Women We Watch: Estelle Bilson
Cast your eyes over our limited edition Flamingo-A-Go-Go collection and its knowing nod to ’60s and 70’s interior detailing once deemed ‘trashy’, now sought after in vintage shops and antique fairs worldwide. Co-founders Harriet and Rosie leapt at the chance to lovingly recreate icons of 'bad taste' in laser-cut acrylic, handmade in our Kent studio with the help of a couple of findings and our trusty team of jewellery makers. But hold up, how did bronzed palm trees ornaments, chalkware flying ducks and mass-produced paintings become so desirable? Who better to ask than Estelle Bilson, of Estelle Bilson Creative's deeply covetable velvet furnishings and owner/curator of our dream home (photographed by the amazing Molly Major), as spotted on our IG feed this week. So, fix yourself a Brandy Alexander and get settled in your sunken conversation pit as we cover everything from chalets to Terence Conran and ‘the C word…’
CAN YOU SUM UP WHAT YOU DO IN FIVE WORDS?
“Daydream, Procrastinate, Panic, Create, Repeat.”
Jesting aside I design and make upholstered furniture and soft furnishings, but in truth, my design process is pretty much always the above.
FROM PODCASTS TO PLAYLISTS, WHAT DO YOU LISTEN TO INSPIRE YOU?
I’m not one for a podcast, I’m a real Luddite, I like to listen to vinyl because of the tactile nature as well as sound quality, we’ve got some pretty nifty seventies hi-fi equipment which sounds awesome. I’m a nineties indie kid at heart with a deep-rooted love of “shoegaze” so I always go back to my halcyon days. I do however like a variety of music, it depends on my mood, but Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s album has been playing the last few weeks, I particularly love “Bonnie and Clyde.”
THIS SEASON, WE WERE INSPIRED BY PERCEIVED ‘TRASHINESS’, EXPLORING THE CONCEPT OF WHAT WAS ONCE SEEN AS ‘BAD TASTE’, NOW FETED AS ‘VINTAGE’, E.G. CHALKWARE FLYING DUCK FIGURINES, BAMBOO PRINT WALLPAPER, MASS PRODUCED ART PRINTS… HOW DID YOU HONE YOUR TRADEMARK AESTHETIC?
I’ve always had what my Mother called “dubious taste.” My Father was a notable cabinet maker so the interior style growing up was one of serious antiques and Victoriana. My Maternal Grandparents played a pivotal role in my style choices, they decorated their house in flock wallpaper, flying ducks, sunburst mirrors, German pottery, and crazy Axminster carpets, my Mother thought it trashy, I thought it fabulous!
As children we would accompany my Father to auctions and car boot sales (always told to sit on our hands in case we accidentally bid on something) you have a couple of options when this happens, you either get bored really quickly or you start collecting yourself. I started to rebel in my very early teens, I was very into anything from the 50’s to the 70’s even then, when it was considered as ‘junk’ and could be picked up for pence, or often free at the side of the road, I loved the weirdest, the wackiest, the most colourful items I could find. My bedroom was an eclectic mix of bohemian style with a green light, 70’s reproduction Art Nouveau mirrors and incense, I tried to make it my version of a Biba store with feathers and velvet floor cushions, thankfully my parents never discouraged my early attempts at interior design and let me paint my own room and rip out the carpets. Roll on over 25 years of various interior design triumphs and failures because that’s the only real way to learn. I have a very understanding partner who pretty much lets me do anything I chose to the home (within reason), thankfully he trusts my judgment, we are still in debate, however, over a 70’s Goddess Rain Lamp and the fact that I want to paint the dining room Chocolate Brown. I aspire to be Margot Leadbetter mixed with a dash of Beverley from Abigail’s Party.
WHERE DID YOU FIRST DISCOVER THE WORK OF VLADIMIR TRETCHIKOFF AND WHAT WAS IT ABOUT HIS PIECES THAT FIRST CAPTURED YOUR IMAGINATION AND STILL INSPIRES YOU TODAY?
For this I have to thank my high school art teacher Rod Brattel, during a life drawing class, aged 14 I instinctively picked up blue and yellow pastels, he labelled my work ‘Kitsch’ and told me to go look it up in the library and reference Tretchikoff. When I discovered his work it was a sense of homecoming, the postmodern classic - Chinese Girl (or Green Lady as it is commonly called) with her turquoise tinted skin and scarlet lips is so much part of popular culture that it was instantly familiar from growing up in the 1970s and 80s in working-class homes and working men's clubs, however it was then that I started to understand more about him and his work and also the work of his contemporaries such as J H Lynch, Shabner and Pearson. I instantly loved his use of colour, the works are oddly calming, the women especially have restful faces, they’re interesting, but not domineering, they fit into any surroundings from a mantlepiece in a working-class terrace house to a doctors waiting room and I guess that’s why his work has had an enduring success. For me, today, they continue to inspire me both as beautiful works of art that link me to my past and as cult popular culture references and kitsch icons, his work is instantly recognisable and unmistakably Tretchikoff. Over the years critics have tried to dismiss his work as “token art” to which he gleefully would reply “Art can reach the Heart but Kitsch can make you rich.”
OK, FOR ANYONE WHO’S NOT AU FAIT WITH THE MID-CENTURY MODERN MOVEMENT, WHERE’S THE BEST PLACE TO START?
Mid Century Modern was a term coined into the vernacular in 1983 by Cara Greenberg with the title of her seminal book, this moniker has become an ionic and global design movement. Focusing on the style of interiors, furniture, architecture, surface print and graphic design from the mid 30s to 60s but has now generally been stretched out to encompass the period of up to 1975, the legacy of these pieces is of enduring design which still looks as fresh and as relevant now as it did then, this is why it works so well with contemporary living and the reason it has become hugely popular.
If you type Mid Century Modern into any search engine, Pinterest or Instagram you will see a plethora of images to feast your eyes upon, there are a lot of blogs and books now written about the subject too. If you wish to recreate some of the aspects of the aesthetic, I would suggest you revel in the marvels of the modern world and use the internet, some of my favourite Instagram accounts are @70s_home_decor, @theatomicranch, @midcenturymobler and @dc_hillier who posts as MCM Daily. I do however love to reference old home maintenance and Interior design books and magazines, some of my favourites have been purchased for very little in charity shops or car boot sales, eBay can bring up some gems such as “Kitsch Deluxe” by Lesley Gillian which explores the more extreme in kitsch interior design to the more restrained and tasteful “Interior Decoration A to Z” by Betty Pepis, Terence Conran “The House Book” from the 70’s gives some useful insight into the latter part of the era, if you wish to learn more about mass-produced art I would recommend "Just Above The Mantlepiece: Mass- Market Masterpieces" by Wayne Hemmingway (of Red or Dead fame) and I have a weakness for 1960s or 70s Ideal Home Magazines which are always brilliant resource material. If you wish to lose yourself in a period drama set in the era, then you can’t go far wrong with Mad Men, set between March 1960 and November 1970, it was lauded for its accuracy in set and costume design and Don Drapers New York flat with the sunken conversation pit is to die for!
FROM TRETCHKOFF TO THE ROVER’S RETURN... ICONS OF BRITISH TV SUCH AS PAT BUTCHER, BET LYNCH, AND HILDA OGDEN HAVE GRACED YOUR SOFT FURNISHINGS. WHO WOULD BE YOUR DREAM CHARACTER TO IMMORTALISE IN VELVET?
I really identify with strong female characters, they were part of my life growing up in the late 70’s and during the 80’s, bought into your front room several times a week via soap operas and sit coms, this is why you’ll see me reference them repeatedly in my work. I’d love to work with David Downton and reproduce the series of images he did for the female protagonists in Mad Men, which were illustrated in the style of Bob Peak, a genuine Madison Ave Man. I guess if pushed for an actual person I would love to do the Queen, resplendent in her finery, there’s definitely something uber-kitsch about her and the corgis!
WHICH PIECE FROM OUR FLAMINGO-A-GO-GO COLLECTION IS YOUR FAVOURITE?
I loved the sold-out Ornate Realism Statement Necklace (obviously) but I have a soft spot for the Flamingos, Lotus and Modernist Necklaces too. I’ve been a big fan of Tatty Devine for over 15 years since the small Soho shop when I worked in London. I have the Giant Lobster Necklace which always gets commented on when I wear it.
WE LOVE YOUR PHRASE: “I don't believe in owning something ordinary, only extraordinary.” WHAT SMALL STEPS CAN WE MAKE TO A MORE AESTHETIC PLEASING (AND POTENTIALLY LESS WASTEFUL?) LIFESTYLE?
Personally, from my experience, buy second hand and vintage, nine times out of ten your friends and neighbours won’t have exactly the same items. I believe it is also more cost effective to decorate your home with pre-loved furniture. Many big retailers are cashing in on the MCM and retro style, yet you can still purchase an original for less than a reproduction. There are so many pieces of furniture that can be re-purposed, it also gives your home a personal touch and a talking point.
Our home may be on the extremes of this, but all of the furniture within could be used in a less dramatic setting, sideboards, for example, have become hugely popular in recent years, they’re stylish and useful.
From a sustainability point of view, you are saving furniture from landfill and if more people did this there would be less need for manufacturing of cheap shoddy furniture which doesn’t last and wastes precious resources. Don’t shy away from chairs or sofas, your friendly local upholsterer can help you create something beautiful that is bespoke to you. By supporting vintage dealers and craftspeople you’re also supporting a small, local business, most of us do a happy dance when we make a sale (I know I do) and that personal touch when buying something is much more heart-warming than a soulless transaction in a multinational store, some of my closest friends I’ve met through vintage furniture. Finally, the thrill of the chase can be addictive, beware!
IF YOU COULD REDESIGN ONE ROOM, BE IT IN BUCKINGHAM PALACE OR YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY, WHICH ONE WOULD IT BE?
I mentally redesign my own home most weeks, my partner lives in fear of me saying “I’ve had an idea” (which our toddler has recently started mimicking). Anyone who knows me knows that one of my more specialist areas of collecting (read borderline hoarding) is vintage Christmas (is it too early for the C word?) So, probably Father Christmas' grotto in the North Pole in a cacophony of festive 60s and 70s glitz and glamour?
If we’re talking a real-life scenario I’ve always had an urge to buy the 1950s chalet we stayed in as children on holiday park in Lincolnshire; by the 80’s it was looking decidedly shabby as it hadn’t been decorated in 30 years (there was even a tiki bar next door) and everything was meant to reflect sophisticated and glamorous 50s Miami (to be fair, for a small resort outside Skegness it was punching way above its weight with this notion) nevertheless I loved it and its faded glamour….
My Mum always did say I saw glamour in even the most mundane, and I think that pretty much sums me up perfectly.
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