Peering through the glass door into Squint Limited’s basement workshop on commotional Shoreditch High Street, the interior is contrastingly still. The light and airy showroom on the upper level shows off Lisa Whatmough’s classically-shaped and neo-upholstered furniture designs, transforming what was once a post office into a life-size doll’s house, fitting in perfectly with the idiosyncrasies of Shoreditch.
The bleached walls and lofty ceilings are punctuated not only by high backed armchairs dressed in kitsch, quirky and technicolour fabrics, but the appearance of the woman behind it all. Emerging from the abyss of the atelier to the top of the studio’s stairway, it is strikingly obvious that this petite lady has big things in mind.
“It looks like Squint just arrived from nowhere - that's not true, there are quite a few years behind it,” she explains.
During her days as a fine arts student, her lecturer once told her she had to squint before starting a drawing, “and it kind of stuck with me. Of course it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy as time goes on and the work’s got louder and brighter.”
A Hackney resident, she adopted the memorable expression as her brand name, went solo and set up shop in Shoreditch; “I wanted to go into colour and pattern and texture, but I wasn’t starting from scratch. When I took my first space, which was a tiny spot on Redchurch Street, eight years ago, I was already selling through Liberty.” Despite the big brand name backing, Lisa is surprisingly grounded; “I worked and worked incredibly hard with my wholesale clients developing things which I knew that their audience would want and I viewed it very much as an opportunity to learn.”
Along with creating her own off-the-peg furniture lines and big ticket bespoke pieces, just this August she has launched with Heels in a throwback project, renewing antique lamps with modern textiles; “Within the fabrics that we've chosen, we've included vintage Heels swatches, because its history of textile design is extraordinary - it has been going since 1810 so it was as powerful in the arts and crafts movement as Liberty was.”
With Heels and the likes of Liberty and Conran at the top of Lisa’s list of stockists, the line-up doesn’t fail to impress as you move further down it, from East London to the Far East; “China and Hong Kong are a very big market for us at the moment, they are a fearless audience. They want colour, they want quality, they want British aesthetic and they are prepared to pay for that, so they are almost the dream clients actually. It's just a place which is so full of promise, they are at the beginning of their interiors journey, home is quite a new concept out there.”
Squint’s reworked vintage style, led by the original hipsters of Shoreditch and seen on the catwalks of East London’s streets, is a statement that is now making its impact internationally.
“There's interesting people here as well, whether that's from fashion or design, whether that's cafés or restaurants, whatever it is, people have got an energy and a drive and a focus to be doing things which are quite different, and of course that's what makes it all so edgy.”
With Shoreditch acting as Squint’s launchpad, Lisa’s soft spot for the area is as apparent as her punchy patterned fabrics; “The area is great because everybody seems to know each other, and everybody is curious in a nice way about what everybody is doing, so we're all aware of each other's successes and failures and extremely supportive of each other. It's an area where everybody walks so you tend to bump into people all the time and there is definitely a community here where there isn't in other parts of London.” Her pieces can be seen locally at Boundary, whose owners went off on foot around the East End to find small home-grown companies to collaborate with. With the area making an international name for itself as the place to be, she’s also beginning to see a bigger American footfall.
Looking back at Shoreditch pre its evolution, she tells an endearing story;
“Shoreditch historically has not had a lot of money in it. Most areas that are creative start off that way - the overriding factor is that you can get space at a low price. Quite honestly, it was a real fly-tip zone out on the street. But of course the pace of change is extraordinary.”
As important to her as her local roots, Lisa emphasises the company’s quintessential British character, not only through style but also in quality; “It is a British brand, and it's very important to me that we maintain that aesthetic and that we take ourselves out globally feeling proud of that; manufacturing at the moment is entirely done in the UK, working with our UK workshops, who are second and third generation. We also source our fabrics from English houses.”
Aside from promoting native production, Lisa wants her luxury sofas and chairs to bolster not just customer bottoms but self-expression in the home too; “I always remember Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen saying this about the recession; people had been so concerned about not devaluing their properties by personalising their spaces, all those shows on TV forced down your throat that everything had to be bland, that when house prices crashed actually it was an opportunity to say I'm going to stay here for a bit so I'm going to do what I want. Suddenly they weren't worried about knocking £10,000 off by having a bright pink kitchen. Ultimately it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks of what you have put together, home should be somewhere that you absolutely love to be.”
Squint Limited is a global brand with a showroom in South Kensington and a studio on 178 Shoreditch High Street. The company is looking to open international stores, break into further product lines and has just started to produce its own fabrics.
Squint Limited have been tenants of The Estate Office Shoreditch since April 2008.