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Home Front with Cate Burren

Cate Burren of Cambridge’s Angel and Blume Interior Design examines the tricky business of acquiring the right things for your home

It feels a crazy thing to say, in this modern world where we are overloaded with information, we receive deliveries moments after we hit the buy button and retailers are vying for our attention at every turn, but it can be a surprisingly tricky business knowing where on earth to buy things from.

I work hard with my clients, and in my own home, to figure out what ‘look’ we are trying to create and what layout of rooms will produce the best use of space in a home. When that work is done, it feels like the hard graft should be over but that is often not so. Finding exactly the right bath, table, lamp, fabric, whatever, can lead to frustration and a feeling of chasing the impossible when what is in your head will not seem to materialise in the shops.

In a bid to get the phrase ‘first world problem’ out of the way, I would argue that it is not just self-indulgence to say that when you make a purchase for your home you want it to be something that you really love. Often purchases for the home are expensive so on that basis alone, it is upsetting if the chosen item doesn’t live up to expectations.

Angel + Blume Glisson Road Project CREDIT Peter Bennett Photography (31221113)
Angel + Blume Glisson Road Project CREDIT Peter Bennett Photography (31221113)

I also think that something you are really happy with has a much greater life expectancy in your home than something you are indifferent about. A good piece of furniture should be with you for life and should then be passed on to someone else for them to enjoy. I think it is such a mistake for any purchase to be made with the view that it is cheap so ‘if I don’t like it, I can always change it’. I don’t object to cheapness (I really don’t) but I do object to something being purchased without any care.

So where do you get things from? The first thing to say is that you need to work out what you want, before you look at what is available. I know, I know – how can you know what you want if you don’t know the shops have on offer, I hear you say, but it is like Christmas shopping: if you don’t have a list, or any ideas for presents before you set off, you tend to have a miserable trip along the high street that results in random impulse purchases, that will probably be returned by you or the recipient.

Knowing for example, what style of sofa you like, what colour, size and functionality you want and an idea of your budget will inform you about where to go to find the item. I don’t think any of us want to spend our free time looking at every sofa in the vicinity in the hope of coming across exactly the right one.

The great thing is that there are endless suppliers out there and via the internet, we seem to have access to all of them. I do sometimes wonder if this is a blessing or a curse as the hours spent trawling for just what you want can wear down enthusiasm and can confuse to a point where you wouldn’t see the perfect piece if you happened to land on it.

I think that by starting off finding good suppliers that make items in your style (basically make things you like) is better than starting with a product search. To make the point, a search on google for ‘green lampshade’ produced 260 million (about) results. You will of course only trawl through the first few pages rather than looking at all 260 million, I hope, but you will certainly waste a lot of time and energy looking at things that are not right.

Interiors magazines or books that particularly reflect your style are a good place to start, and they will often have supplier lists at the back, edited by the magazine or publisher. There are some curated interiors directories online that are also useful such as The List at houseandgarden.co.uk or thehousedirectory.com. Local independent suppliers are utterly invaluable in providing something fresh and interesting and can be sourced in local magazines (of course!), community websites or embracing the old fashioned, highly effective, option of asking local people in the know.

So many of the things we buy nowadays we don’t see before we buy. I would always say that viewing a product before making a purchase helps to eliminate error but it is not always possible. Bathroom products are an example – there are so many on the market that no showroom could possibly stock all models and I recently contacted a manufacturer to find out where I could view one of their baths and was told there was only one on display in this country and it was in Inverness.

You often have to take a chance, but what you should always do is firstly check the details (dimensions, materials etc) and you may also be able to request a sample of the product (colour, fabric, wood etc). Then always check that you can return it, and how that will be done, if you don’t like it.

Another thing to remember is that you don’t have to buy everything ready-made. There are so many talented craftspeople out there who will make what you want from scratch. This includes the more obvious joiners who will make you everything from a bookcase to a staircase and those good with fabrics and a needle who can do your curtains, loose covers and cushions to the slightly less obvious blacksmith who can make a fire grate or a handrail or a stonemason who can make worktops, fireplaces or a piece of sculpture.

Getting something made means you can ask for exactly what you want. It also means that you are working with the expert who will make the item and who will give you all the benefit of their knowledge applied to your particular product. The result can be wonderfully satisfying.

Working out when you need to make purchases will help to provide breathing space with finding the right product. If you are in the middle of a project and the builder says that he needs tiles tomorrow, meaning you have today to choose and buy them, I would put hard-earned money on a poor decision being made. Work out before the project starts what you need to select and look at what the lead times are, which vary enormously and can restrict your choice.

If you are not buying for a project, it is up to you to work out what you want to buy when, but I would always say that waiting until you find the right thing is better than making a decision just to get the job done. After all, you may have to look at and use what you buy for a long time and if you get the wrong thing, it doesn’t really get the job off your to-do list.

I am afraid that I have painted a picture of hard labour to make good purchases, which I hope it won’t be for you, but whatever effort you put into your purchases will reap great rewards as you live with your finds, so I would urge you to grit your teeth, put the work in and then you can sit back and enjoy the interior you have created.

The dining furniture in this picture comes from a wonderful company called Joined and Jointed who make beautiful pieces of furniture that should be loved for a lifetime, and beyond - see joinedandjointed.com

Picture by Peter Bennett Photography

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