Over the Shop

Since opening her first store in the late 1970s, Helen Robinson has consistently been ahead of the game when it comes to cool locations for her to share her effortless sense of style. Her current project, SHOP in St. Leonards - a stone's throw from her home on Norman Road - is no different

Anyone with an interest in where the next cool place in the constant progress of urban regeneration/gentrification will be might want to get a satellite fix on Helen Robinson.

In the late 1970s she opened her first shop, for her fashion label PX - which was to the New Romantics what Vivienne Westwood's Seditionaries was to punk rock style - in James Street, Covent Garden. This was after Eliza Doolittle's market had closed - but long before anyone else saw its promise as a retail destination.

Her next stop was Endell Street (where milliner Stephen Jones had his first workshop in her basement) and when rents started to get silly there she headed - can you guess where? - east to Shoreditch, then Hoxton.

This was when Commercial Street, now home to every upscale brand from MAC to Chanel, was still a grotty dump of rag trade sweatshops and the adjacent Huguenot houses of Spitalfields were pretty much slums.

From there she made what seemed at the time - the early 2000s - another radical move: out of London to Hastings Old Town, before deciding on her current base: St Leonards-on-Sea, which must currently be one of the coolest regeneration hot spots on the whole planet.

Helen now lives - and trades - on Norman Road, a micro-neighbourhood worthy of a PhD study of the process of urban renewal. The western side, which we might in the New York style call WeNor, is a joy of independent shops, salons and cafés.

The most glorious of them is the corner spot Helen runs with her daughter Holly, as SHOP, selling a wonderfully mixed and gloriously displayed array of goods, in a casual perfection of chic bohemian style. Nothing pretentious, or overstyled - just right. It's one of those shops which makes you want to buy everything in it, or possibly just move in… Which makes it no surprise that Helen's own house has the same effect.

She's one of those people who puts a bowl of lemons on the kitchen table and it somehow looks like an art work - so you are immediately sure that your life would be perfect if you could buy exactly that bowl and those lemons…

So how did this lovely house - and shop - happen to be in this location?

"In 2007 I came down to St Leonards to have a look," she says. "I then found out that my grandmother had worked in St Leonards at Eversfield Hospital, as a TB nurse in 1910, that was the connection. I looked in the window of John Bray and thought 'how much?!' and bought a house in Croft Road in Hastings Old Town."

The move to St Leonards came in 2000 when Holly - following in her mother's fashion footsteps - wanted to open a clothes shop. "By then Hastings Old Town already had stupid shop rents," she says. "When a large corner space came up - it used to be occupied by Eras of Style antiques, now in Bexhill - we saw the potential and pounced.

"We took that over and I bought a very large apartment in a big house further inland in St Leonards. It was an amazing place - the whole ground floor - but it was too far out. I'm a city girl. I like the noise of a town and people passing. There were no shops, no community.

"I put it on the market and it sold immediately and I hadn't even thought where I was going to move to. Then early one morning, I saw this house in Norman Road online. I'd seen it before and I knew it was right for me."

The house is in a row of exquisite workers' cottages built in the 1830s by Decimus Burton, the great Georgian architect who designed Wellington Arch, Regent's Park Inner Circle, as well as the splendid buildings in this part of town, known as Burton St Leonards.

"The cottages were built for workers to live in while they constructed all the big houses. I knew it was perfect for me, because I love living above the shop - and this house is as close to living above SHOP as I could find."

But while the location and bones of the house were ideal, everything else about it was dark and ugly. "When I bought it everything was yellow and dark brown - even the window frames - with orange pine doors and floors. There was a nightmare 1980s gas fire which occupied a space in the newly-exposed sandstone wall, and the kitchen was dark brown wood and orange. The outside was pebble dash…"

But with her designer's eye, Helen could see beyond the dark brown and ginger pine to the simple elegance of the house beneath - starting with that pebble dash, which had to be chipped off by hand.

"I had a vision for it - I wanted it as light and white as possible and open - the whole Greek light thing. It was a massive amount of work and I'd never done it before. But if I want to do something, I'm driven to do it anyway. It was the same with SHOP. You have to speculate to accumulate."

Also giving her confidence, one great thing was in place - the ground floor had already been knocked through to create one large airy room.

"I just put double doors out to the courtyard, so you can see right through from the front door, which makes it look much bigger and brings in light from both sides. I also asked the builder to strip back the 1980s plasterboard from the back left corner to see what was underneath - and it was the original sandstone, so I've left it."

Apart from that, the main structural work Helen did was to remove the ceiling on the first floor, where the two bedrooms are, creating a lofty vaulted space, which completely transforms the cottage proportions. So rather than the pokiness so often found upstairs in small houses, the top floor of this one has the airy romantic feeling of a Paris garret.

Helen has played up this unexpected scale further by putting in an oversized vintage metal ceiling light, found at Ardingly antiques fair, at the top of the stairwell. On the landing wall is another surprisingly big - and therefore perfect - item; a portrait of Christopher Isherwood by Fraser Taylor, Helen's friend, that she bought during an art sale at renowned Soho restaurant L'Escargot, in the 1980s (when it was the most fashionable place to eat in town…).

Just as the top of the house is so much more spacious than you'd expect, down at the bottom of it, the lower ground floor kitchen has no basement feeling, because of the large window, looking out onto stairs leading up to the front of the house. Here is an area Helen has planted very boldly, with wooden box tubs of dramatic succulents and lavender, enclosing a front patio area with a table and chairs - a perfect spot for her to sit and watch the urban world go by, in this close community.

The kitchen itself is very simple, with a St Leonards junk shop table - "the only thing I could fit in" - and Greek-style rush seat chairs from IKEA. "These chairs have been every colour known to man."

The design is deceptively simple with white-painted Shaker-style cabinets, which look more like pieces of furniture than a built-in kitchen.

"It was built by a local carpenter - Mark Tomlinson - out of wood, not MDF. He also did all the windows. Helen added a new back door and tongue and groove panelling to go over the original sandstone walls, so they can breathe. That's how it would have been when the house was built. It had to be bespoke to get the right beading."

The kitchen floor is old scaffolding boards supplied by Hastings and Bexhill Wood Recycling Ltd., cleaned and waxed, read to lay straight onto the concrete.

Just about everything else in the kitchen - including that perfect blue bowl holding the lemons - is from SHOP. This includes the rack of wooden shelves by Garden Trading and everything in them: enamel bowls and jugs of various sizes, vintage cups and saucers and cook books. Even European floor brushes, similar to the one hanging on the wall above it, are for sale 100 metres down the hill.

Kitchen implements stored in colourful empty sardine and olive oil tins, vintage tin trays, an old French traffic sign, wartime Ministry of Information posters ('Tea revives you', 'Eat your greens') and a mix of those lovely bowls, add a cheerful blend of bright colours, also reflected in paintings. The one of a tiger in a jungle on the stairs, was created by Holly for a competition when she was five and was subsequently displayed in the Commonwealth Institute.

It's from this wonderfully diverse collection of vintage and personal objects, where all the colour in the house comes. No feature wallpaper walls here.

"I love colour," says Helen, "but not painted on walls. I like all white, or all grey - walls, ceilings, windows, woodwork. I like everything the same colour."

Up one floor in the main room, the theme of white walls and - mainly vintage - items in bright and pretty colours creates a space that is both intriguing, with so many interesting things to look at, and very tranquil.

The squashy old Heal's sofa, covered in ecru linen and scattered with interesting cushions, beckons you to curl up and would be equally appealing in winter, sitting across from the wood burner which Helen put in to replace the old open fire.

The cupboards on either side of the fireplace are original to the house. The stunning front window, which all the houses in the terrace have - redolent of Jackanory's arched window - was rebuilt using traditional methods.

But while the overall feel is wonderfully peaceful, looking towards the back of the room, it's easy to imagine lively dinners around the table, with more IKEA 'Greek' chairs where Helen entertains.

On the wall at one end of the table is a striking Hindu mask, found at the antiques market in Covent Garden in the 1980s and to the side another brilliant find, this one local to her current residence - a 1960s tourist poster for St Leonards. More than just a lovely thing, reproductions of it are a staple down the road in SHOP.

Further along the same wall, over the sofa, is another example of Helen's lifelong skill for finding beautiful things in unexpected places. Long before architectural salvage became big business and a regular source of homewares, she rescued the mirror from the old Lloyds building in the City of London, when it was being demolished in the late 70s. She's always been ahead of the game.

The large English storage cupboard opposite was from Heathfield market and is a crucial item in a house much smaller than Helen's previous three residences. "It's got my life in it," she says.

Leading on from the corner of sandstone wall next to it, she did the same thing in the courtyard, stripping back render to the bare rock and decorating the space with driftwood and pebbles collected on the beach and bunting from - where else? - SHOP.

Upstairs, Helen's bedroom is a gloriously pared back 'homage to a Greek bedroom', with white walls and shutters, a bed by Loaf, an Indian quilt and Romanian cushion and painting from a fellow Norman Road (definitely WeNor…) trader, Andrew Hurst of Wayward.

The spare room next door has a wonderful 'arsenic green' vintage shelf with pegs, which just happened to fit perfectly into the space over the bed, although Helen has had it for years. "It's been in all my homes." The lovely floral painting on it is another old Greenwich market treasure. The bed was a Friday Ad £50 special.

"I had some friends coming and needed one quickly. It was brown pine, so I painted it and got a mattress from Mattress Man. They'll make one to any size for old beds."

Having inspected every corner of the cottage, we head down Norman Road for a cup of tea in the café within SHOP, relaxing into the cocooning atmosphere of a retail space both perfectly realised - and different every time you go in it. None of this is a happy accident.

"SHOP is not just about shifting stuff,' says Helen, looking round her beautiful space. "We buy things because we love them and we want other people to love them. We like a free flow, quirky things that work together and we move things around all the time - change is everything."

The - always brilliant - set up of the merchandise is Holly's job. Before starting the business with her mum, she worked in visual merchandising for Topshop.

They divide responsibilities up in this way - but do all the buying together, choosing whatever appeals to them. "Stock is very flexible - there's no 'that is or isn't what we sell'." The only fixed thing is that it must be what they like. It's the best kind of family business.

"There's a lot of love in SHOP," says Helen, which is probably why it's such a delightful spot to visit. "It's really important to be surrounded by things that you love. Even if you only have two chairs, have lovely ones…", a philosophy Helen has put into perfect practice in both her home and her shop.


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