Meet the queen of darkness
Playing it safe is not for Abigail Ahern. You need elements of irrelevance to add levity to your home
Who else but Abigail Ahern could design a table lamp in the shape of a toad and get away with it? Respect! Nothing against toads, by the way. Toads are adorable. But they're fat, grey and lumpy, and those aren't the normal criteria for making the jump from amphibian to design motif. Then again, fans of Abigail Ahern's homeware have learnt to expect the unexpected.
"I think that a lot of product designers play it safe and design for the masses," Ahern says. "I can't design for the masses. I can only design for myself. I'm quite fussy and I put a lot of work into every single piece."
Her animal table lamps have been around since 2008 and are the sort of thing that collectors will go wild for in 50 years' time. The object of my affections - Derek the Toad - has a toad-shaped base in green velvet with an old-fashioned tasselled shade. It's part of the Abigail Ahern Edition range for Debenhams, where it currently costs €105.
The range also includes a dark grey raven, an orange gorilla and an electric blue baboon. They're not exactly lifelike - how could they be with lampshades sticking out of their heads - but they're moody and well-observed. "A lot of interiors take themselves too seriously," she says. "You need an element of irrelevance to add levity to a space and to make it feel like home. The animal lamps do that, but there's a fine line between making them kiddish and making them cool."
The other interesting thing about the animal lamps is that the bases are coated in flock, a material once so terminally un-hip that nobody anticipated its recovery.
Flock, a mere generation ago, was only seen in regrettable wallpaper. Now, it's risen Lazarus-like from the grave and Ahern, although not its only champion, was one of the first. "Texture is like a herb or a spice - it gives something to interiors - and flocking is a way of bringing texture to a piece. It emulates velvet and makes the surface luxurious."
With a name like Ahern, it's no surprise to find that Abigail has Irish roots. "I don't know a lot about my grandparents, other than that they were Irish," she says. "There's a record of them living in Dublin at some stage."
From there, they made the move to England. Now, Ahern is based in London. Her own-name label, launched in 2015, is best known for faux botanicals.
"They're the craziest part of our business in terms of success, but a lot of that is due to my sister." Gemma Ahern - sibling, business partner, and florist - brings a professional eye to bear on what makes an artificial plant look real.
"Everything is handmade and feels organic," Abigail explains. "And they're not too perfect. They're a little bit discoloured and a little bit drooping - as though they've just been foraged from a hedgerow." These are not the cheapest faux botanicals around. A head of hydrangea, for example, costs around €18. But while I'm all for economy in other things, faux flowers last forever. And, since you could be looking at that hydrangea for the rest of your life, it makes sense to buy the best.
Ahern's latest collaborative venture is a collection of curtain and Roman blind fabrics for Hillarys. "I don't want curtains to be an afterthought any more. We live in a country that's not particularly hot and we need magical cocooning spaces to envelope us," she says, admitting that she learned a thing or two about curtains during the design process.
"You can't turn any fabric into a curtain. Faux fur, for example, doesn't hang right. And you have to be practical, especially when it comes to the weight of the fabric."
She also needed to negotiate the fine balance between pattern and colour. "I'm a little bit obsessed with embellishment and the fabrics needed to have an element of texture and pattern, but not in crazy vibrant colours. So I did use quite a lot of pattern but I went for a muted colour palette.
"I don't think that there should be trends. Not in curtains anyway - you shouldn't just chuck them away - they need to be something that you can live with forever and consequently they feel quite heritage."
Ahern has long been the queen of darkness in the world of interiors and her collection for Hillarys doesn't disappoint.
"I'm obsessed with dark colours," she admits. "When you've gone over to the dark side, it's very hard to come back to the light."
Dark colours, she feels, make a space feel grander and more sophisticated.
Blinds have many practical advantages but they lack the opulence of curtains and can look a little sparse. Ahern has combated this by fringing the blinds at the lower rim. This adds character, doesn't get in the way, and gives the window treatment the element of softness that a plain blind often lacks. It can also be customised. So too can the linings of the curtains. "Introducing coloured linings on curtains is a real game-changer," she says, pointing out that the lining of the curtains is what you see from the outside of the house so, if you can play around with colour, why wouldn't you? A standard curtain (127cm wide x 137cm deep) in the range costs €224 and a Roman blind (65cm wide x 75cm deep) costs €237.
The collection also includes cushions in metallic faux leather, with the option to have different fabrics front and back, and a choice of contrasting or co-ordinating fringing. A cushion cover costs €36 but, Ahern feels, punches above its weight in terms of impact.
"Cushions are the five-minute face lift of the decorating world." They're not expensive, they liven things up, and you can change them around as your mood or the season warrants. Reversible cushions make this even easier. I can read the mood of some of my friends by the way they have their cushions. And, as Ahern points out, "a hit of metallic adds instant glam". If only it were that easy.
For the Abigail Ahern Edition at Debenhams, see debenhams.ie; for Abigail Ahern X Hillarys see hillarys.ie; see also abigailahern.com.