STANDING in her kitchen, looking chic in a retro roll neck and 1970s maxi dress, Orla Kiely may have a black book of contacts in the interiors world as big as the Yellow Pages, but today she is enthusing about bargain hunting on eBay.
Engulfed in a riot of fearless 1970s patterns, the mismatched chairs that sit round the dining table, from Robin Day originals to airport waiting-room seats, were all personally sourced by Orla on one of her many adventures in the online auction house. Someone, somewhere is selling their furniture at a knock-down price to one of the biggest names in homeware, and they don’t even know it.
‘I’m quite good on eBay,’ she says modestly, her Dublin accent coming and going. ‘You can get seconds on eBay, vintage on eBay, it’s great for that — that’s where I get a lot of my stuff. If I’m honest, I’m better at “buy it now”; I do bid, but to me it’s more about finding things using the right search terms. It’s all about the words.’
‘Mid-century’ could be one of those search terms, since the apartment is packed with a deft mixture of 1950s, 1960s, and Orla’s trademark 1970s oversized patterns. From some angles, it looks like the set of an antique childrens’ TV show — in a good way — all fun and functionality, with a place for everything. The tiles on the kitchen wall are bespoke and the flowers each take up four of them.
Orla even made a model of the apartment when she was planning it, along with tiny scale tiles to see if they would fit without any unsightly seams. ‘There is a reason people don’t have tiles everywhere!’ she says.
The bathroom’s 360-degree, green, wraparound tiles proved particularly difficult to finish without one crashing into the other when it met on the way round. The tiles are Orla’s own design and made in Morocco.
‘Like any designer, I am a perfectionist and like things to be the best they can,’ she continues. ‘My vision was patterns, and I am a great believer in committing myself and not doing things in a half-hearted way. I wanted it to be impactful, but still very considered. The colour is balanced, the tiles are strong — it’s brave in a way, but still very classic.’
Orla doesn’t live here all the time, either. The apartment just off Clapham High Street was converted by her and her husband Dermott Rowan from the company offices two years ago and is used as a pied-à-terre, guest flat and for the odd party.
It was purpose built as offices but turned into four flats; the top one, this one, being retained by Orla. It was an empty shell, so she was able to envisage the exact layout of the rooms. ‘I wanted to make sure we had as big a living space as possible,’ she recalls.
There is one big living room as you come in, a simple rectangle. The door at the back, like all the internal doors in the flat, is bigger than the standard size. This was specified by Orla, despite grumbling by the builders.
‘I feel like it opens up the space,’ she says. ‘I was pushing the builders out of their comfort zone but they rose to the challenge.’
The table that Orla is leaning on is a proud DIY project. Because of the polished, shiny wooden kitchen she didn’t want a real wood table — ‘that would have been a clash’, she says — so she got a table top made with ply and laid lino on top. Then she bought black table trestles and the custom piece was ready to go. ‘I made it as long as I wanted and and it’s so functional. Don’t be afraid to do it yourself and use materials in a way not expected. Lino doesn’t have to be on the floor.’
At the other end of the room is a radically different feature — a bookshelf with distinctive long slices of wood, bought from friends and made from a tree in Ireland. ‘This is literally a tree,’ she says. ‘The shelves are black metal but the sides are real.’
The main living room opens out via large dark doors onto a terrace, giving the sense of a 1970s conservatory in the summer. The ceiling is deliberately dark — a great tip for anyone who wants a feeling of space, she says. ‘An architect said to me don’t be afraid of colour or dark ceilings as they make a space look bigger. In the evening it is really cosy and in the day, really big. People think a white ceiling makes it seem bigger but you are always aware of it.’
Apart from the Kiely patterns on the bedspread, the bedrooms are a little less eccentric than the living room. The standout element is a cork floor that seamlessly continues up the wall behind the bed.
Orla’s overall interiors philosophy, she says, is that we should live in a space which makes us feel happy. Don’t try to please anyone else. ‘I guess [the apartment] has my feel, an Orla feel, I suppose,’ she muses.
‘I think it’s quite a happy feel — whether you’d want to live in it or not! But it has a quirk — it’s quite an eyeful but I love patterns. You have to follow your instincts and do what you believe in for it to succeed.’
The SS18 L’Orla Resort collection, from Leith Clark x Orla Kiely, will be available to buy at Selfridges from November 28
Orla Kiely: A Life In Pattern will be at London’s Fashion & Textile Museum from May 25 to Sep 23, 2018 ftmlondon.org