Homes: Inside a period property with personality
Both Jo and Peter Thorndike left lifelong rat-race careers to turn their personal passions into a profession. Now working as “kick-ass stylists and vintage clothing purveyors”, the couple’s Steeple Bumpstead home is testament to their creativity, as Alice Ryan discovers
Seen from the kerbside, Portobello Cottage looks much like other properties of its period: thatched roof, peaked gables, sliding sashes, white-washed weatherboarding. Even the front ironwork fence and box-hedged knot garden speak of tradition.
Cross the threshold, though, and it’s clear this cottage is anything but traditional. Dating from 1660 in the earliest part, the 1970s in the latest, it’s home to Jo and Peter Thorndike, founders of styling, floristry and vintage fashion brand VV Raven, and every room is a riot of creativity and colour.
Ornaments include a golden stag’s head wreathed in fairy-lit foliage and perched upon by a parrot; a pair of cast iron American eagles; a gilded vintage ‘tattoo’ parlour sign. The walls are painted aubergine purple in the sitting room, chilli red through in the open-plan kitchen/dining room (and it really *is* chilli red: the Thorndikes scanned a pepper into the Homebase paint mixing machine to achieve just the right shade).
“When we moved in, it was cream carpets, beige walls. . . all very calm and lovely,” says Jo. “But we did an interior design course with Abigail Ahern and, though I know this sounds ridiculous, it changed our lives.”
Known for her statement-making style - her flocked animal busts and lamps are design icons - Ahern’s London HQ was hailed as “one of the coolest stores” in the world by Elle Decoration and “Wonderland” by the New York Times. Little surprise, then, that her course proved formative.
Jo and Peter have a magpie’s eye for interesting pieces: the tattoo sign came from Saffron Walden’s Reed & Son antique shop; a pair of rococo chairs, reclaimed from a French chateau, were bagged on eBay for £30; a set of portraits by street artist Pure Evil were a gallery splurge.
There’s a moment at the end of famed TV series Breaking Bad, adds Jo, where Walt - the chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook - “says he didn’t do it for anyone else, he did it for himself; he did it to feel alive. That’s the approach we’ve taken with the house. You could say that’s the approach we’ve taken full stop, actually.”
Rewind five years and both Jo and Peter were in corporate roles - she in planning management, he in sales. For Jo, the untimely death of a friend prompted her to reassess: “It was that classic ‘now or never’ moment. The day after I left my old job, I got out of bed and said ‘Right, I’m a florist now’. I honestly just went for it.” And so VV Raven, in its first iteration solely as a floristry business, was born.
Peter followed suit, marking his 50th birthday by leaving his high-pressure job and intending to give himself some time to decide what next. And that’s when the curve-balls started coming: his mother was given a terminal cancer diagnosis, he spiralled into a breakdown, and then Jo found out she had breast cancer.
“It was like I left my job and then everything just fell apart; I fell apart,” says Peter, who, since recovering, has become an advocate for men’s mental health. “I’d never experienced anything like it before and, honestly, it was terrifying. As a man in my 50s that was totally shut down, I’ve realised how important it is to talk.”
While Jo had enjoyed making other people’s floral dreams come true, she found herself wanting to push creative boundaries: “Why would you want to keep doing things which other people have done before?”
Undergoing her cancer treatment when the pandemic broke, she says both she and Peter took time in lockdown to think about what they truly wanted to do.
First diversifying VV Raven to offer event and photoshoot styling - in fact she styled Velvet’s cover shoot this month - Jo’s mind turned to two other passions: fashion and sustainability.
“When I say ‘fashion’, I don’t mean that I follow catwalks and designers, rather that I love clothes and their ability to make the wearer feel great,” she explains. “I know so many women who say ‘I love that print/colour/shape, but I could never get away with it’ - to which my answer is ‘Why not?’”
With recent Greenpeace research showing that 5% of the UK’s total annual carbon and water footprint is caused by clothing consumption - it generates a staggering 1.2billion tonnes of CO2 each year - Jo wanted to create a planet-friendly collection.
So, working with a local seamstress, she began sourcing preloved and vintage pieces and adapting them for the modern wearer: letting out unfeasibly tiny waists, lifting cumbersomely long hems. Being a skilled draughtsman - the couple met, aged 17, while working for an architecture practice - Peter also started hunting down old military jackets and customising them with tattoo-style art and slogans.
The result is VV Raven’s beautiful, bespoke and eminently wearable Refashionista clothing line. As well as selling direct, the couple plan to host a series of Refashionista pop-ups, starting this side of Christmas. “Seeing someone wearing our clothes and smiling because they feel good? That’s the reward,” says Jo.
Having both recovered from life-altering ill-health, “it’s a cliche, but a cliche for a reason: these things really do make you think about what matters,” Jo adds. “We both felt a need to be creative and to do something joyful - and that’s what our new venture is really about.”
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More by this authorAlice Ryan