Having been at the forefront of British fashion design for nearly four decades, Margaret Howell has now diversified into home products, celebrating the best of British mid century design. Displayed alongside the clothing in her flagship store on Wigmore Street, London, the vintage furniture complements the style and spirit of her clothes. Margaret tells us about her three favourite mid century designers and the pieces she’s used to furnish her 1960s Suffolk retreat.
Margaret Howell on her Lucienne Day fabric curtains
Although Lucienne Day designed her fabrics in the 1950s and ’60s, they don’t have an obvious retro feel. I think her colourations are strong yet subtle – her mix of bright and subdued colours work well, and the quality of the vintage Heal’s fabric and the printing is great. Mixing naturalistic drawn marks with abstract blocks of colour is what I find attractive. There’s a truthfulness in nature.
It was great to find these curtains – designed for Heal’s in 1960, they are made from Lucienne Day fabric called ‘Linden’. I remember these from my student days in the ‘60s. I remember seeing them in a friend’s room. I also love ‘Marquis’ and ‘Silver birch’ (both designed as a Heal’s fabric in 1958) – I used to love drawing grasses and winter trees so I find these designs very evocative.
Margaret Howell on her Robert Welch kitchenware
Robert Welch originally set up as a silversmith making one off hand-crafted designs in metalwork, but later, using stainless steel for mass production, he produced everyday tableware and kitchen items, which remain very modern in their edited streamline shapes. I have a Robert Welch cruet set, which may have had a tray originally, a Robert Welch cake stand that I use as a fruit bowl, Robert Welch hanging utensils (designed for Prestige) and reproduction cast iron candlesticks.
Margaret Howell on her Ercol chair
Before opening the shop on Wigmore Street, I found a simple vintage Ercol chair and table in Shoreditch. I realised that I’d grown up with Ercol furniture and not really been aware of it. Seeing it afresh, I began to appreciate the minimal, classic look of Ercol furniture from the 1950s and ’60s. There’s something really nice about its modernity, but also the level of craftsmanship, utilising English Elm and Beech wood, and the fact that it has mellowed with age yet still fits in the modern environment.
I used to drive past a house clearance shop on my way to work in Battersea, and screeched to a halt on several occasions. I started to build quite a collection from there. I found my first Ercol chair on the street. Somebody had thrown it out. It had been painted white, which actually looks good against my white walls.
Margaret Howell on her design philosophy
Some designers are always working with the new, using the latest materials. For me, I look back on something, see its value and then try to make it contemporary. The way something is made is very important to me. That’s why I set up a workroom from the beginning; I wasn’t the sort of designer who thought in terms of a collection, I wanted to be very hands on because the making was part of it.
At the beginning, I wasn’t aware that my designs were especially British: it was just something that I’d intuitively responded to and loved, using tactile fabrics such as Harris Tweed and Irish linen.
Margaret Howell on introducing home products into her shop
I wanted to promote what I considered to be good British product design to sit alongside the clothes. We periodically put on small exhibitions around the products we sell in the shop, for example Anglepoise lamps, Robert Welch cutlery and stainless steel and of course Ercol furniture. As well as selling vintage we also collaborate with designers on new products, such as blankets and ceramics. Similarly to the mid century pieces on display, these are designed for the real world, where good design is about living with thoughtful style.
I don’t know how it is for everyone, but for me dressing oneself and furnishing one’s home go hand in hand. They both rely on a particular aesthetic or sense of style. To live happily, you need things that make you feel good.
Check out Margaret Howell’s vintage furniture collection here