Interior designer Kathryn Rayward and antiques expert Mark Hill, from BBC Two’s Cracking Antiques, tell BBC Programme Information‘s Tony Matthews about their plans to fill people’s homes with individuality and vintage quality.
Recessions, what are they good for? Not much, but if there’s one thing an economic downturn does encourage it’s thrift and a fresh approach to consumption.
“The housing market gets tough in a recession and people tend to move less,” says Kathryn Rayward, the presenter of BBC Two’s Cracking Antiques, which aims to inspire viewers to seek out style and glamour in vintage furnishings. “They also become more imaginative and start to fill their homes with personality again. The best and cheapest way to do that is by buying vintage.”
Whether its Georgian furniture, the English country house look, Victorian eclecticism or stylish items from the mid-20th century, Kathryn and fellow presenter Mark Hill aim to show relative newcomers the joys to be had in picking up second, third- or even fourth-hand bargains and finding beauty on a budget.
“Antiques have a profile of being apart from everything else,” says Mark, “but the point of this show is to get people to realise that they are usable functional things that are often more sturdy and better value than modern, flat-pack furniture.”
They are also likely to be a more environmentally friendly option. “When you shop in chain stores, you should ask yourself what items are made from, where they come from and who made them,” he says. “With manufacture and shipping, the carbon footprint of furniture is huge; but with antiques that footprint was absorbed decades ago. We’re all aware of the environment, but perhaps less aware of the quality to be had in older pieces. I’m a great believer in using antiques for the purpose for which they were originally made. There’s nothing better than having a decanter from, say, 1690 and wondering where it was in Regency times or when Queen Victoria was crowned – everything has a history.”
While Mark is the resident 20th-century design and collectables specialist at Miller’s, having previously worked for Bonhams and Sotheby’s, Kathryn’s background is in theatrical design. She likes to experiment with pieces, dressing them differently and even re-finishing or painting them. “We shouldn’t be precious about antiques,” she says. “In each show I take an item, change it and give it a bit of TLC. We not only add value, but also make it fit better within the room.”
Describing themselves as “television newlyweds”, Mark and Kathryn bring different areas of expertise to the process of making homes beautiful without recourse to catalogue items. “I’ve long felt that there was room for a show about shopping off the High Street,” says Kathryn, “but it needed the antiques element as well, which is where Mark’s encyclopaedic knowledge comes in. We call it elegant economy and it’s the most glamorous form of recycling.”
Cracking Antiques, she says, came about partly as a reaction to the sterile look that swept through many British homes in the first decade of this century. “The obsession with property ladders and treating homes as a commodity to buy and sell quickly meant they were decorated so they wouldn’t be offensive to anybody. We ended up with homogenised homes that had nothing to do with the people who lived there… Britain was a soulless place because of that.”
Kathryn and Mark’s message to viewers is to “chuck fashionable out of the window” and take a braver, more personal approach. “Why should we fill our homes with things that have no relation to us?” he asks. “For people to express themselves in their homes is a fantastic freedom – it feels like a revolution. Whether it’s granny’s favourite tea set, things you remember from childhood or something picked up on holiday – everything should tell a story.”
The trend, Kathryn says, is towards “slow interior design”, where rooms and homes grow organically and constantly evolve. “Every time I open a Sunday supplement there are features about moving away from homogeny,” she says. “Cracking Antiques picks up on that, although it’s something we’ve both been doing for years.”
Their approach avoids being too structured or dogmatic. Some projects have a clearly defined look based on particular periods, such as the rococo boudoir in programme one, but others are much more open in their design theme, from shabby chic to Sherlock Holmes-inspired. “The lovely thing about being an interior designer,” says Kathryn, “is that some people have strong views and others don’t. There’s quite a lot of marriage guidance counselling involved because couples often don’t agree. You have to compromise and collaborate, which makes for more interesting combinations.”
Their inspiration comes from all over. Mark initially got the collecting bug from his grandfather’s stamp collection, but cites the rather more unlikely sources of BBC Television’s Lovejoy and Bagpuss as major influences. “I always had that urge to collect and to enjoy beautiful things but I was very inspired by those programmes,” he says, “I also grew up watching the Antiques Roadshow, so to now be part of it as one of the experts is great.”
Kathryn admits to driving her husband to distraction with her passion for collecting sofas. “I still do interiors that are quite theatrical but I also started selling antiques after living in France for a year. The French love anything flat pack and were throwing out all sorts of beautiful antiques, so I started buying them first for myself and then bringing them back in my rusty white van. Like Mark, my big problem is that I can’t bear to part with things.”
Meanwhile, Mark takes time out in each episode to discuss the potential of specialised pieces. “Value is important and markets constantly evolve and fashions change,” he says. “I have an ‘investing in’ spot where I look at something that’s not really in fashion, like 19th-century porcelain, but is due for a revival. It really is the best time to buy right now, you can find a solid mahogany Victorian chest of drawers for £150 to £300.”
So what does Mark look for in an antique? “Quality is the key,” he says. “And particularly with 20th-century pieces it’s about who made them. Look for something that represents its time. If something really shouts that it’s from the Fifties, say, it’s likely to hold or improve its value in future. Do your research, read books and get to know the names and what things should look like.”
After that, says Kathryn, it’s all down to putting in the miles and “much mooching” at fairs. “It’s a different way of shopping. If you see something on the High Street, you can umm and aah about it but, with vintage shopping, once it’s gone it’s gone and you always regret the ones you didn’t buy. There’s always the prospect of selling it on and, if you’ve bought wisely, you might even make money on it.”
Is there much chance these days of coming across a valuable piece for next to nothing? “It can happen,” says Mark, “but you’ve really got to do your homework. I’d pretty much stake my life that you’re not going to find a £30,000 Clarice Cliff charger [a decorative plate made by one of the leading figures in British Art Deco ceramics] in a car boot sale. But, if you get out and look long enough, statistically you will find things. A friend found a £3,000 Lalique Lampe Plafonnier for £200 in a boot sale. But our aim isn’t really to make money, although sometimes we do, it’s to save it. A new French rococo-style bed from a showroom, for example, would cost £3,000 but we found an original which we re-finished and re-upholstered for £500. We’re saving money all of the time.”
The hardest part, says Mark is convincing people to dip a toe in the water in the first place. “They don’t seem to mind spending £300 in a chain store, but are scared of committing to antiques. Once they get into it, it’s infectious – in fact, one of the ladies featured in the series has now become a vintage dealer in her own right.”
The key, he says, is to feel free to do what you want. “It is a leap of faith for many people, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable. We want to encourage people and show them that it will be all right.”