Friday 24 May 2019

The biggest pitfalls Irish people make when decorating a room - Interiors expert Amanda Hilton Sawyer

Selling real estate to the rich and famous for over 20 years in New York, Amanda Hilton Sawyer learned the value of quality and sustainable design. Now back in her native Limerick, she runs an interiors business that champions timeless pieces and individual style, as she tells Orla Neligan

Amanda Hilton Sawyer has returned to her native Limerick
Amanda Hilton Sawyer has returned to her native Limerick
A design touch by Amanda in her former Brooklyn home
The dining area in Amanda's former Brooklyn home
Another design touch by Amanda in her former home

Orla Neligan

Mark Twain once said that if you make your mark in New York, you are a made man. It's a wonderful place to be up, but an awful place to be down; the melting pot of success that spits you out as quickly as it holds you up. "It's merciless," laughs Limerick native Amanda Hilton Sawyer, who, having lived in New York for the last 25 years, made the decision to move back to Ireland 18 months ago. "Don't get me wrong, it's made me who I am today," she confesses. "There is no safety net, you sink or swim and that certainly pushed me to succeed. I evolved with the city but after so many years that stopped and I started to feel the pull to come home."

When she arrived in her 20s she was not bristling with confidence, but in her job as a real estate broker in Manhattan she had to quickly find her feet. She recalls the fear of having to make a call to a Wall Street broker to sell him a Manhattan apartment. "I broke out in a cold sweat. Like a lot of New Yorkers, he was blunt and brisk and ready to hang up on me but in New York you learn to speak up or risk being forgotten so I gave it to him straight and he bought that apartment. I never had that fear again," she laughs. It was her love of interiors that drove her to pursue a career in real estate and eventually her interior design business Irish Girl in Brooklyn, which she owns with her sister Siobhan, an eclectic emporium of hard-to-find pieces that riff on vintage, antique and sustainability. Her granny was an avid auction-goer but beyond that she confesses to very little creative spark as a young girl. She was "into" fashion but "not very handy" and definitely relinquished the domesticated goddess role to other members of her family. But there's a certain amount of osmosis when you're selling lofts in SoHo and TriBeCa to creatives and celebrities, she explains. "I was very lucky to be viewing, and absorbing, these incredible spaces every day. Working in real estate makes you become very sharp about how to value things: what makes this space more valuable than the one next door? You're constantly looking for the detail. That skill gave me the discipline with interiors and deciding what makes a good investment piece and whether it's going to hold its value."

Hilton Sawyer is convinced that what matters in design is long-term value. Timeless design is the epitome of sustainability and if it means something to you and has been well considered, it will improve the design of a space. It has to stand the test of time and on its own in a room. She is not one to follow trends but prefers to find those pieces that can "carry you through a trend" - much like wearing a little black dress and swapping out jewellery to freshen the look. "The new buzzword is the 'circular economy' - reuse, update, recycle and be sustainable. In New York, when you put a piece of furniture out on the street it's gone the next day," says Hilton Sawyer in her Limerick-New York lilt. "It's the very definition of recycled. The sad thing is our landfills are full and we keep buying and throwing away and this is having a detrimental impact on our world ecologically, aesthetically and financially." The simple truth is when we buy something we're taking on the risk of disposing it, eventually. We can Marie Kondo the hell out of our houses but if we keep buying more 'stuff' the vicious cycle of consuming will continue. "I found a Chanel bag I had bought in New York the other day," admits Hilton Sawyer. "I remember buying it and feeling as though it validated me. I realise now there is no value to it anymore, and probably never was. Nowadays, I can't buy anything without thinking about the person who made it and their circumstances. Sustainability isn't just about material but about the maker behind it as well as its aesthetic going forward."

How she designs a space is directly related to the context of the space, the building and what the client wants from the space. Her own house in Brooklyn was the yin to New York's frenetic yang - a clean fresh palette and a haven of tranquility, peppered with interesting one-off pieces often made from natural materials. It remains her favourite project to date. "It's a reaction to the outside world, I guess. You're bombarded with so much stimuli in New York that when I came home I wanted something calm and peaceful and much of the interiors are sourced from local craftspeople and designers living in Brooklyn." Her Limerick home follows the same principal but there are fewer stimuli and so she doesn't feel the need to pare it back so much. "We're restoring an old Victorian house so the bones are old and I like it that way. It can afford to have more layers because the surround isn't as busy." Is she considering any contemporary additions? "No," she says emphatically. "I rarely like something new. The things I like have to have an intrinsic value of their own, I like pieces that have survived a long time. I always ask myself, 'Will I be able to have this in 20 years in my home and still love it?' Is this love affair going to last or is it going to be a one-night stand?" she laughs.

The dining area in Amanda's former Brooklyn home
The dining area in Amanda's former Brooklyn home

Browsing through her online shop (irishgirlinbrooklyn.com) and it's clear the business is devoted to saving and reusing the old, every item in the inventory having "good reason to be there". There is a yearning for authenticity, for something that has a story to tell and a zeal to acquire, which knows no limits - the satisfaction clearly in the chase. "Sourcing is the best bit," she smiles. "We get very excited about finding pieces." I admire a beautiful 1950s drinks trolley, which, she tells me, was found in a market in Mexico City and shipped home. A set of mid-century Paul McCobb tables sends her into a passionate spiel. The pair, from the 1950s, were made with vitrolite glass, which is scarce nowadays. She was rambling around her husband's hometown in Texas one day and found the tables, complete with original vitrolite glass - a serious coup for a mid-century collector, she tells me.

Right now, she is sitting on a couch bought in New York over 15 years ago, the very definition of sustainable. It's a simple, well-made modern design that has stood the test of time. "A person once said to me, 'Buy once, cry once'," she laughs, referring to the hefty price tag on the said couch. She could have bought five cheaper sofas for the same cost but she probably wouldn't be sitting on them today. She has her eye on a Josef Frank 'Flora' cabinet for the day the budget stretches. Good design is not about a person, she offers. You can be a designer who loves the 1850s or the 1980s but how you buy and how to lay a room is what it's about. For many, mixing the old and new proves challenging. On this, she advises to keep it simple. "Be safe out there," she laughs. "Especially in the beginning. It takes practice to train your eye to mixing styles and eras in the right way. Choose one piece at a time and make sure it's a little offbeat. Your eye won't accept too much at once and try to use what you already have."

This is just some of the nuggets of advice she'll be offering as one of the inspiration stage speakers at House 2019 - the annual high-end interiors event presented by INM, owners of the Irish Independent - next month. Being privy to interiors events in London and New York, she saw the talent and level to which designers and suppliers go. "In comparison, Irish people can be somewhat reserved, not going all the way to amazing," she says. "But last year I was so impressed with House and what the exhibitors were doing. It was world class." In her Brooklyn home she used as many local makers as possible and feels Irish artisan makers are only now beginning to be valued, and need the support. House gives some of them that platform.

One of the biggest pitfalls people make when buying furniture

Scale is, according to Hilton Sawyer, one of the biggest pitfalls people make when buying furniture for their homes. She groans at the memory of the enormous dining table she bought on a whim. Since she and her husband both buy into the sustainable ideology, they lived with it for 10 years before passing it on, to her relief. Lighting too can be something that makes or breaks a space. "It's the jewellery of a room," she says. "But is often the after-thought. You can furnish a whole house with Ikea and then add an amazing light fixture and the whole place will come alive." It comes as no surprise to learn that, above anything, she is coveting a piece from brilliant Irish lighting designer Niamh Barry.

For all her eclecticism and bold flourishes, she approaches her spaces with a good dose of discipline and integrity. Honesty is a key consideration in everything she does. It's unlikely there are too many high street pieces in her home. "I have a hard time seeing something copied," she answers honestly. "It can be mass-produced but it has to have integrity and be made from the heart."

It's one of the reasons she loves being home again. "Everything about America at the moment feels conflicted; it's very divided and it's actually a very scary place to be living right now. There's something really stable and honest about being here." She walks to visit her mother, who lives an hour away, every day. Her sister and nieces live nearby, she potters in the local food market, chatting to neighbours. Sitting in the window of her Georgian office on Thomas Street in Limerick could be like the West Village. "It's how you see it," she muses. "Perception is everything. You can see the same old dreary sky everyday or you can make it beautiful."

Another design touch by Amanda in her former home
Another design touch by Amanda in her former home

House 2019 runs at Dublin's RDS from May 24-26. Tickets are €12, to book see house-event.ie

Amanda's 5 key trends to embrace

1) Natural materials that are sustainable such as rattan, jute and basket-weave in furniture and lighting is a strong trend.

2) The 1970s and 1980s are fast overtaking mid-century as inspiration.

3) Spice tones and colours such as butternut squash are on the rise, which ties in with the 1970s.

4) Natural wood is making a comeback in kitchens and natural stone over manufactured stone. If using a quartz countertop opt for a warm colour as opposed to white.

5) Tiles that have a handmade appearance in warmer tones. Tiled fireplaces are a great source of texture in a room.

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