A Splash of Colour
PUBLISHED: 10:14 09 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:25 20 February 2013
An eco-house in Totnes is home to a thriving design business as well as an extraordinary collection of everything retro. <br/><br/>Words Harriet Mellor. Photos Sarah Lauren
When designer Jane Foster and her partner Jim Palmer decided to relocate from Brighton, the UK was their oyster but choice proved an obstacle. The couple knew the type of house they wanted but had no idea where to go. After ages spent scouring the country and trawling property websites, clicking the search boxes for modern house and anywhere, a completely spontaneous split decision brought them to buy one the new developments that have modernised the residential landscape around the upper car parks of Totnes.
Jim explains: We literally travelled all over the country viewing. By the nature of our business we could actually work anywhere so were looking online for any contemporary house.
After all that emotional and physical legwork, they decided on Totnes, and most importantly the property one of ten townhouses that was still being built on Heath Way during a brief and rare visit to Jims brother who lives in the town.
After 12 years in Brighton, actual relocation was swift. They sold their house with a bidding war within two weeks of putting it on the market.
Even on a grey winter day, the main backbone of the four-storey house is white and bathed in light courtesy of many skylights, windows and high ceilings. It provides the perfect blank canvas for Jane and Jims love of bright retro furniture, fabric and art collections.
Making the space work held even more significance for the family which also includes Polly who is three, because with the change in geography was also the chance to have a new lifestyle.
Its only recently that Jane gave up
being a violinist and teacher to become a full-time designer. She attributes her success purely to lucky breaks but theres been a lot of hard work and dedication to follow it through.
When Polly was tiny and we were still in Brighton, I began to throw myself into art and printing when she was asleep. Then I got involved in the Brighton Open Houses where I got spotted and headhunted.
The prestigious London-based Art Group, who publish the work of contemporary artists for cards, posters and frames around the globe, were the first to sign up Jane. They immediately sold some of her screenprints to client Habitat who turned them into best-selling packs of cards and posters.
Hot on those heels was another Open House talent spotter the woman who was re-launching the famous 1970s brand, Clothkits.
I had started screenprinting fabric purses and bags by then, and she took me on board as their main person.
Jim, who is an artist in his own right and renovates houses, thought the time was ripe to pool their creative resources and concentrate on Jane Foster Designs as a full-time business.
I was mainly working as a jobbing builder then and Jane was so unhappy teaching at very challenging schools. So I said to her, we can have a better life with all this. Lets give it all up and really go for it with printing.
The Totnes house is now a hub for all this activity plus the full-time childcare for Polly which they divvy up between them.
Says Jane: We juggle between our workload and giving Polly a really good quality of life. I work most mornings and then from 7pm till midnight every night so I can spend most of the day with her. Jim alternates in the afternoons and prints at night or before Polly wakes up in the morning.
Janes workspace takes up two of the four bedrooms on one floor of the house. The largest is lined with shelves of folded fabrics, piled high, tracked down and sourced by Jane on hunts from Oxfam to eBay.
In this room the signature style that Jane describes as ugly, quirky and rather naive, and Jim calls minimalist, is very much in evidence. Her own Christmas line and the DIY sew and stuff yourself Father Christmases and angel ragdolls are proof that the festive arm of her mini-empire has been in full swing.
On the worktops sit some of Janes iconic stuffed bestsellers which include cats, owls, doves and dolls. Once Jane has hand-drawn her designs upstairs, Jim takes them down to his workspace the utility room, which doubles up as a dark room for processing the picture into print on acetate.
Across the landing is a sewing machine room which has a stylish but incomplete patchwork quilt clamped between its foot, soon to be en route to a private customer in the USA.
Jane is a prolific blogger, regularly updating fresh images of her designs as well as words. Apart from selling online to Etsy and Not on the High Street, blogging is another strand which attracts orders.
Seventy per cent of our orders are for the USA, and the Scandinavians love the style.
General living takes place in the open plan centre of the house which combines a kitchen, dining and living room area.
Designers dont do cheap baubles which is why the tree is artfully decorated with intricate figurines called Halinkas Fairies made by a friend in Brighton.
Almost everything is second hand hidden treasures, unearthed through years of obsessive rooting at Brightons huge weekly car boot sales. Around Totnes, they are having sporadic luck with local boot sales and some pretty good vintage finds from across the road in the Friday market.
Jane and Jim certainly cant be accused of hoarding junk almost every thing is a collectable item from the design world, the black and white coffee table, Dutch tiered sewing box and even the wire shelves for Jims tin robot and cars are rare.
The prints and illustrations which adorn the walls, interspersed with family photos, are well-known design names too; Czech fabric designer Jacqueline Groag, Finnish prints, an original circular dining table by Marimekko, and anything by the Miffy creator Dick Bruner.
Extending the feel of the living space are the full-size sliding glass doors which lead on to the outside deck, which is in constant use whenever weather allows. The back doors of the deck open to another recent make-over, Leechwell Gardens which has just celebrated its first anniversary. Open to the town and run by a separate volunteer association, its positioning means it serves as communal gardens for the residents. In fact they even have a rota, taking it in turns to open the gates in the morning and lock up in the evenings.
Jim says there is a fascinating history to the grounds that had never been developed before now: English Heritage said the ground went back to Medieval times. The wall backing onto Leechwell Lane is over 400 years old. As it had never been cultivated they needed an archaeologist on site to jump in the trenches whenever they were digging.
Its been two years since the move and only now that Jane admits to feeling fully integrated.
Im finally ironing the city girl out of me. Whats great is because our work is internet-based we still feel were constantly in touch with the outside world and the brilliant thing about Totnes is you can get to anywhere from here.