Designing an interior is straightforward if you follow the rules. But exceptional interiors tend to break them. Remember the last time that a room really took your breath away?
Chances are, there was some element that left you muttering: “that really shouldn’t work … but it does!” It could have been an unsettling colour combination. Or a ginormous light fitting. Or something profoundly disturbing, like flocked wallpaper. It’s not what you’re meant to like, but you do like it, and that creates a sense of dissonance. It leaves you questioning your judgement.
Having your taste expanded is an interesting experience, but it’s not necessarily comfortable. That’s why they call it the cutting edge of design. For Abigail Ahern, design disruptor and tastemaker, it’s her natural habitat.
Ahern is an interior design superstar. She’s English, with Irish heritage, and famous for kicking back against the blander expressions of Scandi with a deep dark inky palette.
Her Instagram profile describes her as a maximalist designer, but she’s not wedded to any particular style. She’s known for expressive, atmospheric design with a sprinkle of magic unicorn dust.
Ahern has just launched her second collection of window dressings for Hillarys and it’s not at all what you might expect. There’s plenty of drama, but the palette is gentle and sandy – soft pink, caramel and clay. The excitement is there, but it’s moved into the texture of the collection.
Texture is the shy cousin of the interior design family: unobtrusive but with a unique talent for helping everyone get along. In a room, texture makes an ensemble interesting and characterful, even with a very subdued palette.
The Abigail Ahern Hillarys collection takes its lead from the recent rediscovery of old-school textiles in interior design. First, there’s boucle. That’s a textured fabric made from looped yarn, a bit like a bobbly jumper, but intentional.
Boucle came to fame as an interiors fabric in 1948 when it was used to upholster Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair for Knoll. It’s currently popular in upholstery, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in curtains. It hangs well and is said to have acoustic properties.
If you want to up the ante, Ahern suggests coloured lining: “so they look as good from the outside as they do inside!” How about a silver lining? Everybody needs that. She’s also discovered that corduroy – that geeky ribbed fabric redolent of 1970s counterculture – also works in curtains and blinds.
Both of these are testimony to Ahern’s ability to do something that sounds wrong by any conventional measure and transform it into something that people will want to emulate. The collection is available in September 2022 with prices from €242 for curtains and €220 for Roman blinds.
Ahern is not the only designer to be playing with interesting textures. Charlotte Raffo, founder of The Monkey Puzzle Tree, and artist Alexis Snell have recently joined forces to design a fabric – All Tomorrows Futures – which has won a Design Guild Mark (an award for excellence in British design).
The linen cotton blend fabric (€173 per metre) is screen printed and woven into a crepe texture by heritage mill Mitchell Interﬂex in Lancashire. In Ireland, the remains of our once-thriving linen industry also offers scope for reinvention, with options explored by the Northern Irish Linen Biennale, which next runs in 2023.
“The top interior designers are storytellers,” Ahern says. “They’re risk takers and rule breakers. And most people aren’t that in their homes. Maybe you’ve got a nice interior but there’s something missing. It’s nothing to do with having a huge mammoth budget.
“I’ve worked in America where it was often the case that the bigger the budget was, the worse the interior. Yes, you have to know the basic rules. Then you take it a step further. You can’t create magical interiors unless you break the rules.”
Encouragingly, she believed this can be taught. Her forthcoming book, Masterclass, will be published in November by Pavilion Books.
“It’s like having an interior designer in your back pocket! I want to get rid of the concept of cookie-cutter catalogue interiors. When you turn the key in the door you should walk into a space that’s not just a sanctuary. It’s also inspiring and tantalising. It makes you happier and changes your perception.
The book drills down into all the components that turn a room around. How seating can change the way you interact in a space. The transformative power of lighting to change a room from drab to fab. I’m demystifying interiors.”
I ask her for a secret. Just one. The others are in the book. “Putting something too large in a room,” she says. “It could be an artwork, or a mirror, or a pendant light. It adds a little bit of scale, and that gives you grandeur, and that gives you magic! Without it, you’re left with nothing but a big fat yawn.”
Scale, as she explains it, is to interiors as an exclamation mark is to punctuation. And, just as too many exclamation marks lose their potency, she recommends limiting the number of outsized elements in a room. “Do it once. If you do it three or four times the room will look bonkers.” Upscaling is part of a wider trend.
The Italian company Instabilelab’s 2021 catalogue shows a range of graphics, mostly botanical, blown up very much larger than life. They are designed to be printed on many surfaces, principally wallpaper but also textiles and carpets.
In the run-up to the publication of Masterclass, Ahern is also running a series of interior design workshops in her London home.
“We used to run the workshops quite regularly and people flew in from all over the world. Then Covid came and we went online. When people come into the house they get more out of it because I’m living and breathing what I’m preaching. I get so much more out of it too. You don’t get that experience online and you don’t get the emotional connection either. It’s an immersive day. It turns interiors upside down.”
If you too want a sprinkle of that magic unicorn dust, Hillarys is running a competition to win a Design Masterclass at Ahern’s home in London on 4 July.
The prize includes travel and accommodation expenses up to €300 and a pair of curtains or blinds from the Abigail Ahern x Hillarys collection. Enter by 14 June via @hillarysblinds.
See hillarys.ie, abigailahern.com, themonkeypuzzletree.com, linenbiennalenorthernireland.com, instabilelab.com