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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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One of the best ways to get into the Christmas spirit in Cambridge is to go for a stroll around the centre of town when the lights have been put up and everything is just feeling a bit more Christmassy. We’re lucky to have some lovely independent shops in Cambridge selling some great homeware finds, take a walk down some of the quieter streets and you’re sure to find sweet little shops full of trinkets and treasures.

Buying your Christmas presents can be a little bit traumatic, especially if you’ve got a big list to work with, and sometimes it’s all too easy to do your shopping online from the comfort of your sofa, but if you’re looking for something a little bit special, for a few lucky loved ones, there’s nothing better than gifting them something unique that they wouldn’t be able to find themselves. I spent the day going around some fantastic independent shops in Cambridge, and found some wonderful gift ideas to inspire you.

If you nip past the market and over to Peas Hill there lies Ark, whose tag line is ‘gifts for interesting people’, and they sure did hit the nail on the head. The shop is full of beautiful colours and textures, it’s like falling into the middle of a treasure chest, with all sorts of goodies to explore. The first thing that caught my eye was a beautiful display of carrot tree ornaments. If you’re not into the usual Christmas motifs, having your Christmas tree sport a few festive veggies may be just want you need!

And spotted on the other side of the store, where these fabulous glittery snail ornaments, which are perfect if you like your Christmas decorations with a sense of humour.

There is all sorts in Ark that would make wonderful gift ideas, as well as some light-hearted stocking fillers. These mugs have some unusual designs on them, so if you know someone who loves a cup of tea, but isn’t really into the whole cutesy vibe, then a few of these might be a great gift this Christmas.

If you’re looking for something to display across a window sill, mantelpiece, or perhaps you need a few adorable stocking fillers, Ark have some lovely pewter animal figurines in stock. They’re a fun little present and a great way to *almost* follow through on your child’s wish for a pet for Christmas.

After Peas Hill if you nip round the corner you’ll find yourself on Bene’t Street, where you can find two terrific shops, Podarok and Cambridge Contemporary Crafts. Podarok, which has a sister shop in Oxford, is full to the brim of quirky and exciting homewares, accessories and jewellery. Something I spotted in the corner of the store was a warm and welcoming lantern display. The lanterns would make great bedside table lamps, and with a range of different designs you’ll be sure to find the perfect lantern for someone.

Just by the lanterns was this little fella just waiting to be bought. The smoke glass effect gives the quirky design a sophisticated edge. It would make a great gift for someone with a cheeky sense of humour when it comes to their home.

Likewise are these rather wacky lampshades, their colourful designs make them hard to miss, they’d be the perfect finishing touch to a kid’s bedroom (or a playful adult!) The shade in the top left-hand corner is absolutely stunning, the wintery landscape would make an excellent Christmas gift.

Just across the street from Podarok is the wonderful Cambridge Contemporary Crafts, with a huge collection of handmade crafts that are perfect gifts if you need something really special and unique. Made by artists all over the UK there is a wonderfully eclectic range of styles and pieces, from big to small. I first thing that I spotted in the window from the outside were these little dainty vases with gold heart shaped rims. They’d make such a sweet gift for anyone really, a partner, sister, daughter, or even yourself, if you simply can’t resist.

In the back of the shop are some beautiful plates by the artist Clare Nichols. The bird designs are truly a unique look, the detail shows how much thought and time has gone into these pieces, and the gold rim is the perfect finishing touch. If you’re in need of a gift that is equally as special as the person you’re giving it to then one of these plates may be just the thing.

Neil Tregear is another artist featured in the gallery, he specialises in hand thrown stoneware, and uses the landscapes of the Isle of Wight as his design influence. These flying bird vases are the ideal piece to accompany a beautiful bouquet of flowers, or some Pussy Willow for a wintery look.

If you stroll down King’s Parade, you become rather spoiled, with a breath-taking view of King’s College on one side and a lovely collection of shops and cafes on the other it’s a real treat. About half way down is Nomads, bursting at the seams with gorgeous items from the Middle East and Asia. The ceilings are littered with these wonderful paper lanterns, but this embossed, nine point star steals the show.

Just a little further down King’s Parade is the ever wonderful Byard Art. From exciting paintings and sculptures to smaller intricate items that were made for gift giving, there is a whole range of items to get enthralled by at Byard Art. I love these little leafy paper bowls, that come in either small or large.

Green Street is a little walk away but once you’re there, you’re in the company of some wonderful shops. Catesby’s is a really favourite here at Angel + Blume. The shop is filled with gorgeous, sophisticated items that are almost too tempting. These paired bowls are so sweet, in fact I walked away with my own set!

This pestle and mortar they have in the back room, is a perfect gift for anyone with has a flair for style and a love for cooking, when not in use the kitchenware looks almost like a piece of art.

There are all sorts of wonderful pieces of ceramics in the shop, it’s almost hard to pick a favourite!

A few shops down from Catesby’s is Homestuff with History, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s almost like rooting through a car boot sale, except someone has already done the hard work for you and picked out the most interesting pieces. Their cabinet of little glass bottles is not only full of great things to buy, but styling inspiration at the same time! In fact I couldn’t resist grabbing myself a few little bottles for a shelving unit.

Upstairs, is another load of treasures, including this impressive collection of tins, a perfect gift for someone who loves a bit a vintage gem.

Over on one of the shelving display was this cheeky jester statue, which would look great mixed into a few other ornaments in a display cabinets, or perhaps peeping out of the bushes in your garden.

Cambridge is full of exciting, sweet shops that have all you need to get the ones you love something special this season, now all you need to do is resist the urge to keep all the goodies for yourself!

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Last week  I went to The Heong Gallery at Downing College in Cambridge to see the exhibition Cubes and Trees by the brilliant artist Ai Weiwei.  Although technically it’s not much to do with interior design, the exhibition was rather lovely and so we thought it deserved a blog!

Ai Weiwei is somewhat of a controversial artist, due to the subject matter of his work, which spoke out against the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei was arrested and imprisoned in 2011 for 81 days, and up until 2015 he was deprived of his passport. It is this that has led to a worldwide reaction and intrigue into his work, and since having his passport returned to him Ai Weiwei has exhibited his work in some of the world’s major museums, including a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, which featured some of the same pieces available to see at The Heong Gallery.

Cubes and Trees is a simple, non-fussy exhibition that does exactly what it says on the tin, and the latter part of the title is by far my favourite piece. Comparatively, when I went to go see Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy, it was a cold December morning and these beautiful trees where placed in the grand courtyard of the building. To see the piece then, in those circumstances created a looming, dramatic effect, but what a difference and change of location and season can make! Yesterday the sun was bright and shining, and the trees though still as equally dramatic had a serenity about them that created a very calm and peaceful encounter.

From afar the trees may appear ordinary, however as soon as you get a closer look you can see all of the wonderful details. Each tree is made up from multiple deconstructed trees, found in a market in Jingdezhen in China. The cut up branches and trunks and fixed together with nuts and bolts to create a beautiful, but raw appearance. What is so clever about this artwork, is that upon viewing it for the first time you may think that each piece is just a single tree cut up and put back together again, but in actual fact each final tree is created from several trees, all in different variety, shapes and sizes, each piece carefully crafted to fit together perfectly.

 

Ai Weiwei has commented on the piece, “We assembled them together to have all the details of a normal tree. At the same time, you’re not comfortable, there’s a strangeness there, an unfamiliar-ness. It’s just like trying to imagine what a tree was like”. The trees are interestingly placed in front of the neo-classical buildings of Downing College, which, like the deconstructed/reconstructed trees, and an interpretation of what its original counterpart would have looked like. Both the building and the trees are an imitation of something, and there is a wonderful synergy between them.

Inside the main area of the gallery, four one-metre square cubes are situated in a row taking up almost the entire length of the floor space. Each cube is made up for a different material, Crystal, Tea, Ebony and Wood.

The Crystal Cube, made in 2014, creates a distorted vision which is encouraged further by the placement of a mirrored surface place on the bottom. This helps to create the cube-like effect, it’s like you’re looking into a vat of solidified water.

The second cube in the sequence is made up of one ton of compressed Pu-er tea leaves, a traditional Chinese tea. As the room get warmer the aromatic fragrances of the tea become more and more potent.

The third cube is titled Cube in Ebony, made in 2009 from Zitan wood. Zitan wood, which grows in China is expensive, and it is often rare to find furniture made from it. In creating these cubes Ai Weiwei comments on Chinese culture’s traditions and customs. There is a perfect blend of modern geometric forms and traditional Chinese materials and decorative conventions. The last cube instalment is made from honey-toned Huali wood and is called Treasure Box. This piece is a little more interactive then the previous three, it is made with an excruciating amount of precision, and when dismantled it can turn into different forms of furniture. This piece is both a play on larger traditional Chinese furniture as well as Puzzle Boxes, which conceal their openings and can be used to hide things in for those in the know.

Cubes and Trees is a wonderful exhibition, full of eye-catching pieces with intriguing stories to tell of both the works and the artist, as the curator of The Heong Gallery Rachel Rose Smith confirms, “Both groups of works attest to the power of Ai’s use of forms, materials and places to reveal more about how we interact with our environments”. It’s a sure must of any Cambridge local to go and take a look at.

For more information on opening times, visit: http://www.dow.cam.ac.uk/index.php/heong-gallery

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I attended a wonderful brunch event at Catesbys (Green Street, opposite Bills) this morning and the company, the breakfast but most importantly, their current stock, was all a delicious delight. I highly recommend a visit for a browse at their home furnishings and accessories followed up by a restorative visit to their first floor café. Thank you Neil and Jonathan, look forward to seeing you soon. X

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We have a few of these bowls in the office – very handy for sweeties

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I didn’t know before this morning how much I want a pair of sleeping lions

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Stylish dishes

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…and more stylish dishes

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One of the beautiful things about living in Cambridge is that in most parts of the city, there is always a stunning property or building that catches your eye. Or sometimes a whole street can do this, especially if you take stroll down Storey’s Way. I tend to move at somewhat of a snail’s pace when I’m driving through the road, deciding which lovely property is today’s favourite. With a love of interiors, exteriors and a general urge for snooping I always like to have a little look on Rightmove every now and then, which is where I came across this stunning house on Storey’s Way which was already know here at Angel + Blume, and trust us it’s even more beautiful in person. It’s such a lovely property that I just had to write a little blog about it.

The house was built during the Arts and Crafts period and follows a Sussex style, Mock-Tudor design. Interestingly the exterior from the front entrance looks cottage-like with small windows and sloping roof, which were made from lime washed pebbledash-rendered brick, a material that has aged gracefully, whereas the back view of the house looks more regal, following a typical Arts and Crafts motif.

The famous, and well respected architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott designed the house in 1912-13 for Herbert Ainslie Roberts, who was the Secretary of the University Appointments Board. In 1991 the house was completely restored, which allowed for modern living, but still kept the integrity of the original designs. Here you can see the plaster frieze ceiling work, which was done by J.C. Pocock.

It has some absolutely gorgeous original features, many of which can be seen in the photo above; from the lovely wood panelling, to the decorative ceiling to the stunning framework on the windows.

Often with period properties there’s a constant battle between the old and the new. Whether to keep the running period theme throughout the house, or to contrast the heritage structure with modern interiors. I think that the elegance of the exterior and the architectural details of this house, smoothly transcends into the décor inside. A simple and fresh design that lets the character of the house do all the talking.

This bathroom is the perfect mix between contemporary and traditional styling. The modern design of the shower, sink and bath as well as the sophisticated slate work contrasted with the traditional window, original fireplace and the traditional chair creates a wonderfully unique blend. The free standing cylindrical shower is a particularly great inclusion in this fusion-style bathroom.

The gardens, which were also designed by Baillie Scott follow the same ideas and approach to design as the house. It appears that Baillie Scott’s vision was to create a design the flowed from the inside to the outside with ease, creating a unity between the two.

There is an overwhelming loveliness that surrounds this property, it manages to keep the essence of the era in which it was built while still being a practical place to live in the modern world. There is the perfect balance between the original features and contemporary decoration that brings out the best of both worlds.

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If you want to make immediate improvements to your home, accessories are your most powerful tool! Discover just how much you can transform your home with accessories during our six week evening course starting in October. Find out where to place things, what you need, where to buy and what to get rid of. And the great news is that you can start to make changes as soon as you get home. Click here to go to the website for more details. www.angelandblume.com/courses.php

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