Made in Britain
Upholsterer Liz Rose invites us into her magical country studio to sample her traditional craft
Arustic moss-clad barn, tucked away in a leafy corner of upholsterer Liz Rose’s quiet East Sussex garden, artfully disguises the drama of what lies within. Giant, ruby-red Dorothy shoes, retrieved from a local carnival float, hang theatrically from internal beams, along with colourful pom-poms, a shimmering disco ball, lavish silk-lined walls and opulent velvet cinema seats. Not your usual upholstery studio, but then this is no ordinary creative. In the far corner of this inspirational space, Liz brings to life her designs by combining the ancient craft of upholstery with a passion for contemporary fabrics.
Having studied French and Italian at university, Liz enjoyed an exciting career in London and abroad, working in product development for Habitat, with direct responsibility for the development of the
VIP for Kids range, working with leading designers and celebrities. With a young family, the draw of the coast became more appealing, and she moved first to Brighton and then to Lewes, where the family now live. ‘I loved the cutting-edge nature of my work, but had an overwhelming desire to use my hands and do something for myself,’ says Liz. ‘I took an upholstery course at Sussex Downs College and filled the corporate creative void with the excitement of learning a new skill. I loved the transition of being creative in my own way, with no constraints, and continued the course for several years, working on pieces at home and sourcing chair frames from nearby Ardingly Antiques Fair. It was important to me to perfect my craft, in my own time.’
When Liz made the move to her present family home in Lewes in 2013, a neighbour and friend, graphic designer Suzie Johanson, was establishing a complementary new business in surface design. The pair motivated each other and Liz sparked an idea. ‘Suzie worked with me on the fabric for my first collection, and we produced a digital run of bespoke fabrics for a trio of cocktail chairs,’ says Liz.
This first collaboration marked Liz’s formal launch of Elizabeth Rose and her first public foray. ‘I wanted to create bespoke chairs, one-off designs, created by me and never to be repeated. My point of difference is the various collaborations that I have enjoyed, with a wide group of contemporary UK fabric designers, including Rachel Parker, Eva Bespoke, Georgia Bosson, Lou Taylor, Emma Jeffs of N&N Wares, Rosie Moss, Hello Marine, Studio Johanson, Holly Berry and Rebecca Hoyes. Each collection involves a new collaboration and is totally unique – I have remained very strict about not taking on straight upholstery projects.
‘My time in the week is spent quite diversely: a mix of idea generation, chair sourcing and developing new collaborative relationships with designers and galleries, balanced alongside quiet studio days, stripping back old chairs and reupholstering,’ she explains. ‘The process is fluid and not prescriptive, which I love. Pieces evolve naturally; every element is consciously considered – form, pattern, finish – and this takes time to develop. The chair has to reflect the quality of fabric being designed, and sourcing the right antique frames is a labour of love. This year I am also planning to work with a furniture maker to develop my own unique frame, which I am excited about.’
Days spent in the studio, located next to the family home, are a welcome escape. ‘Radio 4 keeps me company and the solitary time gives me the head space I need to be creative,’ says
Liz. ‘There are all sorts of nostalgic pieces in the studio: my husband Simon’s passion is film, and he converted the barn for us to both have space to follow our obsessions.’
The life of each resurrected chair begins with the stripping back of fabric. ‘It is amazing what you can find hidden away as a chair is deconstructed – coins, sweets, notes, all sorts of interesting treasure. Often chairs have simply been re-covered by past owners, and it is not unusual to find layer after layer of old fabric, before you reach the bare bones,’ she says. ‘I love this sense of provenance – the fabrics unearthed are a great marker of history.’
The tools of the trade are simple yet vital: a mallet, hammer, pliers and tacklifter, with a two-pronged end – perfect for lifting out staples and hardened tacks; a web stretcher for attaching webbing to the bottom of a chair; a trusted Singer sewing machine, used for piping and cushioning; and the essential kit of pins, needles and thread. ‘Once stripped back, the chair is rebuilt: ginger coir fibre made from the husk of a coconut for the seat padding and main body of the chair, then a thick layer of cotton wadding, followed by a final top layer of 100 per cent wool, fire-retardant interliner, which adds extra protection, comfort and warmth,’ says Liz.
The majority of Liz’s work is handstitched. ‘I treat the chair like a mannequin to control the process. It is relaxing, therapeutic and rewarding seeing the piece come together. My inspiration is based on classic Mid-century design and I am a professed perfectionist, which has its drawbacks although the need for precision, attention to detail and control constantly drives me to do better,’ says
‘It’s not unusual to find layer after layer of old fabric, before you reach the bare bones. I love this sense of provenance’
Liz. ‘I love that with my own hands I can design and create a substantial piece of furniture; a vital part of every home. I have always been drawn to textiles and it feels a natural thing for me to be doing.’
In 2017, Liz was invited to collaborate with Eastbourne Towner Art Gallery, on their threemonth Eric Ravillious Exhibition. ‘The exhibition explored all the various mediums of Ravillious’ vast portfolio of work, plus that of other local artists – Enid Marx and Paul Nash among others, and their influences over each other,’ says Liz.
‘I felt very privileged to be invited to develop and produce two chairs and a bench for the exhibition, choosing designs from an archived Curwen Press book of pattern papers.’ Working with Hatley Print, together with the Towner, they turned the chosen designs into fabric repeats ready for upholstery.
The Ercol bench, covered in a Paul Nash design, remains a permanent gallery feature. ‘I love that every collection features a new fabric designer.
Each piece has to be special and different.’
Over the past six months Liz has also developed the embellishment and embroidery side of her chair projects. ‘Some of the curved-back chairs I have sourced lend themselves perfectly to three-dimensional pleats, frills, stitching and adornment. It is wonderful to add the extra layers of luxury on to certain collections.’
This year, Liz is collaborating with artist and photographer Philippa Stanton, well known on Instagram as 5ftinf. ‘Philippa often incorporates treasures and finds into her photography and we are working on a montage, which Philippa will photograph,’ says Liz. ‘It will then be worked into a fabric repeat and printed onto rich, decadent velvet. Once the chair has been upholstered, some of the actual montage treasures will be sewn onto the finished design.
‘I love the creative energy that comes with each collaboration - it pushes the boundaries of our traditional craft to a new contemporary level. Each chair definitely feels like a piece of art.’
To find out more about Liz’s upholstery work or to commission specific projects, log onto studioelizabethrose.com or call 07748 784497.
Left: Liz’s work desk area is home to her simple collection of upholstery tools and is surrounded by lots of visual stimulus for past and future projects Above: Working on the base layers. ‘It’s important to ensure they are all perfect before adding...