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Material World: Flora Soames’s “scrapbook of home”

The decorator’s vast and varied collection of fragments, keepsakes and heirlooms – her “One Day Box” – is as much a place for reflection as it is a portal to the future, a rich seam to mine in pursuit of inspiration when it comes to designing in her recognisably rich and referential way

Grace McCloud
Jasper Fry
Max Egger
Material World: Flora Soames’s “scrapbook of home”

It might strike you as odd that we’re talking to Flora Soames about the idea of home in a house that’s not hers. But in many ways, it’s the most natural thing in the world: West Barsham Hall – or simply Barsham, as the family call it – is not just the house of Flora’s childhood, but that of her mother, Susanna’s, too. While it was built by Flora’s great-grandparents in the 1900s, it was her beloved grandmother – known as Dama, an incorrigible car-boot-sale rummager and great documenter of life’s smaller details – who recommenced a familial culture of accumulation and of thoughtful, ravishing and comfortable decorating within its handsome Edwardian rooms. Look at any of Flora’s own rich schemes or her deeply referential designs and you can trace the lineage. But, Flora says, “the defining thing about Barsham is not necessarily that it has only been lived in by one family, but that there is evidence here of passion and pride in appearances. You don’t have to lived somewhere for generations for that to happen.”

Intrinsic in this is the idea that the best decorating involves time, layering, stories and history. But, Flora believes, there are ways of bringing this to every room you’re focusing on, even if you haven’t lived there for years. Enter her “One Day Box”. As well as providing Flora with the title for her recent book – a ravishing rummage through the many fragments, cuttings, photographs and archive design pieces that make up her own collections – the One Day Box is the decorator’s visual palette, her toolkit, her ultimate creative arsenal. It’s full of things that spark joy and inspiration – or which might, one day…

Flora, like her grandmother, is an incurable collector (it’s why we’re here at Barsham, to talk about the many things that fill the box, which now, many years after she started amassing them, is more metaphysical than any single crate or chest). She admits that at the heart of her compulsion is a propensity towards sentimentality (“My husband was quite shocked to learn I kept my dachshund Enid’s whiskers and baby teeth from when she was a puppy, now all sitting in a pot on my mantelpiece”), but Flora also sees everything she keeps as imbued with potential energy – “collecting, to me, is as much about tomorrow as it is yesterday.” Just as photographs of her grandmothers and their homes might set in motion an idea for a room, or an old document textile might provide her with a motif for a new hand-block-printed wallpaper, Flora may buy something “just because I think, ‘One day, I’d like to have the kind of hall I could put that in,’” she laughs. Romance, she admits, isn’t always realistic.

And while sentimentality also affords a certain amount of looking back, “continuing to collect is also about letting go,” Flora explains. What does she mean? “It means things can remain part of my life without being front and centre all the time – things associated with people we’ve loved, relationships we’ve said goodbye to, dogs that have died, houses we’ve moved on from…” Flora mentions this in the context not just of the tragic and unexpected death of her partner, Ant, in 2017, but in that of her life now, blissfully happy in her marriage to artist Blondie Macdonald-Buchanan, with their daughter, Lily Hope, and her step-children, Pom Pom and Jacobi. “My collections are a way of me engaging with that process – a material manifestation of a non-material conversation that has to happen in order to get on with living in the here and now.”

Flora’s book is, as you might imagine, deeply personal, its creation cathartic. It is not like any other decorator’s book – a static series of finished projects, smartly photographed – but instead is infinitely more scrapbook-like, filled with memories and mementoes. It is a record of how she works rather than what she produces – and in being so, it’s a quiet call to others to consider the potential of their own One Day Boxes, whether literal or metaphorical. Reading it, one gets the sense that, were you to hire Flora to decorate your own home, that is the service you’d be getting: colours and patterns, of course, but also a gentle coaxing to explore the things that make you tick, the careful nudge needed to take you from “one day” to today.

A closer look at Flora’s One Day Box

Antique wallpapers

“I think the first things I collected as a child were the NatWest family of ceramic piggy banks. Or it might have been ribbons, which we would fight over as we unwrapped presents under the Christmas tree. I still think the detritus of wrapping – importantly ribbons, old and new – is almost nicer than presents. Ribbon etiquette in our family is such that if it is your house, you get to keep the remnants. I have bags of them stashed away.

“But the first thing I bought to consciously collect, as an adult or late teen, was wallpaper. There is something incredibly satisfying about a fragment of wallpaper. It feels somehow more special than fabric, really, as fabrics were more commonplace and are so much sturdier. That a piece of paper could have survived 200 years is miraculous. It has an intrinsic sense of worth to me.

“My ‘Dahlias’ design, which you can see here in a bathroom I decorated at Barsham, formed part of my first collection, but it had been with me for a while before that, in the form of a fragment of a very flamboyant 19th-century French wallpaper that I reworked. I’m particularly drawn to the hand-block-printed process and I staunchly stick to the same method to print my wallpapers today; ‘Dahlias’, for instance, uses 16 different blocks and colours, which is quite a commitment of both time and money. My plan is to broaden the ‘Dahlias’ offering beyond furnishings, creating a giant tote bag and more, which will perhaps be a little more accessible than hand-block-printed wallpaper.

“When a document initiates a new design like that, it gives me a real thrill. It might be the curve of a line that speaks to me, it might be a certain colour pairing, it might just be the spirit of something that I’m trying to emulate. Whatever it is, it’s exciting seeing something old become new.”

Dama’s albums

“I spent hours as a child poring over my grandmother’s albums. She was a terrific recorder and she took such great care in presenting everything just so – photographs, yes, but other things too – postcards for instance. She assigned each of her grandchildren a flower – I was lily-of-the-valley – and she collected postcards of them from market stalls and newsagents before arranging them meticulously in albums for us.

“She was a woman of a certain era and she certainly had time on her hands. The albums were her creative outlet. She got enormous pleasure from them – a bit like somebody might from a stamp collection. They are such a lesson in taking pride in the arranging of things that matter to you. That and the love of hand-making something for someone else. She did it with clothes, layering them with tissue paper and telling me and my sister that certain things – not heirlooms, but the ordinary, alongside the rather extraordinary – would one day be ours, as I will no doubt do with Lily. And she did it with cushions, which she was forever rearranging and plumping. She was committed to surrounding herself with beauty. To me, the albums are the ultimate expression of Dama’s love of collecting – a love I have inherited; as a consequence, I feel a very tangible connection to her when I look at them.”

Scraps of fabrics

“Dama was always collecting fragments from car-boot sales – cuttings of lace that might one day become a wedding veil for a lucky granddaughter, for instance. And fabrics have long been a part of my One Day Box too. Every single piece I have, I bought because, in an ideal world, I’d cover my sofa in it. So far, only a few have made the transition from scrap to new design.

“One of those is ‘Walsingham Weave’, a traditional bargello- or flamestitch-inspired design that has its origins in a tiny corner of a fragment I’ve been holding on to for a while. You can see the original to the left of the cushion, covered in my iteration in its new ochre colourway. Like so many of my designs, its name means something to me (Walsingham is a village not far from Barsham). There’s an ‘Enid’, after my beloved dachshund; there’s an ‘Oulton’, where I lived for a time… It’s not that I’m claiming ownership of these people, places and things. Instead, I feel like I’m carrying each of them along with me, which I find constantly reassuring.”

A painting of tulips

“This painting actually belongs to my mother, but it hangs in the bedroom that used to be mine as a child and in many ways represents my approach to collecting.

“My mother, like Dama, has always collected – she has a wonderful eye and has picked up some fantastic things on her many travels with my father. Like me, she doesn’t blink at buying something she can only just afford if she loves it. In the end, you never regret it.

“I think this picture of tulips is one of those things and I have inherited my mother’s love for it. It’s largely to do with the palette: those jewel colours, which I use in so many of my designs, particularly the purples. I’m mad for purple, hence the plum colourway of my ‘Enid’s Ramble’ wallpaper behind. And I adore tulips.”


“Cushions are part of my DNA, I think – if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous! Dama, as I’ve said, was cushion-mad. And I think the first textiles I ever made were cushions – lumpy things with terrible stitching and dodgy appliqué that I gave to my parents as presents. Amazingly, they’ve kept them all, which I find very touching. And I’ve brought many knackered old ones with me from house to house too, which have found their place among newer ones over the years. A jumble of cushions from across time is layered decorating distilled, in a way. Here, my ‘Daphne’ fabric in rose and violet, joins the party.

“I’ve recently released the ‘One Day Box’ collection. Very reluctantly, I’ve come to realise that perhaps I have just a little bit too much stuff. As such, I’m selling off a few beautiful things I’ve given new life – reupholstered antique chairs, for instance, and textiles turned into lampshades or, largely, cushions. They might incorporate an ecclesiastical tassel or a 19th-century braid; some of the fabrics I’m using in reverse. I’ve approached these pieces the way I approach my decorating, really, all of which is underpinned by the idea that imagination is wonderful but, to me, reimagination of what you have tucked away somewhere might be even more magical.”

Further reading

Flora Soames

Flora Soames on Instagram

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