Don’t be such a snob, Carrie! John Lewis furniture is far from a 'nightmare'

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Simon Mills
·4 min read
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carrie symonds redecoration - Andrew Parsons/AFP
carrie symonds redecoration - Andrew Parsons/AFP

Some basic rules for being a modern, British prime minister’s wife/girlfriend/life partner.

  1. Support our NHS workers.

  2. Adore dogs.

  3. Champion the tireless efforts of Marcus Rashford.

  4. Whenever possible, wear Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen or Vivienne Westwood in public.

  5. Declare your undying love for Stormzy.

  6. And this is the important one. Never, ever, EVER slag off the John Lewis home department.

Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s fiancée and mother to his young son, Wilfred, is currently redecorating the prime minister’s residence at number 11 Downing Street and she maybe hasn’t read the first lady’s playbook properly.

A profile of Carrie in Tatler magazine reveals that her residential makeover has been inspired by her friend, Lulu Lytle, a posh interior designer whose Soane company is famed for its eclectic, expensively mismatched aesthetic.

(Mustn't Alan Clark be spinning in his grave right now? Not only are Carrie and Boris “the kind of people who have to buy their own furniture”, they also seem to be the type who have to pay someone else to tell them where to put it.)

Taking a cue from Lulu’s elegantly clashing pattern-scape, Carrie has embarked on an overhaul that involves the hanging of silly money wall coverings and the removal of all vestiges of Theresa May's “John Lewis furniture nightmare”.

Am I alone in feeling slightly dismayed at this off-hand comment? Granted, former PM May with her LK Bennett frocks, helmet hair and “racy” kitten heels, is not necessarily someone this Wallpaper* magazine editor would go to for his interior design tips. And yes, to the uninitiated, some of John Lewis’s stock might seem a bit safe and suburban.

But anyone with half an eye for detail, a thing for heritage, quality and the timelessly chic, mid-century aesthetic, will know the Oxford Street icon as a veritable homeware stalwart, a blonde wood heaven where the Festival of Britain spirit lives on and an honest sense of place, quality and Helvetica-fonted dependability pervades.

Established over 150 years ago and currently having a tough time (last year the group announced that it was closing eight stores and retail hubs with the loss of 1,300 jobs), John Lewis remains a future-facing purveyor of William Morris wallpapers, Tom Dixon candles and the same Ercol, steam bent wood couch that occupies this writer’s sitting room.

Ignore the boring corner sofas and developers’ standard light-fittings and you’ll find hygge, Scandi-cosy throws and rugs, solid, parquet wood fronted sideboards, Dieter Rams-ish own-brand electrical goods and wild, Sanderson print cushions, just like your grandparents used to have. If Carrie wants snazzy, statement wallpaper, there’s the floral “Tulipa Stellata” by Designers Guild for £205.00 a roll.

Carrie Symonds redecorating - John Lewis
Carrie Symonds redecorating - John Lewis

Certainly, there are hipper, more cutting edge furniture stores - travel to the annual Design Miami or Salone del Mobile design fairs and you will find show stopping, instagrammable pieces, more newsworthy, fashion designer x chair manufacturer collaborations - and there are definitely more expensive retailers - yep, that 1970, ice glass and nickel chandelier by Kalmar of Austria really is priced at £14,000 on the interior designer’s go-to 1st Dibs site - but you don’t shop at JL for all that.

With a price point pitched somewhere between Habitat and the Conran Shop, the look here is modest and understated. Quietly, subtly tasteful. Never knowingly over-done. To paraphrase what Sir John Betjeman once said of the John Lewis group’s Peter Jones’ haberdashery section, “nothing unpleasant could ever happen here”.

Opened in 1864 as a draper’s shop on London’s Oxford Street by its eponymous founder, John Lewis’s long standing collaborative commitment to good, British design is impressive. In 1962 the store signed up British designers Robin and Lucienne Day (creators of the ubiquitous plastic-moulded Poly Chair) as consultants, a partnership that lasted 25 years.

Launched in 2012, the John Lewis Design Collective venture, which nurtures a curated roster of international designers and oversees production of their work, has presented the pieces of British designer Matthew Hilton, Danish furniture maker Ebbe Gehl and Bethan Gray and Oliver Hrubiak.

When the store celebrated its 150-year anniversary back in 2014, special-edition items from the likes of Vitra, Alessi and Ercol were launched. Another product line, House by John Lewis, also launched in 2012, employing the expertise of Theo Williams - designer for Alessi, Lexon, Prada and a former creative director at Habitat.

All too aware that its future lies online (the company expects up to 70 per cent of its sales will be internet based by 2025) John Lewis is now offering customers virtual appointments with its team of Home Design Stylists and is even providing a furniture rental service so that - for instance - a newly-wed couple could lease, instead of buy, a sofa for £80 a month or pay just £17 a month for a desk and office chair.

Unfortunately for Carrie Symonds, John Lewis isn’t renting out ten thousand quid a roll wallpaper just yet.

Simon Mills is Bespoke Editor at Wallpaper* magazine