In my professional and social lives, I love collaborating with other people. I love the tea and biscuits and the welcome veers into sordid gossip. I enjoy, on a good day, passing an idea roughly around a table and watching it get reshaped and stained, emerging later as a whole new thing.
I like the combination, ideally, of earnest people who are very keen to get on with it, and those of us who tend towards the ‘It’ll be fine – and also what do you think about dogs on beds?’ I even enjoy the bits, an hour in, when energy levels have sunk and our bodies puddle on the table until one clever cow manages to rally us with chocolate or a really good idea.
Collaborating on matters of style, though, I find less to love.
Once, I purchased one of those mail-order fashion boxes. Do you know the kind of thing? A stylist sends you a selection of clothes based on your ‘lifestyle’, with the promise it will instantly improve your life. Upon unpacking it, a low growl rolled from my throat, and I promptly resealed the box and returned it that afternoon. ‘How dare they!’ I thought. ‘Me? In an office slack? Me? In a faux-vintage band T-shirt? How dare they send me a pencil skirt and tell me I’m fixed?’ Very offended I was. Then later when I’d calmed down, I became ‘thoughtful’ – about taste, and choice, and the risks or dangers of allowing somebody else to design the self you show.
I thought about this again this week when my friend, Rebecca, came to stay. Rebecca is not a designer by profession – she is an author now, previously CEO of a charity, and before that a doula, who would help people give birth – but she has what some call ‘an eye’.
When she moved from the seaside to the countryside, the buyers of her house requested she leave not just the fittings but the furniture, so welcoming and exquisite was the home she’d built.
In her new place (a smallholding where she’s slowly introduced goats and ponies, and cultivated a garden that appears to bear both vegetables and fireworks) she’s worked quietly and exhaustingly on a tiny budget to ensure it is not just impressively eco, but also gently gorgeous.
So she came to stay, and one day, while idly chatting in the kitchen, she pointed at the brickwork and told me that once upon a time there had been a door where the sink is, and showed me how that door would’ve allowed a handsome flow from the front of the house all the way through to the garden. It was only a little thing but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
While I am confident in my own decorative taste – my aesthetic, a loose weave of decades gone by, is fixed (if comfortably flawed) – I am unable to reimagine a room. My eyes don’t see where a wall, for example, could be knocked through to better utilise a living space.
While I am more than comfortable hanging a painting, I am blind to the possibility say, of ‘moving a kitchen to the back of the house’ – a phrase I often read out loud in squawking disbelief. At times I’ve wondered about whether interior designers are ever an option for people like me, the 99 percent, but the idea of actually calling one and then revealing my toe-sized budget is too crippling to contemplate.
It was the second time I’d suggested Rebecca launch herself as a designer that I paused, and asked her to walk with me. Walk with me through my house, and tell me what to do.
She looked at me quizzically. Could I take it? Was I open to collaboration based in part on taste? Could I listen to her advice without reading it as a personal attack? Would I hear ‘What if you put open shelves by the fridge’ as ‘Your life-choices are laughable and your hair is bad’? It’s a risk, I acknowledged, then we both took a deep breath and headed up the stairs.
In half an hour she had: sketched out a way we could split up the bedroom, thereby creating a large wardrobe and fancy shower room, explained why the utility room was always so messy, suggesting a total refit, offered a radical redesign of the kitchen, and showed me how the waste pipe meant we couldn’t move the toilet but we could knock through the wall and move the sink to make a sprawling bathroom. She made storage recommendations for the kids’ room, complimented some crap on the shelves and went on and on until I felt quite high.
It was wonderful. Instead of the fashion-box debacle, where a corporate stranger had applied their stencil to me and attempted to colour in the gaps, putting my style choices in the hands of an intelligent friend (one with experience of helping women feel safe as they literally screamed a whole human from their bodies) was a liberating and inspiring thing.
It was like she was shining a torch around the home my family and I have lived in for years, revealing secret doors and hidden passages. Rather than feeling like she was stamping her own style on my precious world, it was as if she was showing me how the house could better reflect it. Over 30 short minutes she gave me a language. Now I just need to find a builder.