As we emerge (gratefully) into the spring sunshine, we will be looking to freshen up the homes we’ve spent more time in than ever over the past year. On that note, we can’t wait any longer to introduce you to Abigail Ahern; our April Woman of Spirit. An interior design expert whose influence on the design world (think rich, dark colours and plenty of texture) has led to some seriously high-profile clients and four books packed to the brim with creativity. Her career has taken her on a fascinating journey that hasn’t been without its challenges.
Throughout 2021, we’re celebrating women who are working to make a real difference in the world: the leaders, the freethinkers and the voices for change that inspire us every day at Radley London. We couldn’t wait to speak to Abigail about her career – from getting her start in the US to designing her own range and opening her store in London.
How did you start your career in interior design?
“I started off in publishing. I was on the picture desk finding interior images for Terence Conran’s interior tomes and that gave me the passion. On moving to the States I studied interior design at night and worked for an architectural company during the day. I kind of did the whole thing back to front but it basically involved the history of design, the visual language of design, from learning how to evaluate and analyse to space-to-space planning.”
How would you describe your personal style, and how do you stay true to it now?
“It’s such a mix. It’s inherently masculine and a little bit glam but it’s also super laid back and boho. It kind of courses through my veins. I’m very black and white – I either love or hate something instantly so it’s never a case of staying true.
“I discovered my style through being bold and experimental and breaking boundaries, and taking risks. And once you take risks you want to keep taking risks.”
You pioneered a style of design that went against the norm at the time, did you ever have a crisis of confidence?
“Funnily enough, no, I just kind of couldn’t understand how many interiors looked and felt the same. I knew how my interior made me feel so I never had any doubt in my mind.”
What are the challenges in running a growing business and how have you overcome them?
“Problem solving is my biggest one. I wish I had gone to business school because in the early days I used to freak out about all the problems, but I’ve learnt that great problem solvers are not born. You just need to learn how to do it. My biggest tip in running a business is that you’re always going to face challenges, but it’s how you deal with it. You have to be super positive, and you can overcome them.
“Our biggest challenge I would say was about six years ago when a huge client went into administration and dumped three quarters of a million pounds of stock on us, which nearly took us under because obviously, I still had to pay my factories for it. We had to reinvent how to get it out there. I took to social media, we called a ton of retailers, we did trade shows, and we reinvented faux botanicals, and they are now our biggest part of our business. That failure and that challenge really turned our business around, which is amazing from when it nearly sank us.”
Why did you decide to open your own store? And then later to host your online design masterclasses?
“I couldn’t find things in stores that I wanted for my clients – so I decided to open my own. It was as simple as that really. I knew that I had to start sourcing these pieces myself as they were definitely in demand.
“I used to run the classes at my home once a month but because it was at home the numbers were quite restricted and we constantly sold out, so it seemed a natural progression to move to online. The pandemic played a role in this decision too of course.”
How do you deal with the pressure of working for high-profile clients? (Gwyneth Paltrow is a big fan of Abigail’s, and her design projects include the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach)
“Honesty and flexibility are the best way forward. You have to be honest, you have to put your point across even if it gets rejected, but then you also have to be super flexible.”
Your fourth book ‘Everything: A Maximalist Style Guide’ was published last year, was writing books something you had always wanted to do?
“I’m pretty passionate about design so writing about it comes quite naturally. This book is really exciting to me because it’s about learning how to break the ‘rules’ of interior design. Maximalism is about embracing the all-out. Beautiful colour palettes, luxurious textiles, patterns and embellishments.
“It even includes a chapter on ‘my little black book’ – listing my favourite places to shop for décor around the globe.”
What brings you the most joy in your life?
“Aside from the business, it’s gardening and cooking, I am at my happiest pottering in the garden or cooking something delicious up. We have this outdoor kitchen so in all weathers and all seasons, plopping something on the grill makes me so very happy!
“I have to mention my two dogs here also. If you follow me on Instagram you’ll see a lot of them, particularly Monkey (whose real name is Mungo). Aged 10 now, we got him at just nine months old from a rescue centre. He has anxiety separation issues so has to be in the same room as me. He is the most gentle and kind dog on the planet.”
What does your home mean to you?
“My home is my sanctuary. It wraps me up, buffers me from the outside world, cocoons, re-energises and nourishes my soul. It’s an incredibly restorative place.”
What is your top tip for making a house a home, whatever your budget?
“The biggest, most game-changing thing that doesn’t cost the earth is paint. You can change the atmosphere of a room by just changing the paint colour, and it will only take you about two hours to paint a wall. I’m obsessed!”
How would you define a Woman of Spirit?
“There are a few must-have qualities in my opinion. Life-loving, hard-working and compassionate, Determined, kind-hearted and generous. This is what comes to me when I think of the women who have inspired me the most.”
And who would those women be?
“Women like fashion designer Norma Kamali (she makes 75 look amazing), and Julia Child who launched her career at 49.
“Oprah Winfrey, I think, is incredibly empowering. I lived in the States when she launched her book club and got people into reading and books, people who had never previously been inspired to even open one. She overcame so much in her early life, and always believed in herself.
“Jane Goodall’s book was the first manuscript I read when I started as an editorial assistant for a dusty old book publisher called Souvenir Press. It was my first job. I was working in a basement crammed with books and mice and had to prepare manuscripts for the editors. I hated most of the books but this one, about her breakthrough study of wild chimpanzees, and her activism on deforestation, is super inspiring. Everyone should read it.”
What is one life lesson you’ve learnt that all women should know?
“You are going to fail and that’s okay. In business, in relationships, in life. But failure is a good thing because you’ll get to know yourself even better and you’ll learn so much.”
Fantastic advice to keep in mind, thanks Abigail. And thank you for letting the Radley London team into your beautiful home (with all social distancing measures in place). All of the handbags featured in Abigail’s shoot will be launching from next week, in case any of them caught your eye. If you’re feeling inspired by Abigail’s words, why not read more from our previous Women of Spirit for 2021 – Camilla Thurlow, Sarah Powell, and Johanna Konta.