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Inviting to look at and still room to sit comfortably. Chair, cushion and delectable fabrics all from Vanessa Arbuthnott.

There is a battle raging in our households and it concerns the quite intense emotions elicited by the humble cushion. Many sane, sensible and fair minded couples that I visit in my capacity as their interior designer can quickly lapse into not only passionate opinions but also surprisingly petty bickering when the subject of cushions is mentioned. I am going to horribly generalise now so please forgive me if you don’t fit into my unsubstantiated gender stereotyping, but seems to me that it tends to be us girls that love cushions and it’s the boys who really don’t.

My investigations into anti-cushion behaviour have found some recurrent themes. The first and most virulent relates mainly to cushions on the bed. “Where do they go at night?” the boys cry “we have to throw them on the floor”. Ok, I understand, they need a place to go when they are taken off the bed and the floor is not it. A simple solution would be a chair, window seat or ottoman at the end of the bed that they could reside on over-night.

The second complaint is normally about the number of cushions on the sofa. “We can’t even sit down without taking some of them off and throwing them on the floor” (are you seeing the ‘throwing them on the floor’ pattern emerging?). It’s a valid point, you need to be able to sit on your sofa, but this very rarely means you can’t have any cushions on it at all. Really, have you felt the comfort a cushion offers?!

Even I have to admit (and on a personal level you may have guessed that I am an extreme cushion lover) that the purpose of cushions in adornment. Some comfort for sure but primarily adornment and is there anything wrong with that? The key really, as with all things interior related, is the balance of style and functionality. A contemporary muted minimalist space will be spoilt by brightly coloured highly patterned cushions but will be enhanced by a limited number of plain cushions adding a layer of texture and comfort. Similarly a room that is verging on the bland can be hugely improved with a burst of colour, pattern, texture and a visual hit of inviting comfort.

Cushions do have an advantage that they are easier and cheaper to purchase than larger items such as a sofa or carpet. However, this does not mean that you should not take the time and effort in choosing your cushions, or that you should opt for cheap if you are not sure. A ‘make-do’ cushion is a waste of money as it is highly likely that you will want to replace it almost as soon as you get it home. If you buy a cushion you really love you may well have it for life so it represents much better value for money whatever it costs.

Contemporary cushions from Andrew Martin bring colour and comfort to a grey scheme.

Fortunately, there is now a very good selection of ready-made cushions available on the market. One tip I would give you when looking for off the shelf cushions is to find a fabric or accessories company that you really like and see what cushions they have on offer. I find that high street store cushions are often incredibly middle of the road and quite depressing because of it, whereas a company that isn’t trying to offer all styles to all people can be a lot more inventive. For example, Chelsea Textiles (www.chelseatextiles.com) have a wonderful range of cushions for those of a more traditional bent and Andrew Martin (www.andrewmartin.co.uk) have lush designs on offer for those of a more contemporary sensitivity.

If you do go down the route of having cushions made (and I warn you now, it is an additive business), you have a world of opportunity at your fingertips. Key decisions include size and shape, fabric obviously but you might want to use a couple of different fabrics, say one on the back and a different one on the front, or a different fabric as a side or decorative panel, and then of course there are trimmings. Trimmings are the interior addicts’ sweeties and are a joyful business to pick and often are what makes the cushion special. The key with having cushions made (and actually any bespoke item) is to find the right craftsperson and make good friends with them. As with many needlework tasks, cushion making sounds very simple but to get it right is always more complicated that you think. You need to find a soft furnishings maker who knows what they are doing, will listen to what you want and has a good level of patience. Thinking through the design before starting is vital and no detail should be overlooked, as cushion disappointment is not pretty.

As I write, I suspect that those amongst us who have yet to realise the true worth of the cushion may be feeling slightly light-headed, if not enraged, by my encouragement for spending hard earned cash on the decorative end of the soft furnishings palette. I would say sorry but I wouldn’t mean it so what I will do is to send a grovelling apology to any man who really does appreciate a cushion. That said, I do believe it is thanks to the female of the species that the cushion thrives. Without us the boys would all be sitting slightly uncomfortably on their sofas wondering why their rooms look just a tiny bit bland.

This article first appeared in Cambridge Magazine, April 2017

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In this contemporary scheme, a comfortable statement sofa worked well to bring a relaxed feel to the room. Photography by Simon Whitmore

It’s weird thing that sofas are so hard to get right, but they really are. Furniture is generally easier to select than say redesigning a bathroom or commissioning joinery but over the years I have heard many sorry stories of profound disappointment on receipt of an eagerly awaited sofa. With this in mind, I often find myself using the 3am worry slot to agonise over an impending sofa delivery. However much I know that we have done exhaustive investigation, double-checking and confirming on behalf of, and involving, our clients in the run up to placing a sofa order, it is always a few hours prior to delivery that I decide that we have definitely overlooked something.

There are a lot of things to consider before buying (or commissioning, more on this later) a sofa. Firstly, you need to think about what style of sofa is going to work in your room – do you lean towards a contemporary or traditional feel, mid-century modern or shabby chic? You don’t need to put a name to the style you want but if you are unsure of what look you prefer then you are not ready to enter a sofa shop yet. Fabric choice is important too and hard to consider in isolation. Building up a picture of the final scheme including wall colour, flooring, other items of furniture, curtains or blinds and so on will help you to avoid a fabric choice that you find hard to match to or that is a bland disappointment. There is a raft of other decisions to also be considered and these crucially include size – a measure of the room with consideration to other items of furniture is vital – and comfort levels of which height of back, depth of seat, filling and how the sofa is constructed all play a role. There are lots more decisions that are important but I won’t go into all of these for fear that you may decide that your hand-me-down, battered sofa that you hated when you started reading is perfectly all right. However, I will say that it is better to consider a lot of these decisions prior to spending that nightmare Saturday morning trailing around high street furniture shops and ending up feeling overwhelmed by information, underwhelmed with what you have seen and temporarily less keen on the loved one that you left the house with that morning.

Can I also at this point, strongly steer you away from the idea that buying a cheap Ikea sofa with the plan to bin it in future and get the one you actually want is a sensible decision. This thought has been shared with me in my professional capacity more times than I care to remember and it is a notion that is riddled with flaws, the primary one being that all you are doing is delaying doing the work to get the right sofa and in the meantime putting up with a piece of furniture that isn’t right because you haven’t given proper consideration to what you do want (whether it ends up coming from our fine Swedish friends or not.)

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A traditional sofa in a plain fabric looks very happy in this country drawing room. Photography by Simon Whitmore

Once you have done your homework deciding which sofa is perfect for you, there is the possibility that you won’t be able to find what you want on the high street. Retailers are undoubtedly getting better at offering flexibility on size, fillings, legs, fabric and so on but I do find that we often have to commission a completely bespoke sofa in order to get what we want and this route is available to everyone. A good sofa maker is able to make or commission a frame to an agreed size, shape and style and then upholster it to your requirements which means that the world is your oyster. It also means that you are speaking directly to the expert, the person who is going to actually make it, so you should receive excellent advice. I know that you will be thinking that this all sounds very expensive and although it is not a bargain basement option, I always think it is less expensive than one would imagine, which is a reflection of not paying for a middle man and normally not paying for a swanky showroom and a glossy brochure. Although there are many excellent sofa makers all over the country, for historical reasons many are located in and around Nottingham which is where our ace upholsterer is based. There isn’t a chance that I will reveal his name but if you find a workshop with stressed looking craftsmen looking at an order and muttering ‘what on earth are they asking for now’, you may be in the right place.

What I will share with you are a few of my sofa related tips drawn from many years of professional sofa buying, some more painfully learnt than others, that I hope will help you in your quest to avoid sofa disaster:

  1. I’ve mentioned checking the size of the room but the other key measurement is the size of the doorway/staircase/sharp turn from corridor to room etc. A beautiful new sofa that won’t go into the room is not a pretty sight and if you think your proposed sofa won’t fit you may be able to have it delivered in pieces (removable legs or arms etc.) but you need to check that carefully.
  2. Don’t rule out the idea of an antique sofa that may or may not (if you are really lucky) need recovering. Often the frames (and sometimes the fillings) are well made and antique sofas can offer something a bit different. As an example, there is a company called Pelikan in Haverhill that buy original mid-century sofas from Denmark and restore and recover them. If your style leans in this direction, and you are in the market for a sofa, you should visit them immediately.
  3. Sofabeds are much better now than they used to be when neither the sofa nor the bed were all that comfortable. They are a good option if you are short of guest sleeping space but remember to consider how the room will function when it is transformed into a bedroom – do you have to move furniture in order to unfold the bed, where does bedding live, where do guests put their things? – often sofabeds are not used as beds because the room doesn’t really work as a bedroom, so it may be better to concentrate on sofa comfort rather than incorporating the bed facility.
  4. I hate hard and fast rules from interior designers because there is normally an exception but I am going to stick my neck out on scatter cushions made from the same fabric as the sofa. I genuinely can’t think of a situation where they are a good idea. The purpose of a scatter cushion (not back cushions or any cushion that is part of the sofa) is primarily decorative and small square cushions that blend into the sofa are apologetic at best.
  5. Lastly sales. Panic buying leads to mistakes. It is great to get a bargain but it is not a money saver if you immediately want to change it. There are many sales throughout the year and I guarantee that if you miss a sale bargain, there will be another tasty offer available sooner than you think.

Finally to anyone who has made a mistake with a sofa purchase, and my heart goes out to you if you have, don’t add to the problem by matching to the mistake. I have had customers say to me that they have a sofa they hate but for whatever reason it has to stay so we need to build a scheme round it. This is not a good plan. My approach would be to design a scheme that we love without considering the offending sofa, and implement it, which will hopefully dilute the impact of the mistake. We may add a few accessories that tie it into the scheme and then we wait for the day the right sofa can be put into the room and the sofa mistake can be found a new home somewhere that it is welcome.

This article first appeared the February edition of Cambridge Magazine 

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Cate was recently interviewed by Cambridge Magazine and she was asked for five top tips to creating great interiors. Here are some of her tricks of the trade.

Be bold with your style

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Statement chairs in a contemporary home

This is advice that I give in my classes and that I always try to apply to my design work and what I mean is to know your own personal taste and be confident in it. If your interior style is say neutral, calm, quiet, shabby chic, then don’t be afraid to boldly execute this in your design work. We can sometimes get confused by thinking that there are things we must or must not do in our homes, or that there is good or bad taste in interior design, and when we deviate from our personal style, this is when blandness can set in. Trust your own taste and try to apply it to all elements of your home.

 

Accessories change everything

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Flowers, lamps, books and pictures all help to personalise your space

 

Whether you are undertaking a full renovation project or simply freshening up your home, good accessorising makes a huge difference to the final result. Try to bear your own personal style in mind when selecting your finishing touches as it is easy to make a mistake when the purchase is not expensive, and make sure you think about what accessories you need before you shop. If in doubt, add your accessories slowly and see what looks good and the old saying of ‘only have what you know to be beautiful or useful’ is just as true with accessories as with other areas of the home.

 

 

Don’t forget your lighting

Concealed lighting adds glamour to this display

You can create a beautiful interior space but without good lighting, it will never shine. Plan your lighting with the uses of the space in mind – activities like working, reading, putting on make-up need task lighting whilst artwork, favourite spaces and beautiful pieces of furniture need feature lighting and so on. Having some contrasts with lighting will make your home seem larger and more interesting and using separate switching for different lighting types will enable you to change the feel of your home depending on whether you are entertaining, watching TV, working or even cleaning!          

 

Colour is king

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Warm blue and cream makes a lovely space of this boot room

 

Colour is an interior designer’s best friend. A coat of paint can add character and personalise a space, create light and dark contrasts, highlight features and create a warm or cool, calm or stimulating, comforting or inspiring impression depending on what you want to achieve. Although the paint on our walls makes up a large part of the colour palette of a room, the flooring, fabrics, furnishings and accessories of a room all play their part in creating a look so consider your colour choices as a whole before selecting your paint or wallpaper colours.        

 

 

Think differently

We are bombarded in the media by images of what the modern home should look like, and we can sometimes lose our own imagination. If you go back to basics and think about how you want to use your home and what you want it to look like, you will start to create a picture of how your home can work for you. Only then will you start to select images, products and ideas from outside sources that will work for you. By using this approach you will be able to create a unique home that truly reflects your personality.

 

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A collection of sporting trophies creates a lovely personal feel

 Let us know what you think?

Did you see the article, or do you have some design tips of your own? We’d love to hear from you!

 

 

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The delightful Alice Ryan from Cambridge Magazine paid a visit recently for what seemed to me to be a chat and a cup of tea, so I was highly impressed when she said she had enough information for the article she was planning about my home above the Angel and Blume office. The magazine is now out and I have to say that she has got the measure of me – albeit the better side of me – so thank you Alice, it was lovely to meet you!

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