The textile designer who is responsible for one of the most recognisable designs in recent years invited us into her south London home for the podcast last week. You can listen here if you want to have audio as well as visual.
Waiting on the pavement outside her tall Victorian terrace house, I was intrigued as to what we would find inside. I remember clearly from my days on The Independent, one of the feature writers returning from a visit to Delia Smith’s house where the plan was that he would interview her over lunch. The famous tv cook welcomed him into her kitchen and opened a cupboard to find the things for coffee. It was filled with ready meals.
Would Orla’s house be the same I wondered. Would the creator of the ubiquitous stem design live in a riot of chintz and be dressed in black like the late Jean Muir?
The door was opened by Orla’s assistant Diane wearing a fabulous floral dress (from H&M) and standing behind her was Orla in a pretty chocolate brown dress with black and pink stem print flowers on it. Point 1 – she definitely wears her work.
“I never get tired of it, I love print and pattern in the same way that some people love music. I find it soothing and invigorating and it definitely has an impact on my mood,” she will say later sitting on her Orla printed sofa in her Orla printed dress.
Downstairs in the basement kitchen and it was a riot of fabulous vintage Orla designs. From the geometric ochre flowered wallpaper to the 60s inspired kitchen island in shades of cream, olive, orange and mustard to the walnut panelled walls. Orla storage jars line the shelves, while tea towels hang over driers. It’s a mid-century modernist’s dream.
“Where there were original Victorian features we have kept them,” Orla explained. “But there weren’t really any in this basement kitchen.”
So they took down the walls and opened up the space to create a sunken sitting room at the back (with grey flannel sofas which are dog proof), a dining area and the kitchen at the front.
Cleverly the working part of the kitchen is in an alcove where the cooker, storage and fridge all live. It’s like a giant pantry and allows the rest of the room to feel more like a dining room, with a cooking area rather than a working kitchen with a table in. It’s a clever idea and while Orla’s remains open to the room you could easily do the same thing and install a sliding door across.
The space is brought together by a long wall of walnut panelling which houses the eye level ovens at one end and the bookshelves and television at the other.
It is clear that Orla’s colour scheme springs from three colours; orange, ochre and olive.
“I do love yellow in all shades. Perhaps it’s from growing up in Ireland where you would see out over the fields and the gorse growing on the mountains. There’s also a sunniness to orange to it and you can add pink and other colours to those base shades.”
Two years ago the Orla Kiely fashion stores all closed down after the directors placed the company into voluntary liquidation, but the designer, whose first love is print and textile design is now concentrating on homewares (and still making those distinctive handbags).
“I love pattern and colour and while I majored in print for fashion it was the bags that came first. But as you get older you get more interested in interiors and I was always wavering between fashion and home. It’s lovely to get back and focus on the part that I love.
Her love of print and colour becomes more obvious as we head upstairs to the sitting room which is large light-filled room that takes up the whole of the ground floor. A sofa sits across double doors from the hall (which they open for parties) and a second set of double doors divides the front sitting room from the back.
Here the Victorian features are more in evidence with detailed cornicing and an original fireplace in the front room. But at the back, the previous owners had installed a huge picture window looking out over the just flowered mimosa in the garden to which Orla has added panelling bringing a mid-century feel to the space.
She bought the piano for her younger son at auction where its unusual design (it’s from the 60s) meant that it failed to meet its reserve price of £300 so she picked up bargain that was perfect for her own style.
In the front room, painted a soft shade of what I can only describe as chocolate brown, is a vintage sofa upholstered in her stem print and a tiled table that has definitely been an inspiration over the years.
“I have always loved looking back and taking inspiration from that period but we have a more modern graphic take on it,” she says.
“We start on paper with a doodle and then move to the computer to refine the design. Over the years the stem has become much tighter. I first drew it about 20 years ago.”
While Orla has filled her house with mid-century furniture both modern and vintage it in no ways feels like a pastiche of a style. This is partly down to a tight colour palette and also because Orla clearly loves every piece that she has brought into the home so it is clearly reflecting her taste and that of her family and has grown organically over the years.
Although we don’t see her sons’ bedrooms. Which puts me in mind of the house tour we did with Pearl Lowe, queen of vintage shopping and French antique style, who recounted that her son Alfie wanted nothing more than a trip to Ikea for some flat pack furniture for his birthday.
Moving upstairs we pass a panelled resin wall hanging in shades of chocolate, orange and cream. It’s highly lacquered and works, I assume, to bounce the light around this dark landing. And then Orla stops on her way up.
And touches the dark panel. And it springs back and reveals that it is, in fact, a hidden door to a tiny shower room with a glass roof. And it’s so clever that I am immediately pondering how to do something similar with one of my own doors.
It is, naturally, tiled in Orla’s own design, which she has used again in the kitchen and the family bathroom.
This was another clever floorplan hack. The original master bedroom at the front had two windows – as in many Victorian terraces. She pushed the landing back to create a new door to the master bedroom – making it smaller – and installed a wall between the two windows so there was room to add a bathroom. I will do a separate post on this next week as I think it’s a good idea for anyone who wants another bathroom or an ensuite. Orla has chosen not to make hers an en suite but has, instead, installed a wall of glass between the two room to make more light in both.
She has also linked from the master bedroom to the bedroom behind and created a dressing room. We weren’t allowed in this “storage” space. But it’s good to know that the Queen of clean graphic design clearly, like the rest of us, has a room that is less than minimally perfect.
Orla’s furniture can be bought at Barker and Stonehouse and check out this rug which I WANT as well as her John Lewis collection is expanding all the time with a collection of rugs due to land shortly.
This is the last in the current series of the podcast – a huge thanks to Topps Tiles for sponsoring us for a second time. We are due to return on 16 April and have already made plans to record remotely so that we don’t miss a show. We are looking into recording an extra episode to air before then as we are all going to be at home during this period. I will keep you posted.