Aunty Mabel’s Seat

French armchair covered in fabrics from Andrew Martin. Sitting in front of a curtain made with Mulberry's flying ducks

French armchair covered in fabrics from Andrew Martin. Sitting in front of a curtain made with Mulberry’s flying ducks

If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs, you might have noticed me referring to my ‘shop’; and I got to thinking that I might have mentioned it so many times now, that it probably deserves it’s own little post, so that you can all stop wondering what the hell I’m going on about. You see, up until the beginning of this year, I had a lovely little shop in Knutsford called Aunty Mabel’s Seat. Back in January 2010, with heady excitement, I signed on the dotted line of a commercial retail lease and began a very exhilarating, and sometimes scary, five year journey realising my dream of having my very own interior design shop. The next few months were spent completely renovating the property from its days as a hair-dressing salon, getting all my interior displays designed and made up, and finalising the branding. By the time we opened the doors to our oodles of new customers (these were mainly friends bribed by wine) in April, I was both exhausted and completely giddy! The shop I’d dreamed of for so long was finally open.

1. the shop front 2. my lovely shop sign with its bespoke hummingbird and hibiscus iron bracket

1. the shop front (sorry about the white van reflection!)
2. my lovely shop sign with its bespoke hummingbird and hibiscus iron bracket

The shop when it was a hair dressing salon - this room became the book library (below)

The shop when it was a hair dressing salon – this room became the book library (below)

1. the fabric and wallpaper book library (Nina Campbell's Swan Lake wallpaper to the left, & GP&J Baker's Nympheus curtain to the left) 2. Fabric books full of gorgeousness

1. the fabric and wallpaper book library (Nina Campbell’s Swan Lake wallpaper to the left, & GP&J Baker’s Nympheus curtain to the left)
2. Fabric books full of gorgeousness

I offered the normal interior design services of most interior shops, with a large, extensive library of fabric and wallpaper books which you could browse at leisure, with help on hand whenever you needed it. And we did the normal curtain making, poles, lampshades, cushions, etc. But my love of antiques and my years of upholstery training meant I naturally specialised in the restoration of vintage chairs and sofas, updating them in modern fabrics and making them special and unique. Most of the showroom was therefore given to displaying my ‘Rough Diamonds”; the dictionary definition of a rough diamond is ‘a person who is generally of good character but lacks manners, education, or style’! That’s what these chairs were like. They were beautiful deep down, but so shoddy and dirty that they seemed like little bohos. It was our job to dress them in new clothes, polish them up and get them ‘dressed to the nines’ so they could feel good about themselves again. The idea was a customer would fall in love with a certain lady-chair or gent-chair (they definitely have genders!), select their fabric from our library, and create a completely bespoke piece which would give their home an injection of individuality and personality, that only bespoke pieces do.

1.Flossie (we named them!) dressed to the nines 2. Flossie when she was a rough diamond

1.Flossie (we named them!) dressed to the nines
2. Flossie when she was a rough diamond

1. The Duchess all dolled up 2. The Duchess in less splendid days

1. The Duchess all dolled up
2. The Duchess in less splendid days

Clockwise from top left: 1. one of a pair of 1950's chair, looking a bit of a bugger 2. one designed by me for a shop window 3. one designed by a customer for their home

Clockwise from top left:
1. one of a pair of 1950’s chair covered in leatherette
2. turquoise chair, designed for a shop window
3. teal and acid yellow chair designed by a lovely couple of customers – a truly unique bespoke piece for their home

As well as offering lovely products, I also wanted to create an interior design showroom that wasn’t snobby or stuffy or intimidating in any way. I don’t want to stereotype the industry, but I have been into certain interior shops where the proprietor has literally looked at me like a big walking poo had just entered their shop! Sorry for the description but it could’ve been worse; poo’s a nice word. So, as much as I wanted the showroom to be beautiful and inspirational, with gorgeous products dotted about the place, I also wanted it to be friendly and welcoming at the same time. I tried to achieve this by being friendly myself (I’m pleased to report I never saw any walking-poos, just very lovely new customers who had been kind enough to come into my shop); by employing the most down-to-earth, sweet natured and couldn’t-be-more-friendly lady (my decision to employ her was cemented when she informed me she had a chicken called Myrtle!) who also happened to be incredibly talented; and by having my beautiful dogs in the shop every day who acted as the welcoming committee. Mabel and Tilly didn’t know a jot about interior design but they were always on hand to wag their tails at new customers and make them feel at home. They were very good shop girls.

(If you would like to read more about Mabel and Tilly, and even Dotty the cat, check out my previous post “My Canine Shop Assistants”. There are some very cute pictures!)

Mabel and Tilly modelling the 'Rough Diamonds'

Mabel and Tilly modelling the ‘Rough Diamonds’

Antique French armchair covered in fabrics from Andrew Martin

Antique French armchair covered in fabrics from Andrew Martin; ‘Hunting Scene’ wallpaper from Lewis & Wood; horse bookcase from Ibride; green silk for curtain is Designers Guild

Now, the name. Aunty Mabel’s Seat. There’s a reason behind how I came up with that name, and there’s also a reason why I thought it to be the most perfect name in the world for my brand new business…and I’ll talk more about that in a mo…but there were times when it did seem to prove a bit problematic. When I was very kindly and honouredly (today’s new word) presented with an award by the t.v. architect George Clarke, he asked me, with a twinkle in his eye, and in his lovely Geordie accent “Aunty Mabel’s Seat! What sort of crazy brand is that?!” with a slightly hysterical laugh towards the end. And I really did have to wonder myself sometimes! I got called Aunty Mabel’s Table (fair enough; a table is often near to a seat) and Aunty Mabel’s Feet (not fair enough! who on earth would name their business after their Aunty’s FEET?), but the funniest one was when a customer thought she’d had a voicemail message from the ‘Antenatal Suite’ and was confused for days as to why the hospital was ringing her from there, when she hadn’t had a baby for 17 years. Bless.

Aunty Mabel's Seat won 'Best Newcomer' at the 2010 Northern Design Awards

Aunty Mabel’s Seat won ‘Best Newcomer’ at the 2010 Northern Design Awards. We also won ‘Best Independent Retailer’ in 2011

A lot of people liked this sofa exactly as it was!

A lot of people liked this sofa exactly as it was!

Retro 1960s chair covered in purple patterned velvet

Retro 1960s chair covered in purple patterned velvet

However, more often than not, we received compliments about the name and these tended to be accompanied by the inevitable question of where did the name come from. I always struggled then to answer in a short, succinct way, so today should be no different. When my siblings and I were growing up, we had a family expression that was introduced by my dad years before I can even remember, and then adopted by the entire family. When Dad was little, there was an old relation who was notoriously lazy; and at large family gatherings, when everyone sat down to dinner, she would cleverly place herself in the most awkward seat available. This ensured that she never actually had to lift a finger throughout the meal, because if anyone so much as suggested she might like to help, she’d say airily, “Oh, I can’t possibly get out”, and with much gesticulating at the inhabited chairs around her, would point at diners far better able to get out of their seats. This, of course, was Aunty Mabel.

Blue chair covered in 3 different fabrics: floral from Manuel Canovas, stripe from Ralph Lauren, plain on sides from Larsen

Before and after

Kids corner

Kids corner

Retro 1950s armchair covered in a patterned yellow velvet from Designers Guild

Retro 1950s armchair covered in a patterned yellow velvet from Designers Guild

My dad merrily copied this excuse on numerous occasions, and was often heard explaining to Mum that he couldn’t help her because he was ‘stuck in Aunty Mabel’s seat’. Living in a small house, with a small dining room, and a large extended family, it was actually quite easy to be stuck in Aunty Mabel’s seat! And so it became a phrase that could be heard quite often during dinner times, and the ‘seat’ eventually took on the role of being the most coveted chair at the table, with Mum asking children and dinner guests alike, “Who would like to sit in Aunty Mabel’s seat tonight?”! Fast forward a few years, to naming my business, and to the fact that I had a dog called Mabel who would sit on all my upholstery projects, to the fact that I wanted to specialise in vintage seating, and to the fact that I wanted a quirky name that had a bit of nostalgia to it, well, the family phrase seemed perfect. And Aunty Mabel’s Seat was born.

Stunning curved sofa ready and waiting for its new cover (which ended up being turquoise velvet)

Stunning curved sofa ready and waiting for its new cover (which ended up being turquoise velvet)

Work station with French postal desks

Work station with French postal desks

Look! I can do neutral

Look! I can do neutral

It was an amazing five years of my life, and despite the fact that it was incredibly hard work and incredibly stressful, I had a great time and met some wonderful people, and felt what it was like to be part of a community. Knutsford’s a great little town for that, so friendly and welcoming. A bit like Aunty Mabel’s Seat! And as much as I love being free of the commitment of the shop and the financial worries a shop can bring on, I will always look back fondly at my time there and remember the fun I had. And the comments that I heard through the windows! I’ll leave that for another day though, too many to mention at this moment. x

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