Designer, style maven and author Abigail Ahern is recognised amongst design aficionados and devotees alike as an influential tastemaker; highly acclaimed for her trend-setting designs that are synonymous with glamour, eclecticism and wit. She has been heralded by The Times as a ‘style spotter extraordinaire’; established at the front of London's design trail. The late Alexander McQueen was said to be the company’s first ever consumer; since then, clients from Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams to the Ritz Carlton have been eager to embrace the designers eclectic tastes. Clearly something rather extraordinary if you ask us!
At the centre of her characteristic world of interiors is her treasure trove of a shop, tucked onto Islington's Upper Street. The shop serves as the headquarters of its eponymous owners interior design service, whilst doubling up as a homewares shop – a setup that Abigail cheerfully refers to as “the best of both worlds”. Since opening her studio in 2003, Ahern’s covetable aesthetic – dubbed by its creator as “Alice in Wonderland-esque, colourful and tongue-in-cheek,” – has gained a strong and loyal following, even being voted one of the coolest places to shop in the UK by Elle Decoration.
As soon as you walk in, a gargantuan chandelier that is quite literally dripping with grandeur, appears before you to drop from the ceiling directly in front of the doorway, nearly meeting the table below. To the left is a black circular framed mirror with thick convex glass that engulfs its surroundings to project a miniature, fish-eye version of the room. All very surreal, yet all very fantastic and fabulous – something that Ahern and her team are renowned for. They love to play with scale and time periods to achieve a style that is at once outlandish and relaxed that Ahern herself succinctly describes as “a love for the unusual”.
She also acclaims that “nothing is silly for the sake of being silly,” when speaking of the various ‘wonky’ pieces of lighting, furniture, textiles and objects, handpicked by her and her team from across the globe, that sit in her studio. Mounted on one wall is a translucent moose head-cum-wall light made from resin – a tongue-in-cheek ‘cruelty free’ twist on taxidermy – while on another an oversized, ornamental maroon bug sits vertically, with an air of opulence about it. “A man up north makes our vintage bugs from old ties, “ Ahern explains, pointing out its satin sheen. Elsewhere, a concave armchair, patchwork table and inflatable Chesterfield sofa swell the space.
Looking around the studio, the creative chaos that adorns the space certainly has more is common with a gallery than a homewares store. Each piece seems to have an inescapable personality. On the desk sit two porcelain poodles with light bulbs atop their heads; behind the designer a wooden floor lamp shoots up straight, before taking a sharp 50 degree bend off course. “A graduate called Andrew Oliver made those,” Ahern explains. “They’re part of the ‘Drunken’ series. He does a ‘drunken’ table too that someone’s just bought and you can’t put anything on it, it just slides onto the floor.” She smiles as she says this, clearly tickled.
The passion with which Ahern speaks of the artists whose work features in her shop is indicative of how seriously she takes her responsibility to young designers. Ahern has always found trade shows to be somewhat generic and lacking with inspiration; a feeling which inspired her to start featuring artists and their work within the studio. “There are enough trade shows around the world that I go to and come back with, maybe, three or four pieces, whereas most people come back and fill their shop”, she explain. “It’s quite generic out there, which is why we started going down the route of looking at artists.” To have their work featured in the tastemakers much-visited space is certainly a valuable platform, one that Ahern believes gives these creative “a voice” as they embark on their burgeoning careers. “It’s really hard for young people to get their work out there,” she admits citing the inability to afford retail space as the main problem.
Indeed the designer puts her own big break down to “a misunderstanding”, going onto reveal a tale that is as lovely as it is ludicrous. “I had always loved interiors”, Ahern begins, “so I started working on the picture desk for Terence Conran’s publishing company, Octopus Publishing Group, in 1992.” Five years on, her husband accepted a job in the US, for which Ahern felt it would be a great opportunity to get into interior design from the other side of the pond and so she proceeded with arranging meetings with various companies in an effort to facilitate her career change. “I went to Michigan Architecture and Design House and into McIntosh Poris, to show them a book that I had worked on, sourcing images", she recalls. “They literally said, ‘wow, this is incredible! You really must join us’; they actually thought that I had designed the spaces, so they gave me a job as an interior designer when I had done nothing! It was horrendous.” Horrendous may not be the first word that springs to mind in regards to such a keen job offer – “you know I was 25 and just thought: ‘I can do it, I can do it,” Ahern admits – but the inexperienced stylist did initially with her newfound role. While Ahern’s visual skills were evident, she quickly learnt that her technical experience was somewhat lacking, As a result, she spent her evenings attending college, all the while working at a “day-job where people thought I’d designed five million spaces for Terence Conran.” A testing experience, no doubt, but one that showed how committed she was to her new career.
Today, in addition to her north London studio, Ahern’s mini empire includes a concession at The Shop at Bluebird. Having a space in the cult Chelsea store, which Ahern deems “a great vehicle, and incredibly beautiful space”, allows the designer to have her products stocked on both sides of the capital, an opportunity which has given her an interesting insight into the dichotomy between London’s neighbourhoods. “It’s funny because I had actually thought that it would be slightly more conservative that it is in Islington, but it’s the other way; it’s actually very eclectic,’ she reveals. Indeed, the cartoon inspired Kimono Dog paintings, which Ahern describes as “a tongue in cheek twist on pop art” have proposed extremely popular in Chelsea and Ahern’s offerings have become a popular choice for locals looking to embellish their homes. “I think there’s been a real turn around with the recession”, Ahern explains. “Instead of moving, people are looking to improve, and they want spaces and personality.”
It is this quest for interiors with personality that has seen Ahern appeal as much to individuals working on a single room on their home as to big corporate clients. One of Ahern’s most recent projects was to style the spa for the new Ritz Carlton Hotel in Palm Beach, Miami. At 42,000 square feet, it is the largest spa in the US. Ahern admits the offer, by a hotel group more readily associated with traditionalist than the quirkiness inherent to her style, took her by surprise. What was her appeal does she think? “I think what they wanted – and this is the same as residences that we design over here – is to have an interior that you walk in and people actually smile,” is her considered reply. “An interior that doesn’t feel stuffy and uptight but rather that feels lived in and laid back: it is a big challenge with a hotel, as the space obviously has to tick a lot of boxes.”
As if Abigail’s artistic intelligence wasn’t enough, she has now extended her talents to writing. Abigail’s debut book A Girl’s Guide to Decorating is a hip, practical style guide full of insider advice, cool and original ideas, fabulously glossy photography and clever tips for turning your space into a fabulous stylish pad – without spending a lot of money (the dream!) Being reviewed by The Telegraph as “inspirational”, Abigail has secured herself a firm place in interior writing. She writes about what she knows and loves best, and it offers a real insight into interior design and Abigail as a person. She imparts her expertise on all aspects of home decoration – from the initial planning, through to the small details. Her own taste is reflected in the book, encouraging the reader to be brave with colour and patterns.
As well as her book being a place in which she can voice her opinions on interiors, Abigail also shares insider knowledge, decorating secrets, and tips and tricks of the trade in her trailblazing Design School. It offers a variety of classes, from flower arranging to retail development, and has proved so popular it is now available in London, New York, Melbourne and Sydney!
Ahern clearly isn’t one to shy away from a challenge; next up for the designer is the creation of her own line, because “continually I can’t find the stuff I see in my head”. Featuring lighting initially, under the name of ‘lux’; it is a twist in tradition, with an unusual collection of animal inspired lamps, featuring tiny frou frou shades, handmade from the finest silk taffeta in Paris. Idiosyncratic and gleefully rocking a little granny style, everyone from the LA Times to the Savoy Hotel to A list celebs are fans. New to the collection is glamorous tableware; rich in colour and designed in fun shapes. It was launched in Paris, closely followed by the shop at bluebird during London Design Week. Of her decision to show in Paris first, “They really love mixing over there and they love quirkiness,” Ahern says. “Funnily enough, the French seem to think that we’re French.” Looking around her studio, it is unsurprising that the French are trying to claim her, luckily for us she is all ours.
Watch a collection of Abigail Ahern videos on Vimeo and YouTube.
Discover more about Abigail Ahern on the Domus Nova Design Guide.
Abigail Ahern, 137 Upper Street, London N1; abigailahern.com