The latest in our series of interior designer events saw former ELLE Deco editor Michelle Ogundehin joined by Abigail Ahern and Soho House Design Director Linda Boronkay at the Soho Home Store for a relaxed and intimate evening talking all things interiors. Michelle wanted to know exactly what it takes to make a great home brand and the audience of interior designers were keen to discover the lessons both Abigail and Linda have learned throughout their careers.

Michelle opened the conversation: ‘Abigail has a singular style and Soho House has a broader style – we want the tips, how is it done?! ‘Adjectival’ – when you own something, ‘that’s so Abigail Ahern’, ‘that’s so Soho House’… Is it essential to have a recognised brand before you launch? Would Soho Home succeed without the Houses?’

Linda said: ‘We got so many enquiries from members and non-members who saw pictures of the clubs and asked for this. Aesthetics are important but functionality is too – that’s why we started designing our own things. The Soho House ‘look’ is residential, always vintage and antique furniture (at least 40% in every room), comfort, layering fabrics and textures, lighting – dimmed, moody, atmospheric. This is the DNA and the overarching aesthetic that we follow, then it also depends on the location – the city, the building – and the demographic. For us the client is the member. Happy accidents happen – when you have an aesthetic and you like something they just work together.’

Abigail explained how her brand evolved: ‘I was an interior designer and stylist and I couldn’t find things I wanted to use so that’s why I started the store. It was six years of hard graft, then I painted an alcove dark and told Italian ELLE Deco the whole house was like that and spent about three weeks painting it and buying all new furniture before they came to shoot it! That really put us on the map. It was never planned but that was the first step of changing the perception.

I am my client – if I’m going to design something I need to be able to put it in my house or it’s not going in the store. It’s selfish, but I can only love or hate something and that’s what I’m known for. When I launched 14 years ago everything was quite homogenous and I just wanted things that make your heart sing. When I painted that alcove dark, I fell in love with colour – it makes everything pop, it was transformational. There’s no going back, I can’t come back from the dark side! You have to have trust in what you do. At the beginning I tried to appeal to too many people and we didn’t make any money. I didn’t love what I was selling, so I gave myself a talking to and realised it needed to delight me rather than appeal to everyone in this room.

I don’t care if dark interiors are ‘over’ – I’m not interested in trends, I just have to design something that brings me joy and generally that will appeal to others too. I have my blinkers on, I’m immune to trends. You’re aware of them and you can fall into them, but I don’t follow them. My store feels like my house, it feels so personal. I’m not allowed in the store when it’s open because I’m so attached to everything!’

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Abi: ‘It’s annoying when other brands copy your look but you’re a creative, you stay one step ahead. And they can’t copy your narrative. I’ve made SO many mistakes and generally something better has come from it. The first was taking a tiny store down a backstreet and assuming people would be camping out to get in! I realised I had to go onto the high street to get known. And trying to appeal to everyone and not having a specific eye. I think it’s great to have a romantic vision – I certainly did – but it’s not a hobby. I work really long hours, it has to be profitable. Because the brand is me and I’m the brand, it’s easier to do my own Instagram etc. I wear many hats. Because I’m so obsessed with interiors, although it’s hard work, I love creating spaces that make you linger longer.’

Interiors in Your DNA?

Linda: ‘For me other disciplines are often more interesting than interiors – my inspiration often comes from the feeling I get when I watch a movie or listen to music. I was going to be a fashion designer but my mum was an antiques collector and my father is an architect. I worked for a short time in fashion but realised I wanted more.’

Abi: ‘What we’re both trying to do is bring an atmosphere to interiors – we design with a mood in mind. I’m obsessed with having this underlying tension – masculine and feminine, fancy and friendly, grit with glam – that’s where the magic is. The more you mix, the more beautiful it is.’

Team Spirit

On hiring a team, Abigail learned her lessons early on: ‘I wish I’d hired really experienced people. You’re nothing without your team – having a really experienced team who know more about SEO, marketing etc is crucial. But everything has to go through my filter. I’m never going to subcontract out the designing – when it’s your name, you have to sign absolutely everything off.' Michelle added ‘Lots of people can offer you a service but only you can give them the brief. It’s a bit like finding a plumber or editing the magazine – only you see the world the way you see it. You have to get more articulate. Don’t tell people what to do, tell them what you want them to achieve – it doesn’t matter how they do it.’

Changing Roles

Linda said ‘Deep down we’re designers but most of your time is spent managing and on organisation. It takes a lot of effort training the team, getting to know them, mentoring them. It’s a lot of work.’ Abigail agreed, adding ‘I miss the creativity of the early days and I miss being in the store. I do try to go into the store, otherwise you’re just sitting at your desk dealing with problems. I really wanted to push and get it out there and I did, and it wasn’t quite what I expected.’

Linda explained that each House is rooted in its location and that filters through to the Soho Home collection: ‘With Amsterdam the lead architect lived there for a year – it was so inspirational, getting to know the culture. It’s the same in Mumbai – finding local craftspeople, bespoke block tiles, saris into lampshades. It takes time and luckily we have that luxury. We embrace the local nature of every single House. The level of detail that truly represents the culture. Nowadays everything is so mass-produced, it’s nice to create something that has meaning and substance. Of course we’re inspired by and affected by trends, but we’re designing spaces that need to last for decades.’

Michelle summed things up: ‘So the essence of a successful brand is being authentic, having a strong narrative and a vision. But you have to have a physical space – the Houses, Abi’s home – to help people “get it.”’

Soho Home Store

Our store in Shoreditch is the place to see and shop our bestsellers and pieces from our Amsterdam and White City collections, as well as join workshops and talks on interior design.