Fabric of life

“You respond to the environment and the colours around you,” she explains. “For the first 10 years my fabrics were based on natural forms, but now I’m becoming more edgy, pushing forward with block printing, abstract ideas.”

From cow yard to handmade home, the working house of fabric, wallpaper and furniture designer Vanessa Arbuthnott is a true rural idyll. LAURA ROWE parks up for a chinwag on the crying chair

Photos by Kirstie Young

I’ve always said that my first choice for a husband would be a chef, but an architect definitely comes a close second – and it seems Cotswold fabric designer Vanessa Arbuthnott had the same idea. She’s lived in Calmsden, on the outskirts of Cirencester, for the past 20 years along with her four children and her husband, who had the vision to turn The Tallet from a cow yard, with a corrugated roof and a herd of bovine buddies, into the dream farmhouse you see today.

“It was a big project, but my husband thought it would be fun,” recalls Vanessa, as she perches on a stool in front of her Everhot range oven (an AGA alternative made locally, near Dursley).

It’s a home that sings of Vanessa’s creativity – which, incidentally, only came to light after moving to the Cotswolds. It was this very building that inspired her to move into design.

“We wanted the kitchen to be a big room, and the nicest of the house, as we spend so much time in it. Food is about giving love,” says Vanessa.

There’s no drawing room in the sprawling home (which also plays host to Vanessa’s business, workshops, two of her adult daughters, and five artists as part of a residency that she runs) and the kitchen is the ‘living room’ for the family.

It was designed around a giant dresser, which Vanessa picked up at auction. The units were built around her father’s old tool cupboard. Not only was this a “cheap” kitchen to create, says Vanessa, but it is truly handmade and unique to the family.

Indeed, it’s so special a place that it’s attracted designers wanting to do photoshoots here, including Ann Grafton for Colefax and Fowler. Soon Vanessa was creating her own designs.

“You respond to the environment and the colours around you,” she explains. “For the first 10 years my fabrics were based on natural forms, but now I’m becoming more edgy, pushing forward with block printing, abstract ideas.”

Computers are banned from this room – it’s a place for family and all its idiosyncrasies. A bust of her father-in-law’s head, made by her daughter, lies on the mantelpiece with a wasp’s nest above it, and there’s a spotty red jug from the Alps that her mother gave her.

I ask if Vanessa can see herself living anywhere else.

“How’d we ever find a place like this?” she says.



Vanessa’s Kitchen Notes

Hometown: Kendal in Cumbria.

Occupation: Fabric designer, mother and artist residency organiser.

Must-have kitchen item: Non-stick pouring milk pan for my mid-morning milky coffee.

Go-to recipe: Jamie Oliver’s vegetable curry – I adore the taste of coconut.

I love the taste of: Shellfish cooked with ginger and garlic.

Coffee or tea: Fennel or liquorice tea.

Beer or cider: Cider, particularly Severn Cider in Awre, Gloucestershire, our local cider producer.

Five people I’d invite to a dinner party dead or alive: William Morris, Enid Marx, Lucienne Day, Mary White and Celia Birtwell – all amazing designers.

The look of my kitchen in three words: Recycled, reused, cluttered…

Kitchen uniform: Apron and wellies… there are two doors out into the garden and a wooden floor, so its fine to walk through the kitchen in your boots.

Midnight nosh: Toast and honey.

My kitchen is awesome because: We have a wood burner and cosy sitting end. Also, for my son George’s 18th, we sat around 30 down for dinner.

On my cooking playlist you’ll find: Simon & Garfunkel and J.S. Bach.

Secret skills: Listening. We have a chair by the Everhot that we call ‘the crying chair’. If anyone needs some TLC they come and sit there, have a cuppa and unload to me.

This weekend I’m going to bake… Bread and butter pud with the leftover crusts from the week, and a pork and apple stew, because we have so many cooking apples at the moment.

Unexpected item in my kitchen cupboard: Golf ball, curtain ring… all sorts of items in that drawer that has everything in it! Also, a washing line across the ceiling in the middle of
the room where we pin up all latest drawings and paintings and things with clothes pegs.

My fave five a day: Vegetables from our permaculture project in the garden: at the moment it’s squash, aubergine, tomatoes, rocket and parsley, which are all growing in our polytunnel.

Favourite condiment: Dipping sauce Balsamic vinegar.

If my kitchen could talk, it’d say… Tidy me!