A chat and a chance meeting on a train led to the creation of a new online store which makes a virtue of selling items which are sustainable and traceable, but which also have a strong design ethic, writes Carol O’Callaghan.
Sometimes the great things in life happen by chance, which is exactly how PR agency owner Laura Fearnall and sustainability consultant Claire Hamer-Stubbs came to set up their online interiors shop, The People’s Emporium.
It was while travelling by train to London from the Paris interiors show, Maison et Objet, that they found themselves sitting opposite Rebecca Hoyes who at the time was a senior designer for Habitat.
“We were hysterically sharing a very unfunny joke,” says Laura. “which resulted in Claire accidentally spraying Rebecca’s face with water across the table.”
Half an hour of apologies later the three started chatting and the idea for The People’s Emporium came together to create contemporary sustainable homewares which can be traced back to the individual maker or supplier, some as far away as Africa.
“At the time, Claire and I were obsessed with homewares and knew that we could put real passion into a collection that we had developed ourselves,” says Laura.
“Claire had launched a sustainable clothing line for a major high street retailer, so her background opened our eyes to what needed to be done for homewares.”
The range now includes everything from laundry bags to egg cups but without the ethnic look we often see in home interior products that have sustainable credentials.
“We wanted to move away from that,” Claire explains, “to have contemporary designed products.”
To achieve this also meant combining what Laura describes as very different tastes.
“We both have a love of anything Scandinavian but our styles are on the opposite ends of the spectrum generally. Claire likes clean lines with a hint of pattern but I prefer a mix of more traditional fabrics and styles.”
There’s also a clear division of labour in the business with Claire managing fabric development with a fair trade manufacturer in rural Kenya, while Laura oversees pottery development with an artisan producer in what must be the ancestral home of western pottery, Stoke-on-Trent.
Over the years since Claire and Laura first met at university, there have been designs that inspired them which are now brought together to create their ideal collection.
“We’ve both travelled a lot and picked up really topical pieces which have pride of place in our homes,” Claire explains.
“The People’s Emporium brings the story of those pieces to the marketplace.”
Travelling also informs their partnerships with makers: “I’ve travelled the globe and been continually inspired by the skill involved and the stories of those who bring a product to life and create the true value of the pieces we all treasure.
"On a trip to Kenya I’ve partnered with a Fair Trade manufacturer who is now one of our main makers.”
Meanwhile that chance meeting on a train now sees Rebecca Hoyes — in addition to developing textile ranges and rugs with artisan groups using traditional techniques for a contemporary market — makes some of the design magic happen for Claire and Laura in her Shoreditch studio.
It’s clear they have a real affection for their products, having been involved in every aspect from concept to production, but they have their favourites too.
“Mine is the laundry bag,” says Claire, “for being lovingly crafted in Kenya and being uber-versatile in almost every room in the house, from kids’ toys to laundry.
"It also makes the perfect addition to your suitcase when you go away — to place all of your dirty washing in on the way home.”
As I’m a woman with a teapot-buying habit and a collection of spluttering spouts, I’m intrigued by Laura’s choice.
“For me it’s the Fearnall Bird teapot,” she says.
“I’ve been harbouring the idea of a design on the inside of a teapot for years, so it’s amazing to see it come to fruition, and it’s a good pourer.”
With six children between them and now a thriving seventh child in the form of the online shop, are there any plans to give up the day jobs?
“I have a fantastic team running my other business,” says Laura, “which allows me to spend as much time as possible on The People’s Emporium,” says Laura.
“Obviously our plan is to single-handedly transform the way the world buys homewares,” Laura quips, “so let’s just say ‘watch this space’.”
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