DESIGNER ABIGAIL AHERN EMBR ACES HER DARK SIDE – AND THE RESULTS ARE JUST GLORIOUS.
Abigail Ahern views the world through an unusual spectrum. Once a fan of Scandi palettes and pale timbers, the influential British tastemaker now loves the rich intensity of the almost-black. Her signature style is an inky, swampy interior – infused with glamour, eclecticism and wit. “I’ve always loved dark, sultry tones,” she says. “It all started when I painted an alcove in my house about nine years ago, and that was it. That was my conversion to the dark side.”
In the hands of the diffident, dark hues can take on a sombre, funereal feel. But Abigail, naturally drawn to the potency of the palette, evokes a sense of the joyous, the vigorous, the unexpected. Against an inky wash, focus is sharpened, spaces given depth, tactility enhanced. Soft golds, rich reds and the deep greens of faux banana palms pop, oversized furniture takes on a dramatic and elegant presence, contrast is king, and the impact of lighting from multiple sources (“have more lighting than you ever think you’ll need” – that was her design tip at a 2017 design masterclass in Melbourne) is glamorous and seductive. Ignoring trends, Abigail has always been a designer who breaks the mould. “Pushing the boundaries is my thing – it always has been. It’s how amazing things happen,” she says. Her pioneering, experimental style has turned the Abigail Ahern shop into one of the UK’s top design boutiques and celebrity haunts – habitues include Gwyneth Paltrow, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and Jenna Coleman.
Abigail moved to the US with husband Graham Scott, and hilariously started her interior design career there when she landed a job with a firm who thought she’d designed the spaces featured in a Terence Conran book, rather than merely sourced the images for it. But her instincts were unerring, even as she pursued evening classes to hone her technical skills. She put her lavish touches on a range of private residences, as well as hotels such as The Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach, before returning to the UK, where she launched a retail business with florist sister Gemma in 2003 in London’s arty Islington.
Over the years, the sisters scoured the world for inspirational design pieces and artisanal talent, curating unique collections of faux flowers, vintage and market finds, and surreal, fantastic objets d’art based solely on what they would love to have in their homes. There’s also a capsule paint collection, as well as an Abigail Ahern / Edition accessories line at Debenhams.
“I always design off an emotion,” she says. “I figure out how I want a room to make me feel, and generally I want a room to make me feel cocooned, like I’ve fallen down this rabbit hole so I’m in this magical kind of sub-world. And then I kind of drill into what I need to do in order to create that magic, so I play around with scale, I make things disproportionate, I use lots of interesting textures, but I never theme it. It’s always based around an emotion for me and that’s how I get interiors that delight the senses.”
Those instincts put her in good, if chaotic, stead in her design of the family’s own four-storey east London 1860s terrace house, which is filled with 1950s’ curvaceous vintage chairs, elaborate chandeliers, eclectic artworks and shaggy rugs over floorboards. She co-opted her none-tooimpressed husband to help paint the house, darkly and hurriedly in 20 hours – wall to wall, floor to ceiling – when a photographer for Italian Elle Decor walked into the store one day to say they were flying a team over in three weeks to photograph it. Each dark shade is different but harmonious, adding a sophistication to the homeliness of worn leather and ragged wool (Abigail has an obsession with “scruffy”, from rugs through to dogs), rustic timber stools, and tables made from old African drums. Outdoors, she has applied the same interior principles – she curated the garden like it was another room in the house.
“My home is a showcase for all my experiments and products I have launched,” she says. “I hold my design masterclasses there, so it is completely in my design style. It is my design sanctuary – I love it!”
Abigail famously never measures anything, which can pose spatial challenges, given her penchant for oversized items. A life-sized faux camel she fell in love with took over the store for ages – “It was so big, it took out all the shelves, so no one could buy anything and its mouth went right up against the till where people were paying and everything; they had these massive big lips in their face” – before being sold to a hotel. She convinced herself a garden shed she bought off eBay for “100 quid, a bargain” would fit the space at the end of the garden. It didn’t – and the entire garden had to be revamped around the shed.
Against her impulsiveness, Gemma is the practical one, she says.
“I adore Gemma. She is my right-hand woman – the person I bounce ideas around with, who I travel with and who I laugh so much with. We have always had a close relationship and it is getting even better, the more we work together.
“We just have this intuition with each other, we know how we both are. There’s this unexplained thing that we have with our eye. Like at Christmas, we both bought each other a concrete penguin lamp from this really obscure store. And I’m like, ‘Here’s your penguin’, and she’s like, ‘Here’s your penguin’. How on earth? This store is so obscure, we never talked to each other about this store, and now we’re talking penguin.”
Much of her time today is devoted to travelling the world with Gemma for design inspiration, and building up the wholesale division of the store – China is an emerging market. She no longer does interior design projects, preferring to channel her creative energies into writing books on design and conducting masterclasses. Although her exuberant, off-the-cuff personality is tailor-made for TV, Abigail long ago swore off the small screen, ever since a miserable stint on UK TV as a design guru on a show about hoarders. Design these days is all about indulging her passion.
“I love what I do. I am passionate about my work, so that is what makes me tick,” she says. “I am a true believer that if you love what you do, then you’ll be the best at it.”
THE INFLUENTIAL BRITISH TASTEMAKER LOVES THE RICH INTENSITY OF THE ALMOST-BLACK. HER SIGNATURE STYLE IS AN INKY, SWAMPY INTERIOR – INFUSED WITH GLAMOUR, ECLECTICISM AND WIT.
ABIGAIL AHERN’S DESIGN MUSTS:
1. To knock your interior out of the park, ramp up the scale. I’m not talking about going out and buying the most expensive supersized chandelier on the planet. Even one oversized item will immediately elevate your whole space.
2. Colour is the most transformative and cheapest tool to use to update an interior.
3. In order to have the coolest pad on the planet, every room should have a bit of contrast. When opposing things mesh and mash together, you create a really compelling scheme.
“MY HOME IS A SHOWCASE FOR ALL MY EXPERIMENT S AND PRODUCTS I HAVE LAUNCHED. I HOLD MY DESIGN MASTER CLASSES THERE... IT IS MY DESIGN SANCTUARY – I LOVE IT!”
text MIRANDA TAY