A Creative Heart

11th April 2014

Jill Glenn meets designer Nicolette Tabram, who is passionate about paint and pattern and who believes that inside us all there lies a creative heart

Nicolette Tabram is on a mission. Two missions, actually. One: to reinstate the stencil as a vital tool of interior design (yes, really…) – and two: to unleash the creativity hidden in all of us. Based in Little Willows, on Pinner High Street, she possesses, as you will see, the skills, the experience and the opportunity to do it.

Nicolette Tabram

Now 51, and living in North Harrow, Nicolette grew up in Coventry, but came to London in 1982 to study for a degree in textiles at the Central School of Art. Her specialism was printed textiles.

After she graduated she had her own print/design studio in Old Street employing half a dozen designers. The job was very pressurised and involved lots of travelling, so she sold up and went to work for Monsoon as a Printed Textile Designer.

The travelling didn’t stop, though: three days in, she flew to India for the first time and fell in love with the place. It was the first of many trips to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Jaipur and Indian echoes still resonate in her work today. More of that later.

It was, she recalls, a magical, pre-digital time… she would travel out with carefully selected designs on paper and come back with a suitcase full of swatches and samples… the start of a pleasing and evolutionary design process.

Then her son was born, and Nicolette couldn't face leaving him for the length of time such trips demanded: “the sort of fortnight that involved three weekends”. After a meagre 13 or 14 week maternity leave, she returned but resigned almost at once, moving to M&S for a more family-friendly three day a week job designing children's prints.

In due course, she was tempted back to Monsoon as Senior Accessories Designer, turning her attention to jewellery, scarves and embellished evening bags and with the freedom to look at the clothing range and decide what to develop alongside. It was in many ways a dream job – and had lovely flexible hours – but, in the digital age, the design process that she had once loved had lost its soul. “It was all about hitting trends and ticking boxes” ­– and it just wasn't doing it for her any more.

So, in the summer of 2010, she gave it all up – the career, the status, the regular travel and the beautiful hotels.

“What next?” I said.

“What, indeed?” She asked herself the same question the following morning, and made herself a promise: she’d say yes to anything she was offered (on a strictly work front, of course) “to make life exciting”.

Freelancing opportunities did start to come her way – from teaching (she still tutors once a week on a fashion/textile course) to designing children's swimwear prints – but the next stage of her career really began when she started painting old wooden furniture and selling it on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade or vintage items. “I first painted a table for my mother about twenty years ago, for Mothers Day, but it’s only recently that I’ve developed this.”

Her new enthusiasm is partly as a result of the interesting reaction that people have to the painted pieces. “They say, ‘oh, I could do that…”
Upstairs at Little Willows the workspace is light, bright and airy. It would make even the least confident artist want to paint – and that’s what she achieves here. She runs workshops in decorative paint techniques, using Annie Sloan Chalk Paint® of which she is an official stockist and about which she enthuses. “It’s water-based, low VOC, not smelly, dries really quickly… very versatile, no need to sand or prime, mixes really easily…”

This paint among paints offers endless possibilities. “If you’ve inherited a piece of old dark wood furniture, say, and you don’t know what to do with it… you can transform an heirloom.” She’s not talking about antiques, obviously, but a way to integrate pieces that don’t suit your style. As she says, there’s no sense in getting rid of good pieces just because the varnish is too dark. “Paint it for that French farmhouse look, and accept that usage may cause distress. Or you can apply a soft wax and buff lightly to protect it. The more you buff, the more sheen you get.”

Clients learn either by painting on a wooden board or in a class for which Nicolette provides a simple chair, painted in a base coat of cream so that people can choose “one of the 32 gorgeous colours”, paint it, stencil it and take it away.

Waxing a stencilled chair

Oh, yes. Those stencils. Aren’t they a bit… 90s? She laughs. They’re coming back, apparently, already popular in the US, although expensive to ship. “I have big plans for my stencil range.” They are, as you would expect, heavily influenced by her love of all things Indian, and have names like Agra, Lodi, Rajasthan. They’re actually very lovely, and the stencil board that shows them all off together would be good enough to display as a piece of art.

I put forward the idea that her home must be a design paradise of beautifully hand-created and lovingly personalised things. She laughs again. She'd finished the paint and stencil work on a cupboard at the shop the day before – “probably the most beautiful ting I've ever done” – which she was going to take home and put in the hall... but someone offered her money for it. “And it’s a business, isn’t it, so I end up with the lovely things not in my house.”

She has, she admits, so much that she wants to do at home, but most of her paint and design work takes place at Little Willows. She buys wooden furniture as and when she sees it, often screeching to a halt outside a charity shop on the way to collect her daughter from school, or picking it up from secondhand outlets in Herefordshire where her parents live.

She sees, in the interior design sphere, a big shift away from uniformity. “The recession changed the way people think – in a good way. It's about people being individuals and taking back control.”

Even so, she sees a lot of caution in both her purchasers and her students. “I don’t want to paint everything white, but there’s a commercial reality. That’s what people want.”

She’s disappointed by this. “People are frightened of colour,” she says. Although they often admire her richly coloured work, she sells pieces in pale grey and white most. “Don't be scared of colour. Have a sea of calmness, yes, but have one statement piece in a gorgeous colour… What's the worst that can happen? You don't like it? Paint over it then.”

It’s an appealingly straightforward and down-to-earth approach. “And don't be frightened to mix styles,” she goes on. “Have a wonderful clean, cutting edge, minimalist interior – and then mix it up with a distressed piece to make it interesting.”

Nicolette notices that people often say that they're not creative, but she firmly believes that everyone is. “They don’t have a go because of fear… but nothing’s irreparable.”

Channel your inner designer is her clear message. “It’s in there.” Children, she points out, are always drawing. “The 6-11 age group is great, but they get older and they get discouraged, or told they’re no good, or they become self-conscious. It’s so sad that that happens.”
Clearly it didn’t happen to her. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t draw, and unlike others, she didn’t stop.

“You can do creative things for pleasure, for feeding your soul… and if you end up with a piece of furniture or art that you’re happy to have in your home, so much the better. People who come on the workshops say ‘this is so therapeutic’ but it’s just craft, it’s only that we’ve lost the skill.”

The ethos is anti-perfection. “It’s handmade; that’s the point” and both her love of Annie Sloan and her stencils feed this. She hasn’t entirely eschewed the modern age, of course: although she first draws the stencil patterns by hand she then scans them into her Apple Mac to work on the fine detail in the Adobe Illustrator graphics editing programme, before producing the final version.
For as little as £10 for one of her small stencils (the larger are £20, the borders £12.50) plus £18.99 for a litre of Annie Sloan Chalk Paint® you can transform a small stool, say, or a shelf, getting back in touch with your creative self and stamping a real touch of individuality on your home.

Those in the know mix the tester pots (£6) with white and create an endless range of shades all their very own. Try painting and stencilling a tray, or an old wooden seedbox which can then be used for storage. It’s very addictive.

You can even dye linens or muslins for curtaining with Annie Sloan’s paint, heavily diluted, and can thus get a softer variant of a colour that you’ve used as a statement shade elsewhere in the room. It’s quite an exciting thought. I can see my living room transformed…



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