Inside an antique packed Alfriston apartment
PUBLISHED: 11:51 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 14:06 21 March 2017
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036 01825 841157
Emmett & White antique shop is packed with unusual items the titular owners love, and that principle extends to their Alfriston apartment too
“A stately home on a small and eccentric scale” is how Nick White’s email described the apartment above the antiques shop he runs with his partner of six years Will Emmett-Horwood.
And his description was borne out by the amazing sight that greeted my eyes when I walked up the narrow staircase to their two-storey home. In some ways the space is an extension of the shop in Alfriston’s Waterloo Square. Everywhere the eye wanders there is something else to admire, a visual joke or a picture crying out for a closer look. Rooms are lit by exquisite chandeliers, curtain rails are tipped by black bowler hats, a leopard skin rug complete with head and claws lies on the sitting room floor, while a stuffed baby crocodile looks balefully out over the kitchen with jaws apart. When the hour strikes the apartment is filled with the chimes of many different clocks.
But this isn’t some junk shop-style Aladdin’s cave of clutter. Everything has been carefully positioned to catch the eye, all set off and placed for maximum effect against brightly painted walls. “I loved the story of when the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire moved from Chatsworth into a small house on the estate,” says interior designer Will, 30. “She had taken everything she wanted out of the grand house and crammed it into this little cottage, with over-sized furniture for all the rooms and grand paintings which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a country house all in one small room.”
Will is self-taught, taking inspiration from his love of antiques, learnt from the age of 12 while mooching around his mother’s shop in Marlow, Berkshire. “There wasn’t much else to do in the summer holidays,” he says. “I would sit in her shop or wander around the antique shops and that is how it all started. I definitely like the quirky, eccentric and unusual. We don’t buy things as priceless antiques, we buy them because they are things we have fallen in love with. We are constantly on the lookout – even if we are just popping down to do some personal shopping we might pass a shop and see something in the window. We move things around which is why the shop is always changing – and so is the house.”
Prior to moving to Alfriston in May last year their Marlow home had got to the point where it wasn’t possible to walk through the rooms with arms outstretched for fear of breaking something. “It was a warehouse for a while,” laughs Nick, 49, who gave up a career in the marketing and business side of the pharmaceutical industry two years ago to focus on building up the shop which opened in December 2015. “We get so many comments about how well the shop is curated – people see it’s not just stuff piled up.”
“The apartment is an extension of that,” adds Will. “I like everything to look like a display or painting. Even if Nick’s cooking I will start displaying the utensils and vegetables! I like to layer a room, mixing different periods together. I want a room to be a feast for the eyes – you can sit down and try to find everything.”
There are definite moods in the different spaces, which the couple shares with three dogs: the pugs Duke and Jimmy and the loveable mongrel Fran who Nick, laughing, describes as a St Leopold spaniel. The kitchen, which is the dogs’ domain, is light and airy. The countertops are kept clear and functional with only a handful of particularly impactful items on show on the well-worn and well-loved tables and chairs or atop the dark wood cupboard in the corner. In contrast the red painted walls of the sitting room are crammed full of fascinating paintings and prints, with something to admire on each surface everywhere you turn.
Walking up the narrow dark blue staircase to the second floor bedroom there are items of interest at eye level. But it is all about preparing the visitor for the light expanse of the low-ceilinged bedroom itself. Arriving at the top of the stairs is akin to seeing the sun rise in front of your eyes.
“Bedrooms should be light and sunny,” says Will. “I like living rooms to be cosy so they’re usually quite dark, close and full of things. It’s a room for the evening.” It took Will just two weeks to transform the apartment. “It was a blank canvas,” he says. “A house full of beige boxes. It didn’t feel like a home until it was all done.”
As well as running the shop he is also offering his services to businesses and domestic properties through Seaford-based The Builders Club. So far he has already transformed a French brasserie in Amersham and The Moon of India in Seaford. He’s keen to do more private interiors.
“I like to walk around with clients and get a feel for what they are looking for,” he says. “I ask them to come up with certain words as to how they want it to feel. With the French restaurant they gave me ‘Mayfair chic’. With The Moon of India it was ‘contemporary, but with a big Indian influence’. Mixing those together was fun – there are lots of colours and different textures.”
“But no flock wallpaper,” adds Nick.
They are finding Sussex inspirational – in particular the Bloomsbury farmhouse Charleston. Will has been getting his paintbrushes out creating his own designs on the walls and furniture of the shop and apartment, as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant once did in their farmhouse. Nick has the closest link to Sussex as he was brought up in Bexhill, where his parents still live. It was through knowing fellow Alfriston interior designer Diana Kelly that they made the decision to move back to East Sussex. “She said there was an empty shop near her,” says Nick. “The shop is probably the best positioned in Alfriston – you have a double aspect and can see it from both directions through the village.”
Like neighbours Cate Olson and Nash Robbins, who run the much-loved Much Ado Books, Nick wants to make Emmett & White a destination for visitors to Alfriston. “We aren’t a junk shop, and we don’t want to specialise in something like 18th century furniture,” he says. “We want it to be full of things that people won’t see anywhere else.” Everything in the shop is carefully labelled, with a bit of the history of the item on sale, a touch of the pair’s distinct humour and most importantly the price – which can range from £5 to £10,000 for an 18th century William Speakman grandfather clock. The pair also sell contemporary art by David Apps, who custom-makes his own antique-looking frames for his watercolour artworks using modern plastic toys and jewellery; perfumes created in a traditional style by Lewes-based Nancy Meiland; and humorous lamps made by Nick from old wooden tools. There is also a range of polishes and specialist care products for looking after antique furniture. It links into Nick’s own move into furniture restoration, which is all part of keeping as much as possible in-house, and keeping costs down. “We don’t restore things back to perfection,” says Nick. “If you want a table that looks brand new, buy a brand new table! I want to make things useable, but show their history. If you’re buying an antique you’re buying into the history of the piece.” One example he points to is the couple’s kitchen table, which has a very obvious V-shaped repair at one end. “This is a 500-year-old table,” he says. “That repair could have been made 400 years ago, it’s all part of its history.”
“If somebody has gone to the trouble to glue a vase back together they must have loved it enough to do it,” adds Will.
The hardest thing must be to sell some of the pieces on – but they see that as adding to the history of an object. “There are certain pieces that we have inherited or really love that we would never sell,” says Will, who started out in the antiques trade as a porter in an auction house and gradually taught himself all he needed to know. “We are always finding new and exciting things we love.”
“With our first sales it was difficult,” adds Nick. “We had owned the pieces, we liked them. Somebody said to us in doing that it had done its job – and now we needed to pass it on to somebody else. It’s about keeping the story alive. Customers often come in saying they don’t need anything – and I always say you don’t come into an antique shop because you need something.”
As Will succinctly puts it: “The shop is full of things you want and don’t need.”
Find out more
Emmett & White, in Waterloo Square, Alfriston, is open every day except Wednesday from 10am to 5pm, and on Sundays from 11am to 5pm. Nick and Will are happy to open the shop by appointment.