It is said that to be creative one must have an inner life, a kind of storehouse of impressions, ideas and feelings to draw upon and reinterpret. That notion certainly seems appropriate to Laura Oakes an artist and designer who is based in Rye and who seems happily and very productively immersed in the world of her own imagination and creation.
In past interviews Laura has said that she dresses for inspiration, that she loves vintage clothes (particularly Victorian) and bright colours and layers of pattern, so it's interesting to see that today she is wearing a long, pleated Stewart tartan skirt and white blouse with a black-edged Peter Pan collar teamed with a kind of 1950s hairstyle and cherry red lipstick. Pixie, Laura's dog, dances about our feet joyfully, stretching her tiny frame towards our hands in the hope of some attention. "She's a cross between a Jack Russell, a Chihuahua, and Italian greyhound," explains Laura, who admirably manages to keep a straight face until I query the presence of greyhound in the mix. Pixie is possibly the most aptly named dog I've ever encountered. She really is tiny and when Misty, the black and white cat, sinuously curls her way around the door, it's clear that even she dwarfs this endearing little dog.
The first room that I see in this classic weatherboard cottage is the kitchen. Smelling of fresh coffee and with a homely feel, it is largely composed of individual unpainted dressers and chests of drawers rather than fitted units. There are vintage cookbooks and tea towels, and a Lilliputian 1940s enamel miniature cooker, complete with tiny baking sheets and kettle. The walls display several framed pictures of cottages and houses both painted and embroidered. "I collect them as I love the 1940s and 50s pictures of idealised cottages, gardens and farms. The colours are really vivid and cheering."
Along the windowsills there are assorted zinc buckets planted with hyacinths and on the walls between, a striking yellow, red and black theatre programme from The Toy Drum Major, a musical from 1925, has been framed. On the opposite wall there is a poster that exhorts the viewer to KILL YOUR TV, LOVE YOUR TOWN, BAKE A CAKE... and KEEP IT WONKY. It is printed in bold scarlet and black in a variety of typefaces, almost like a printer's sample sheet. "That's from Adams in Rye," says Laura. "The man who runs it has one of the last proper letter press printing machines in the country.
I get all my business cards printed there and it's fascinating if you go to the back of the shop, you can see his little workshop where he produces some beautiful, amazing things." There is a small picture of a heart made from butterfly wings, mounted on a newspaper cutting with the words 'There is a place for you...'. "That was made for me by Marcus, who owns McCully and Crane in Rye," says Laura. "It's a really fascinating shop that's full of unusual furniture and objects."
There are other personal pictures made by Laura for her husband Jamie, and a print of an installation artwork that she produced for the London Underground. "The posters were displayed at the side of the escalators and the image was based on the idea of shoes in test tubes."
"We lived and worked in London for several years and I used to create quite a lot of installations and sculpture. I really admire Rachel Whiteread and Anish Kapoor, but I originally trained as an illustrator before going to Saint Martins to do a postgraduate course in Communication Design. I think that's why, as a designer I come from a slightly different angle, working within a sort of narrative, so all the things I produce, whether they are pictures, cushions, lampshades or pieces of furniture tell a story. Although I'm a designer and pattern maker I don't produce patterns with repeats. They're all pieces in a long-running tale. I'm really interested in the 'past life' of things.
I like to re-use furniture for instance, to re-invent it and add a new layer to its story. I often take on commissions that I call 'Make a Dream' and I use personal items that evoke memories for my clients. Things like theatre tickets, letters, treasured images, I make a kind of layered collage of things that are important to people so they can have a totally bespoke piece of furniture or art. I love working down here in Rye. London really didn't suit me at all.
People here are so enthusiastic and supportive, there's a real buzz to Rye now and I have a new shop and studio in Wish Street, so people come in to see me and my work. That has taken a bit of getting used to because I normally work in quite a solitary way. I'm fairly shy and get so immersed in what I'm doing that sometimes I realise I'm still working at three o'clock in the morning, but people here are so nice and seem really pleased to have so many creative things going on so it's actually really nice to have that interaction.
"Living just outside the centre of the town gives me the best of both worlds because I can go walking first thing in the morning with Pixie. It's so peaceful and private, I can even throw a coat over my pyjamas and step into my wellies and we're off. I'm always on the lookout for natural objects and things to collect that I can use for my work and here I have the chance to do that every day. Jamie and I are trying to make sure that we go to the beach more often too. It's so close by and the light from the sea is wonderful. We're both originally from Brighton so we're used to living in a slightly quirky town where the land comes to stop and just gives way to the sea beyond. I love the way the rivulets meander through the flat marshes here and the feeling that the walled town is a kind of fortress on the hill."
As we move into the dining room Laura explains that the house is rented by her and Jamie, so some of the furniture belongs to the owner. "I fell in love with it as soon as we saw it. We can't make fundamental changes to the décor, but that's fine because I can still dress it according to the seasons or just my whims." The long dining table is covered with a blue runner and between scented candles, a large white china pot stands in the centre, filled with an arrangement of blue and white flowers including salt dusted sea kale and thistles from Café des Fleurs in Rye. On the wall behind, a large Indian carved fretwork screen supports a collection of hats and favourite postcards have been pegged to a line of string across it.
On the opposite wall, the mantelpiece above an old miniature range supports brightly painted kitsch statuettes of Jesus and Mary as well as a collection of handblown bottles and jars and a garland of fuschia and lime green silk flowers. A standard lamp stands in the corner sporting one of Laura's large printed lampshades. "I sell everything on my website, but also Liberty stock the full range including the lampshades, cushions and mugs," says Laura.
Liberty, traditionally the department store most interested in innovative art and design, seems the natural home for Laura's work, but there are other retailers interested too. "I'm very keen that my products should be British made and that the raw materials are carefully sourced," she adds. "Of course I'd like my work to be more widely available, but retailers tend to want large quantities and mass production is not really what I'm about, so it's important to maintain the right balance in these things. I want to be able to explore ideas and experiment, to keep that creative edge."
In the sitting room the arrival of the new year and sudden absence of the Christmas tree prompted Laura to create what she calls her Spring Blossom Tree to compensate. A fallen branch has been potted up and gaily decorated with a vivid mix of brightly coloured fabric and plastic flowers, strings of costume jewellery, fabric and ribbons. A huge mirror is propped up against the wall behind it, magnifying the effect. "I made 'bunting' too from strips of vintage fabric and assorted travel scarves to hang across the window while the sky is still rather wintry. It's all about colour and layers of colour and pattern for me. You probably noticed that all the china and glassware on the dining room dresser are individual pieces. I don't like sets of things. In fact I don't even wear matching earrings. The thought of it makes me feel a bit sick!"
The furniture in the sitting room largely belongs to the couple and demonstrates Laura's love of the one-off. There is a 1940s wood and cane bergère style chair with a pony skin covered cushion and a bright tea towel print of Western Australia over its seat. A rococo style sofa is upholstered in claret coloured velvet and dressed with a patchwork quilt and crocheted, appliquéd and printed cushions including one that positively vibrates with pure colour. "That's Hum to the Birds," adds Laura. "Before I launch them I always put my new designs in the house to see what they're like to live with."
A leather art deco chair faces the inglenook fireplace where Stuart, the man who takes care of all the maintenance jobs around the house and garden has built an extraordinary 'caged' fireplace. Mounted on brick, the hearth is elevated to knee height and the metal mesh doors at the front of the structure can be opened or closed for safety. There is a 1950s globe and children's annuals from the same era are piled on a side table - yet more source material for Laura's work.
Upstairs we head first for the snug - a first floor sitting and reading room where Laura also keeps some of the fabrics that she can't resist accumulating. On the wall above the sofa two wooden tennis racquets have been mounted and between them Laura has hung two rows of daintily pretty dolls' clothes. "I bought them at an auction, for scanning in as reference and I really wanted to display them so I used them like this and used more to create an artwork in the guest bedroom called "What Shall I Wear Today?"
I follow Laura into what is meant to be the guest room, but with so many vintage clothes and accessories on display is really more of a 'boudoir'. "The bed was handmade and decorated with gold leaf by my friend Ralph Levy who produces pieces for Designer's Guild and runs the 'handmade house' in Lewes where he runs brilliant courses in ironwork and ceramics."
On the tables either side of it, little lamps have shades with Laura's signature collaged patterns. A Victorian lace bodice hangs alongside a shell pink 1920s gown and a tailor's mannequin wears a frilly skirt. "I buy a lot of things from Hayley at 'Little Treasures' in Hastings Old Town. She finds some amazing things and I love to go there and try all sorts of things on."
A birdcage on the top of the wardrobe is adorned with feathered and painted papier mâché birds. "My aunt Sharon made those for me. She worked on the restoration of Brighton Pavilion and my neighbour, Lottie, made the bunting that's across the window as a birthday present for me."
A little door in the wall opens on to what Laura calls her 'alpine bathroom'. Certainly reminiscent of a ski chalet, it has pine clad walls, vintage ski posters and a pair of deer antlers from Classic Chaps in Rye. There are also framed photographs of treasured family ski trips. "I even kept a pair of skis in here at one point, but I kept bumping into them, so for once practicality won over aesthetics!" laughs Laura. At the far end of the bathroom another door opens out into Laura's small but very tidy dressing room which in turn gives onto the couple's bedroom. Here we find Misty curled up at the end of the bed in that entirely relaxed manner at which cats excel.
She is determinedly ignoring Pixie who is sniffing at her in the vain hope of a game. Luckily for Pixie, Kate, a young student who is doing work experience is willing to take her for a short walk while Laura shows me her studio in the garden.
"There was an old falling down shed here before, so Stuart said he would replace it with a structure that I could use to work in, so I was really lucky to be able to choose what it would be like. Having white walls and the pale limed floor means it's a really good plain backdrop for me to photograph things and it's a great space to plan and think." One of Laura's large Perspex panels, titled 'Indian Summers', rests against one of the walls, opposite a chair from Hunter Jones in Rye, a 1960s doll's house and a workbench with Perspex top that features Laura's Britain's Best design on its surface. An asymmetric pattern composed of exotic flowers and decorative scrolls, it has one of Laura's aims printed across it 'All that's best in Britain...'