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Design Masterclass with Abigail Ahern

By Kate MacLeary on Aug 04 2014

Image via Telegraph

In May, I had the pleasure of attending interior design guru, Abigail Ahern’s Design School at her home in East London. For those of you unfamiliar with this designer, Abigail Ahern started her career working for Sir Terence Conran working on the picture desk at his publishing house before essentially blagging her way into a role in interior design (they thought she was a designer, she didn’t correct them) and working hard, leading her to become the internationally renowned interior designer and stylist she is heralded as today. Having worked for much of her career in America, Abigail has left the interior design projects behind- her main focus now is on her own business, ‘Atelier Abigail Ahern’. She has just released a paint collection all in her signature dark hues and is expanding the Atelier brand globally.

With such an impressive CV under her belt, I’ve long admired Abigail Ahern’s work and so when the opportunity arose to attend her Design School, I signed up on the spot. As for me, I’m Scottish and live in Glasgow. Though familiar with areas of North and East London, the city is a big place. Despite the fact I like to my think of myself as a savvy girl about town, whenever I visit London I regularly find myself glued to my iPhone app, standing, confused, on a street corner, surveying street signs and bus timetables with more than a hint of bewilderment! As I ambled down the unfamiliar street, scanning house numbers and referring to my map in search of Design School HQ, I instantly spotted a house that had set itself apart from it’s neighbours, windows and doors adorned with deep charcoal paint. Without double-checking, I knew this must be the place and ascended the steps leading to an impressive entrance.

Abigail’s charming husband Graham welcomed me in and directed me down to basement level where the kitchen/dining and library area are situated. First impressions were, frankly, amazing. I resisted the temptation to let out an audible, ‘WOW’. A huge two-storey glass extension drew the eye both upwards and outwards to the lush garden. Chairs and sofas in varying textures from velvet and leather to concrete drew me in immediately to the cosy ‘library’ seating area.

‘Tea, Coffee’? Abigail asked brightly once introductions were made and once I was settled in a comfy chair chatting with some ladies who’d also arrived early, coffee was delivered personally with a warm smile. My gaze drifted downwards to one of Abigail’s adorable dogs, Maude who lapped up the attention from the house guests. I was struck by how quickly I felt completely at home in the house of a famous designer I’d long admired. Taking in the sights and amazing smells, within minutes I was immersed within the world of Ms Ahern. The relaxed vibe definitely set the tone for the rest of the day.

Once everyone had arrived- around 15 of us in total- we were led up to the top of the house to the classroom. The introductions began with Abigail asking what had brought us all to the class. It is safe to say that everyone attending was a fan, having discovered Abigail’s work via different mediums, some following her blog, others having been given attendance on the course as a gift. One lady announced that she had seen Abigail on TV (she featured on Channel 4’s ‘Get Your House in Order’). At this, Abigail visibly cringed, describing the project as ‘the worst thing I have ever done’, explaining that the format of the show turned out not to be as producers had pitched it to her. The premise of the programme was that Abigail would come into peoples homes, sell some of their items at auction to raise funds, then use the cash to professionally re-design a room or rooms in their house (the programme is still available on 4od and worth checking out). Abigail anecdotally recalled that the participants of the show having their house made over were in effect, hoarders, who had no interest in having an interior designed space whatsoever and didn’t want to part with their belongings at all, as they were so emotionally attached to them. Far from needing new soft furnishings and Abigail ‘faffing about with accessories’, some contestants, she recalled, basically needed a course of therapy for their obsessive collecting and hoarding (a format Channel 4 seem to have since run with)! The class in fits of laughter, it was impossible not to warm to Abigail’s honest and down to earth approach. Here the work really began as we were led through topics ranging from layering and lighting to playing with scale/proportion within a room.

Unlike the majority of interior designers, Abigail goes against the grain, breaking design rules to amazing effect. Her motto is very much ‘Don’t overthink it, just do it’ and, refreshingly, she’s very down to earth, the first to admit that she’s made mistakes along the way and that design is, after all, about trial and error. She is happy to share her design journey, beginning with her home being painted entirely white, to a hasty makeover, transforming the space from Scandi style to a dark and moody environment painted all in dark hues. This dramatic transformation occurred as a result of Abigail showing a renowned photographer a picture of one small corner of her home where she had decide to dabble with dark paint. The photographer asked whether the house was all painted dark, enthusing that he would love to photograph it for Elle Decor, to which Abigail hastily blagged that ‘of course it was’, only to go home and advise her husband Graham that they had three weeks to completely re-decorate the house top to bottom, all in time for the photo shoot. Abigail was full of similar stories- an impulse to mix things up and design to paint and repaint rooms until the look was right (most recently Abigail has again redecorated, this time using her own paint range). Indeed, a quick Google easily shows the transformation between rooms evolving over time.

Images via The Independent

Obviously, I don’t want to spoil the Design School for those of you who might be interested in attending the class so, in summary, here are just a few top tips from the lady herself:

1) Create ‘visual friction’ within a space by pairing scruffy items next to super glam pieces. Add a couple of elements such as accessories or furniture which don’t quite make sense in the room and almost make the space visually uncomfortable. This friction creates intrigue and makes a space instantly more interesting. Here quirky elements come into play- the traditional table spray painted bright teal, retro lamps and a mischievous fairground gnome all jar together somewhat but the look overall is funky and intriguing.

2) If you can read a whole design upon entering a room, the design has failed. There needs to be levels and layers of interest. Ideally a space should have 2 or 3 focal points, not just one. That way, the eye is drawn to different elements one after the other which makes the scheme more appealing and exciting. Here the eye is drawn to various features. It might be the rug, the ladder, the pop of yellow in the sofa- the eye continues to discover the scheme.

Image via Jimmie Martin

3) Play with scale. Have a room with low ceilings? Add a huge floor lamp or chandelier. This proportion play acts as an exclamation point within a room. The unexpected nature of the proportions again makes the space feel interesting. I love the use of this huge anglepoise style lamp placed unexpectedly on the tabletop.

Image via Abigail

4) If you restrict the colour palette within a space, then you can add pattern and texture till the cows come home. A widely held belief is that too much pattern equals a busy, cluttered space which creates an eyesore. However, by reigning in the colour palette, you can go wild with pattern and texture without offending the eye. This look uses bold patterns and textures but the pink tones tie the scheme together effortlessly.

Image via Rue

5) Painting is the cheapest and most transformative thing you can do to a room. Take risks with paint- Abigail recommends painting out the walls, ceilings and woodwork all in the same colour. Take this bedroom above. Now imagine it pained white. Boring, huh? The dark hues create a snug and enveloping atmosphere- perfect when combined with glamorous gold and rich textures. This kind of transformation could be achieved in a weekend with a couple of tins of paint and some motivation (or a good decorator)!

Abigail Ahern is extremely generous with her time and was kind enough to share with the class some of her favourite flea markets, retail shops and products. Though her home is now painted with colours from her signature paint range and features many items from her retail shop, there was no heavy handed endorsement of her products or, conversely, reluctance to share ideas for cheap makeovers. In fact, her home is truly eclectic with pieces from her own range, vintage finds and even a healthy smattering of IKEA items! In her glorious kitchen, cupboard doors are made from MDF cut to size at B&Q and painted. There is no hint of the aloofness you may expect from a successful interior designer, Abigail is as down to earth as they come and is the first to admit that her style is not ‘the right way’, it’s just her take on design - fortunately, people seem to like it. She is very much an advocate of doing something because you like it, encouraging others not be slavish to trends, to go with your gut and decorate as you feel is right for your home. Having tried her hand at TV, undertaken interior design projects all over the world in addition to being a published author with design books under her belt and now running a rapidly expanding business, it seems there is no stopping Abigail Ahern and I for one can’t wait to see what’s next!

I’ll leave you with some beautiful images of Abigail’s home, sure to inspire…