Carmel Allen: Champion of British design
Young furniture designers find a champion in Heal's creative director, Carmel Allen. Interviewed by Laura Tennant
Heal’s furniture store has been a reliably stylish fixture on Tottenham Court Road for as long as Culture Whisper can remember; but we didn’t realise the shop first opened its doors in 1810. Brand and retail maven Carmel Allen, now creative director there, is passionate about its history and heritage.
‘It was the time of Jane Austen, and King George going mad,’ she says. ‘The shop started off by selling matresses – a French innovation – to our emerging middle classes.’ Over the subsequent 205 years, ‘the shop has had its more and sometimes less successful periods’, she continues. ‘Then Will Hobhouse (Jack Wills, Tie Rack, Le Pain Quotidien and Whittard's) took over has chairman and embarked on a mission to restore it to its former glory. He hired me to help.’
Online shopping has driven many of our more generic high street stores to the wall; but if you can transform your shop into a hub for browsing, creativity, dining, drinking and even socialising, customers will come not so much to shop as to ‘experience’ . It’s no coincidence that the family that runs Selfridges, the Westons, also own Heal’s.
‘You have to start by taking things back to your core values,’ says Carmel, ‘which, for Heal’s, are quality, craftsmanship and value for money. Whether it’s a sofa costing £1,700, or a mug costing £10, our customers can see where the value lies.’
Young British furniture designers
Long before corporate responsibility was invented, Heal’s was quietly getting on with it (in 1933, Ambrose Heal, a member of the shop’s founding family, got a knighthood for services to industrial design).
Today, the store's commitment to supporting young British talent can be seen in its Heal's Discovers collection, pieces by up-and-coming designers which give shoppers a chance to own a stool, mirror, rug or side table by a future Thomas Heatherwick.
Today, however, says Carmel, you have to give people a reason to come to a store – after all, people generally only buy a sofa once ever ten years.
‘We knew our customers loved food, entertaining and culture. So we organised evening events with Silent Opera [who improvise opera to order in front of a live audience], life drawing classes, and ‘Design Dinners’, which features a long table set for 100 people and a guest designer.’
‘I like the phrase “house-proud”. It’s old-fashioned, but it expresses my feeling that we are in the privileged position of selling things that people use every day. A chair or a cereal bowl isn’t like a party dress you get out once a year – it has to be a pleasure to use every day.’
To find out more about events at Heal’s, visit the website here
Carmel Allen: my London cultural life
1. Old favourite?
J Sheekey. I discovered opera by buying cheap seats in ‘the gods’ at the very top of the Royal Opera House. It only costs £15 to see a performance, and you can get a pre-theatre supper of six oysters and a glass of champagne for about £25. It’s a great night out for under £40.
2. New discovery?
I moved to Hammersmith fairly recently and the Hammersmith Café is a greasy spoon under the railway arches that turns into a fantastic Thai by night.
3. Favourite view?
The view from Hammersmith Bridge. My daughter takes Instagram pictures every day; it’s beautiful.
4. Greatest meal you’ve ever had in London?
My daughter’s French godmother is one of the best cooks in the world. She puts her own spin on Moro recipes and creates great feasts for her guests.
5. Favourite local?
The Black Lion at Hammersmith. It’s just around the corner from my house and in summer it’s crammed with tourists because it’s on the river. In winter the locals reclaim it – it’s got a wonderful log fire.
6. Most memorable aesthetic experience?
For my 40th birthday I took my daughter Josephine, who was then about five, to see the Modigliani at the RA. Afterwards we went to The Wolseley for a hot chocolate and she drew a picture of me which was obviously inspired by his work. The combination of that birthday, and the fact that Modigliani's aesthetic had made such an impression on her, made it very special.
7. Hidden gem?
The Lost Lectures bill themselves as ‘enchanting talks in secret locations’ – they get speakers like Martha Lane Fox and put on talks in bits of London you’ve never seen before – disused Victorian theatres, and old East End boxing rings.
8. Best place for a first date?
The Ace in Shoreditch. There’s a photobooth and you can get four little photographs of yourselves together.
9. Best place to propose?
Maybe the photobooth at the Ace in Shoreditch?!
10. Best for children?
When Josie was a really little girl I lived in a small flat in Kensington so quite often at the weekends we would go to Tate Britain and the Tate Modern so that she could run around. They’re both so big that toddlers can run free and no-one minds. Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in 2003 was a particular favourite, I remember; it was full of mothers and babies lying on the floor looking up at that giant sun.
11. Where will you be seen this month?
So far this month I’ve seen the Verdi’s Otello and Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West at the ENO, both of which were fantastic. I’m looking forward to going for rooftop drinks at the top of Sea Containers at the Mondrian London, a new hotel designed by Tom Dixon.
12. Who is your current cultural/fashionable crush?
Grayson Perry: his Reith Lectures were amazing. I downloaded them and had them on iPod – his warmth and kindness is so evident.
Selfridges or Harvey Nicks?
Selfridges (but then I do get a discount)
King’s Road or Shoreditch High Street?
King’s Road, because I live in west London
Royal Opera House or Battersea Arts Centre?
Artisan cocktail or a pint of bitter?
Streetfood or fine dining?
It depends (I just love food)...
Shard or St Paul’s?
St Paul’s – I used to work on the South Bank and you get great views of St Paul’s from Blackfriars Bridge. It is beautiful at all times of day or night and in all weathers.