges, browns, nothing neutral,’ she says. ‘Aged six, I was very conscious of what was around me. I wanted to rip up the pink carpet and paint the floorboards white; a bit different from what I’d do now,’ she says. But her upbringing gave her a taste for strong colours: ‘except that my walls are inky and the brightness comes from my accessories. For my parents it was the other way round: strong-coloured walls and accessories in neutral tones.’

HouseApr20-04-590Left: the dark walls are enlivened by touches of bright pink. Right: a kaleidoscope of colour stimulates the eye

She bluffed her way into interior design while she and her husband were living in Detroit in 1997. She had been working in the picture department of Conran Octopus Publishing and had an interview with an American architect. Cannily, she lugged the Conran Octopus design books with her and ‘claimed I was in charge of putting all these books together,’ she says. ‘This wasn’t strictly true. I was not a qualified interior designer either. I was learning the trade through a correspondence course.

‘Anyway, I got the job and it was study by night and work by day, but I got through.’ In fact she did very well and furnished various homes in the Great Lakes in what she now describes as a ‘slightly boring New England style’. It was not until she returned to London and opened her shop that she was able to exhibit her exuberant style. ‘I was confident by then; I knew I didn’t want to be bound by rules… It takes a lot of work to get that chaotic look. Before starting a project I always have a visual picture in my head. The dark wall colour comes . rst, then I often add clashing colour in the accessories. Sofas and chairs are more neutral.’

HouseApr20-05-176

Abigail lives in east London with her husband and two dogs that feature in her blog. She’s now launching masterclasses from her own home. ‘I’ll demonstrate how to use light, for instance, and show how to play with scale, too. Creating an Alice In Wonderland feel in which a tiny object is put next to a giant one is part of her look. But although there’s a degree of bohemian chaos in her designs, she is something of a perfectionist too. ‘At home I like lights to be turned on in a certain order and I often think of writing down the correct sequence for my husband,’ but that, she admits, might ‘be taking control freakery too far.’

Get Your House In Order was broadcast on Channel 4 in March and April. Catch up on 4oD.

A Girl’s Guide To Decorating by Abigail Ahern, with photography by Graham Atkins-Hughes (Quadrille, £12.99).

The next Masterclass is on 11 May 2012. To book: 020-7354 8181.

Atelier Abigail Ahern, 137 Upper Street, London N1: www.atelierabigailahern.com



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