The story of my unconventional career as an interiors stylist, writer and designer


Emily Wheeler 2

I thought I would write a longer post about my career as an interiors writer and stylist, so you can get to know me a little better. It’s turned out to be really quite a lot longer, so maybe settle down with a nice cup and tea and put your feet up if you can!

As a child, I was lucky to grow up in a home that my mum made special, personal and homely. My mum went to theatre school and loved set design and although she went on to be a primary school teacher for a while (we’ve had weirdly parallel careers, although I became a social worker – more on that later), she was always redecorating our home and had a very theatrical but welcoming style. She also taught me the value of buying vintage and rescuing and mending discarded furniture – she was the original stylish skip diver and fearless DIYer, in her high heeled espadrilles! I remember after my parents divorced and we first moved to London when I was only five years old, she wanted to make our bedroom somewhere fun and exciting and she spent hours painting a huge rainbow mural across the wall. It was the best thing to come home to and I loved it!

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Me, Mum and my little brother around the time we moved to London.

Although in those days mum taught at the same local primary school that we went to in Hackney in London, at weekends she sold small antiques and trinkets on a stall in Camden Passage in Islington. We sometimes used to go with her and soon got used to spending hours sitting under the table, or on a hard little stool while she sold her wares. The other antique dealers were an exotic, eccentric bunch and there was a wonderful sense of camaraderie. Years later, after she had left teaching, she had her own antique shop there and I would help on buying trips to antique markets across England and France and I learned a lot about styling from merchandising the shop, which was full of beautiful French and Scandinavian antiques. Our family home was a location for shoots by then, but it was in the shop that I met lots of interiors stylists after I left university, because they would often come in and borrow things. I had been working as a journalist on a start up news platform and it seemed a natural step to become an interiors stylist for magazines and so that’s what I did, first by working unpaid as work experience after sending off countless CVs and then by assisting once I’d got a foot in the door.

Assisting on interiors shoots was a dream come true. My first real homes shoots were with Mary Weaver, now the Homes Editor at Living Etc. Mary was freelance and she kindly let me come along and learn the ropes. Later, I got experience assisting on shoots at Living Etc magazine itself, under the former editor Suzanne Imre, and I loved the buzz of finding and calling in the products, unpacking the props and watching as the art director and photographer weaved their magic, before meticulously packing it all up again. I got to work in some amazing locations, including Abigail Ahern’s beautiful home when it was white and minimal, and I loved every minute.

Although all this was a lot of fun and a complete dream come true, the reality was that making my way in London as a young assistant stylist was a tough business and I wasn’t in a position to live at home with my parents, which is what lots of people do when they’re starting out. I decided I needed a ‘proper job’ and would train as a teacher because I loved writing and had tutored some kids who lived near me, so I figured I would make a great English teacher. It was at this point I fell into becoming a social worker when I was getting experience working with children and was offered a job in children’s social care. I had been looking for an alternative career that gave back and was centred around the values of kindness and compassion and this was it. I loved it and they paid for my second round of university training and so began several years of child protection social work, still helping my mum with her business at weekends and whenever I could.

I learned so much as a social worker during this time. I had been quite shy and lacking in confidence and it was an amazing supportive environment to learn in, because social workers are a compassionate group of people doing the hardest job in the most difficult of circumstances. My confidence grew enormously as I found ways to deal with situations I could never have dreamed I would find myself in, day in and day out. And I loved working with children and their families, finding ways to overcome their difficulties together.

I also knew I wanted to start a family and being a front line social worker isn’t easy if you’re pregnant or have young children yourself and by now I was a manager, which brings its own challenges. I decided to take a sabbatical and return to my love for interiors, so I applied to the world renowned KLC School of Design in London to study interior decoration. I did an intensive course and although I probably didn’t need to do it to be able to make the move into design, it gave me confidence and was a good foundation for doing more in depth interiors work. It was then, ten years ago, that I started this blog.

When I qualified I was lucky to be offered several design jobs, which I took with my heart in my mouth due to nerves and just ran with! The first was for the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, who I had met though the shop. She had recently moved to a new house near where I was living and had heard I had just finished my training. I researched the latest eco house technology for her, which was fascinating and great experience, and helped to plan her home’s redecoration, which was an a wonderful opportunity.

Emily

Next I went to assist the interiors editor at the Telegraph magazine and learned a lot about interiors journalism. I helped out generally wherever I was needed, put together product pages, researched and assisted on shoots, liaised with PRs and photographers and wrote short pieces for the Saturday magazine. I also worked shifts managing staff on the NSPCC Helpline in the evenings and at this stage I was pregnant with our first child. I’m telling you this because the reality of a lot of this work before Instagram, was that it was hugely rewarding but also really hard work and not very well paid. So you really needed to be dedicated or lucky to survive – preferably both!

And then I had our baby. I worked right through after a short break, on my laptop with him napping or playing at my feet. Soon after, I helped redesign a whole block of voice-over studios in an enormous building in Soho, which was a huge learning curve; took on several small residential projects, styled promotional images for interiors brands and was writing this blog almost daily, gathering an engaged and dedicated readership when interiors blogs were a very new thing (this was in 2010). I didn’t feel I could pass up any work opportunities in case no one ever asked me again, which I think is very common for anyone starting out as freelance, but I loved the work and was so thankful for the amazing opportunities coming my way.

When my son was about a year old I went to stay with my mum, who had moved to France by then, for a break. A second cousin, Ingrid, who I hadn’t really seen since we were babies was also visiting and we got chatting about interiors work. She was (still is) an incredible interiors photographer and was looking for a new stylist and writer to collaborate with. A dream partnership was born and we spent the rest of our stay shooting test images together, some of which are still in both our portfolios to this day, we love them so much.

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Ingrid and me (photograph: Ingrid Rasmussen)

On returning to London, we pitched some interiors real homes stories to publications and soon I was styling and writing a new home story for magazines almost weekly. The hardest part was finding the houses that would be interesting  and beautiful enough for editors to want to publish them and with owners who wanted to be featured, but it turned out I was really good at it and my career as a writer and stylist really took off. I loved the process of researching and finding the houses, styling them, working with a photographer and then writing the story to go with the pictures. I’ve been lucky to produce stories about so many truly beautiful and inspirational homes, working regularly for the Guardian Weekend, Stella, Sunday Times Style, The Simple Things and many other interiors magazines.

It wasn’t long before we decided to pitch for our first book together and in late 2013 Creative Living London was published. It was two years in the making and saw us photographing 34 incredible homes across London, with me styling the houses and writing the words while Ingrid took the photographs.

Book Cover

What an amazing time that was. To be privileged enough to be invited into the homes of some of London’s most well known creative talents, to have free reign to style those homes and photograph them with Ingrid and then to interview the owners as well was a dream come true. I met the most incredible people including the fashion designers Zandra Rhodes and Ally Capellino; the make up artist Lisa Eldridge; the bridal designer Kate Halfpenny; the interior designer Jo Berryman; the architect Chris Dyson; the organics entrepreneur turned interior designer Jo Wood; the product designer Marc Newson and his wife Charlotte Stockdale and many more less well known but equally inspirational creatives, all with beautiful and truly individual homes. I really poured my heart and soul into into Creative Living London – I’m incredibly proud of it and many people tell me it’s their favourite book for interiors inspiration, which makes me so happy.

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Our second baby was born the week Creative Living London was published and for the first year I did lots of press for the book, including book signing at the London Design Festival, and continued to shoot amazing homes, often with baby in tow!

ROSIE 5029 and others

Although my career was riding the crest of a wave and looking back, I was really on the cusp of something seriously amazing, at home things were more difficult. We were living in a tiny rented flat (which I still managed to style well enough for it to make the cover of an interiors magazine and be featured in others – see below! It says ‘purchased’ but we were actually renting…) and by now had two small children.

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Pic above: Our rented flat in Kensal Green where I managed to fit a cot underneath a bunk bed to squeeze both the kids into the tiny bedroom! (Photography: Ingrid Rasmussen)

But  as I said, we were still living in a tiny flat and we had to make some tough decisions if we wanted to be able to buy a permanent home for our little family. Mortgages were almost impossible to get then if you were self employed and after lots of sleepless nights (not just because of the newborn) I decided that the only way we could possibly afford to buy our own house would be if I returned to a permanent full time job and this meant going back to being a social worker. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, especially as I was really making a name for myself in interiors by now and had lots of amazing opportunities coming my way.

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Pic above: Me on site in the loft when we had no roof!

At first I carried on writing and publishing stories when I could, interviewing home owners on the phone in the evenings after getting back from my job and putting the kids to bed, but it wasn’t sustainable. I could have blogged or instagrammed about our renovation but to be honest I was exhausted and living on a building site with two children under five while working five days a week in child protection again was all I could manage.

When I went back to social work, at first it was reluctantly, and I can’t say it wasn’t incredibly hard. I was still breastfeeding and was out conducting child protection enquiries on the other side of London, running home and looking after my babies amidst the dust and rubble, after a gruelling day at work on the front line in the poorest part of London. But then I fell back in love with the job and I remembered why I had loved it the first time around. Working alongside the most vulnerable families, with a dedicated team of professionals who were all committed to improving people’s lives, is a privilege and I was using my hard earned skills and knowledge again. And of course, we have created a beautiful home for our little family.

The move back to interiors again happened naturally, and having renovated an entire house top to bottom I never actually stopped! Working on our own home helped shape my own style even more definitively, while the social work gave me a renewed sense of perspective and compassion in everything I do.

I’ve been fortunate to have had features continue to be published through our agent; my book Creative Living London continues to sell well, gets great reviews and is stocked in the most beautiful stores all over the world, and over the past year I’ve taken on three interior design projects that came to me through word of mouth, all of which I’ve loved working on, including an incredible 1970s house that sold to the first viewers through The Modern House web site. You can see the whole house here. So my interior design practice has picked up where I left off, for which I am so grateful.

The Modern House
The Modern House

I know I have an unusual combination of skills with interiors and social work, but to me it makes perfect sense. Both are about supporting people to lead better, happier lives and both are often about the importance of feeling safe and happy at home. I feel passionately about how important our homes are to our physical and emotional well being and about sharing my knowledge and experience with others.

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Pic: Our loft bedroom, complete with new roof!

I am also working on two very personal projects and I am pouring my heart and soul into them both. The first is a community furniture project called Furnishing Futures, which will fully furnish the homes of families experiencing furniture poverty with upcycled and pre-loved furniture and you can read more about that here. If I wrote all about the project here, it seriously would be more like a novel than a blog post, so please do hop over to the web site to read about my work there. And the second is an online vintage and homeware store that I am getting ready to launch, called Kinship and Kind, which will support my work on the project and allow me to spend many happy hours sourcing the sustainable and beautiful vintage furniture that I love.

I’d always wanted to find a way to bring together my social work knowledge and experience about how to support people to improve their lives, with the magic of creating that special place called home, and now I think I’ve found it. 

So I’ll still be writing about all things interiors; shooting more wonderful homes for magazines; continuing to grow my soulful and sustainable interior design practice and continuing on the magical, never-ending journey that is creating our own place called home. I hope you’ll come along for the ride…

Emily x

 

 

NB: This post was edited after publication.