A Question of Taste

Cou Cou !

Greetings from my work – I’m trying to keep this blog more regular by typing in my thoughts during our lunch breaks.  And you know what, I am in love with being back at work – having spent half a year on furlough I am chuffed to bits to have this routine back in my life.

I’ve been writing a lot about furniture lately: what to consider when looking for second-hand pieces and the affordability of certain types of antiques and vintage finds.  As you know, I love a bargain, and sustainability also plays a huge part when it comes to choosing what to buy for our home.  However, nothing weighs in quite as heavily as the look and feel of things.  Within this frame, I am actually really picky when it comes to most things, especially décor.

And it’s not just me either: I share my life with someone with a distinct taste and values of their own… no, I don’t mean the dog.  I refer to my husband James.  Whereas I used to be daft about dainty retro furniture, quirky patterns and curiosities, he was into classic Victoriana, warm wood and solid craftsmanship worn by the passage of time.  As we have grown tighter as a couple, our tastes in things have not so much merged, but evolved under the influence of each other’s likes and dislikes. 

When I first met James, you could say I fell in love with his antique chest before I fell in love with him.  A keen appreciation of carved wood, soft leather and cricket memorabilia shortly followed.  It was Stockholm syndrome via décor, really.  As mine was all sold or donated before I moved to Edinburgh, there was no choice but to live with James’ furniture when we moved in together.  Combined with my collection of Finnish glassware, textiles and knickknacks, however, our first house actually felt ours, not just his or mine.

cricket memorabilia

Since buying our Maison de Ville by the foot of the Montagne Noire and especially when crafting a base for ourselves in the UK, from the houseboat in Staffordshire to our dinky little cottage here in Ilfracombe, we have both only wanted to buy things that we really like.  It took us a year to get a bookcase because we couldn’t find one that looked like nice and was transportable, or wasn’t silly expensive or made of laminate.  Yeah – and here’s a pro tip if you move a lot:  having chipped enough flat pack furniture in the past, I go for solid wood now.  Sure it weighs a ton, always, but unlike laminated particle board pieces, you can refinish and repair wood when needed.

One of my favourite things about James is that he favours the unexpected.  Within a framework of solid, well-crafted things, he’s open to risks and blind to trends.  You either like something or you don’t’.  A great example of this would be our buffet in France – a massive carved Art Deco thing complete with a mirror and a bright yellow sunburst detail.  Most people assume I chose it as I got this thing about the early 1900’s, but it was James who picked it out at our local Dépôt-vente.  Sure, I love it, but I never thought how amazing it would look in our kitchen. 

On the flipside, I didn’t think my influence on James has been all that great but I do bring in a certain je ne sais quoi in the form of colours, materials and Scandi-influences.  He didn’t actually like our current sofa when I picked it out but got really into it when it arrived from Made.com.  Ironically, I’d be ready to swap it for a comfortable old leather Chesterfield as it’s really pretty but incredibly uncomfortable to sit on! 

So was it really Stockholm syndrome or can I admit my taste has become more British perhaps over the years?  My relationship with cricket is still complicated, but I can’t resist a bit of English eccentricity.  I’ve been wanting a pair of Staffordshire fire dogs for a long time and James finally agreed.  It’s not quite a matching pair, but I rather like it that way. 

What do you think – they make a nice pair, don’t they?

‘til next week,


book case study featured image

Book Case Study

Millennials are killing the bookcase industry, apparently.

Even the biggest bibliophile cannot deny that there has been a gradual change in the way we consume written media.  Coinciding with the eroding status of books as symbols of sophistication and knowledge, whilst our living spaces are getting more and more compact, it’s no wonder people are buying fewer bookcases than ever.  Just think of the grand old Encyclopaedia series, once a staple of the aspiring middle classes and now the scourge of charity shops and recycling centres everywhere.  Novels too have become disposable – shall the one who has never binned a paperback throw the first stone!

I got this thing about books
I got this thing about books

Yet I keep books: great big folios on fine arts, selected hard-back novels and a hoard of non-fiction titles, mostly relating to the history of the middle ages.  I recently got into folklore ‘zines and now I collect those too.  All of these print works, alongside my sketchbooks and James’ cricket memorabilia need to live somewhere so I’ve been on a lookout for a decent bookcase ever since we moved to Ilfracombe, almost a year ago now.

If you look at any fashionable interior design publication these days an abundance of bookcases may be found, but more often than not, an abhorrent absence of books.  Well, unless the books are organised by colour or artistically curated in piles, oftentimes stealing the spotlight of occasional tables, in themselves a dying breed.  My least favourite of these design gimmicks has to be the trend of displaying books with their spines facing the wall.  I get it, you don’t read but c’mon. 

It could be bookcases, once the corner stone of every lounge alongside the three piece suite, do exist but are not seen as aesthetic enough to feature in glossy magazines.  I recently listened to a podcast interview of an editor who spilt the beans on art direction.  A warning for the curious: the absence of power outlets in fancy houses is a fallacy: just like the humble book case, those get edited out of house tours of the rich and famous.

We have books in France, sitting comfortably in an ebony black IKEA Kallax unit, covering an unsightly toilet plumbed in our stairwell, but that’s another story.  The few we brought with us or acquired here in the UK used to sit on top of a coffee table, disorganised and vulnerable to an occasional spillage of wine.  I had my eyes on a mid-century thing, but even with a full time job I could not justify spending several hundreds of pounds on a single piece of furniture plus the cost of delivery from South Wales. 

Yes, Wales. Turns out Pontcanna is the modern capital of affordable mid-century furniture.  Look it up if you don’t believe me.

Ultimately we needn’t travel as the perfect bookcase had been waiting for us in a backroom of our local vintage store all along.  Built sometime between the two world wars, it falls into that awkward not-quite-antiques category of furniture that goes largely un-appreciated.  Also, vitrine-type bookshelves aren’t exactly all the rage at the moment so there are amazing bargains to be uncovered in charity shops, car boot sales and even auctions.  With a price tag of just 15 pounds, our little gem was unusually cheap, but according to the store owner, it had been waiting to be purchased quite some time.

Our little vintage bookcase
Our little vintage bookcase

If you allow me to oversimplify this a bit, things are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them.  Those mid-century pieces we all seem to be obsessed about?  Not an awfully long time ago, you couldn’t give them away.  Now, having been picked out by a generation of designers, decorators and style influencers, the prices on these types of furniture has risen steadily as the demand for them has grown, and I don’t think we have quite reached the zenith of this particular trend.  Other bygone styles, such as my between-the-wars design mongrel aren’t on many peoples wish list and there are lots of them about, hence why they are cheap as chips.

There are three questions to consider when buying furniture: 

Firstly, is it well made? 

Is it affordable? 

And finally, is it trendy?  

An item seldom hits all of these marks, but two affirmatives is more than realistic, i.e. it is easy to find a piece that is durable and affordable, but not necessarily trendy.  A trendy piece that is well-made tends to cost you an arm and a leg, and so on.  It is also good to remember that just because something is not fashionable just now, it could not be charming, characterful or out of this world stunning. 

I love my new bookcase to bits and by raving on about it, I hope to inspire others less confident to shop second hand to give thrifting a good old college try, as I believe they say in America.  As a consumer, buying second hand when you can, upcycling or embellishing, and simply making do and mending more is the best way to be environmentally conscious while saving a ton of money. 

Plus you get to be all smug about it later on a blog post.

‘til next week,


Home Office Politics

Autumnal greetings friends!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got this lingering back to school feeling.  It could be the change in the seasons: autumnal colours and the cool, crisp air of early mornings… or finally being back to work after the longest, strangest summer holiday of my life.  Although I emerge into the new normal much less bruised than some, as the months on furlough dragged on, I found myself really struggling with anxiety, exacerbated by uncertainty about work and life in general. 

Bright yellow of the Ilfracombe harbour

Unlike me, James has been busy working from home all through lockdown and continues to do so.  Quietly keeping calm and carrying on, he has been doing his part on keeping the shop shelves of Southern England stocked up.

In a wider sense, it seems there is a strong shift towards working from home prompted by the Covid-19 crisis.  When pressed on by necessity, it does seem all of those roles that were previously strictly office based can indeed be fulfilled by an army of homeworkers eagerly skipping the traffic, office politics and the need to wear trousers.

But what do you do if you don’t have tons of space to convert into an insta-worthy home office?  I’ve observed my friends and family resorting into all sorts of tactics to carve out space for their paper clips and PCs, from conquering corners of their dining tables to setting up swanky flat-pack cardboard desks.  As a painter I require slightly different types of a set up and thus ended up perched on a pair of camper van cushions in our spare room.  As for James, well, he spend most of lockdown in our front room, sandwiched between his wee escritoire and Graeme the Grand Piano.

Escritoire-types of writing desks became quite fashionable some years back, especially as subjects of shabby chic transformations: painted in soft pastel hues, distressed or upcycled with cheerfully patterned wallpapers.  Ours is much simpler than that, a straightforward 1930’s (or possibly even later) example in dark lacquered wood, sporting a couple of small drawers and shelves for books.  It’s not the trendiest perhaps, but I like my furniture functional, unobtrusive and above all else… affordable.

Antique Georgian or Victorian escritoires (also conversely modernist mid-century examples) command impressive prices these days, but we picked ours off eBay for 35 pounds.  You wouldn’t be able to buy a new desk half as sturdy and practical for love or money.  However, if you are willing to look past the trendiest of pieces, there are amazing deals to be found in that not-quite-antique category right now.  When new, our desk was a haphazard imitation of arts & crafts pieces with modern detailing such as the vinyl covering of its writing surface and those cute little plastic pulls.  Not quite one thing nor the other, making it somewhat undervalued today.

I’ve got my personal reasons for buying these kind of pieces, namely value for money: that elusive durability vs. purchase value ratio, but also concerns over sustainability of mass production of things.  That cardboard desk looked amazing, but I don’t want to acquire new stuff if there is a viable second hand alternative. 

I once had a friend who talked about poverty as an aesthetic and although I don’t entirely agree with her views, it is true that trends of the future are often set by those who need to get crafty with their fashion and decorating choices.  A good case in point would be looking at the gentrification of our cities and the countryside.  Furniture wise, this effect can be seen in the value of mid-century modern furniture of a certain type: given up by the generation that grew up with it, these bookcases, room dividers and sideboards were lapped up the young trendy things that needed to result in charity shopping.  Now that generation has come of age, with a fully formed style that others are willing to pay large sums for. 

It’s pretty unlikely that those yellow pine things you see stacked up in hospice shops are going to be all the rage, well, ever, but if I’d have to predict a trend of the furniture, I would gently guide you towards Edwardiana.  Think of the world of Edward Elgar: dark stained native woods of the British Isles, pre-first world war shapes and hand crafted details.  You won’t be finding it in IKEA, but with a bit of Mr Sheen furniture polish, it will last you a lifetime.

‘til next time.