Hi Nicky, when and why did you decide to open the store?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a very long time! I’ve been trading as Homeward now for nine years and have been somewhat hidden away, either in a studio or in a shared selling space within a larger shop in town. It feels so nice to settle somewhere at last! Homeward has been a long time without its own workspace since moving out of my studio in haste back in March 2020 with the pandemic snapping at my heels. I then squatted/stored my things in a corner of my husband Jake’s (Jacob Littlejones Furniture) workshop for three years. The shared selling space I was using came to an end in February this year with the sale of the building there. Encouraged by the support that the business gained during the pandemic and with a house move bubbling away for quite a while, the need to find my own work space became pretty urgent. When this shop space came available on St Edward Street, I knew it was time to jump!
What had you done before? Did any of these skills help?
The shop feels like a natural coming together of everything I’ve been doing up until now. I’ve always worked in shops since age 14, being a Saturday girl at Top to Toe the Shop to Go (a 1980s forerunner to the chain pound stores around now!) and naturally gravitated to retail jobs during my student days since it felt so familiar and I always enjoyed it. I’m a friendly sort, easy going and am naturally inquisitive and do love meeting interesting people. I also feel like I have a lifetime of looking at good stuff, whether it be in art galleries, trade shows, shops, fairs, open studios and more.
I set out on my creative path leaving school at 16 to do a BTEC in General Art and Design, exploring photography, textiles, pottery and mixed media, which led me to a Fine Art Painting degree at East London University. It was in my final year at uni that I got a part-time job at Neal Street East, a wonderful home and lifestyle emporium in Covent Garden. It was a well-loved and influential shop selling textiles, jewellery, cookware, books and prints from around the world with a focus on China, India and Japan. It was a brilliant introduction to a bustling and thriving shop, a treasure trove of interesting artefacts, antiques and people.
After graduation in the early 90s I tried out many things, briefly dipping into work in fringe theatre for a friend and then starting my first full-time creative job in a commercial paint studio creating backdrops and props for retail display.
I set up my own decorating business and as a specialist paint finisher and gilder, decorated anything from nightclubs, hotels and bars to beautiful homes in and around London. I spent the best part of 12 years working closely alongside people in their own houses and it was here that I developed a real sense of how important adding small details and personal touches are to making home feel like home.
Returning north I did a spell of volunteering in the wallpaper archive at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, helping sort through the archives and pattern books. This was a huge source of inspiration and fuelled my interest in the history of interiors and design.
You’re from a family of shopkeepers, has this inspired you?
Not really inspired so much but more a familiarity and fondness for shopkeeping, plus a healthy dose of realism and knowing the challenges of running your own shop.
Dad had two shops, one a busy general grocers across the road from the high school when I was a pupil there, the other a smaller greengrocer, which was badly affected by the opening of a supermarket in the next town… The erosion of the independents and the high street has been happening for quite a long time! Mum worked in retail too and I have fond memories of going to work with my Mum when I was little and opening up the shop that she worked in – K&N Fashions in Biddulph High Street. I can almost smell it! Think 1970s fashion boutique, strip lighting, formica, nylon. The flicking on of lights, the tidying and straightening out of the stock, hoovering, kettle on, friendly chats and life stories shared. I know it’s quite a romantic vision, but it’s these rhythms of shop life that I love.
Sounds lovely! How did you decide on the name?
I spent 20 years away from ‘home’ and while for the most part I was having fun and enjoying life in London, I was also always dreaming of the idea of ‘home’ and think ultimately I am a country girl at heart so I always felt a little bit restless in the city, dreaming of being somewhere else. There was always a pull to come back home for a long weekend every 5 or 6 weeks. I’d be ready for a hug off Mum and Dad, breathe some country air, have a good walk and enjoy some big skies and lovely landscapes – the Staffordshire Moorlands and Peak District are beautiful! I remember feeling genuinely beside myself with excitement to get on a train from Euston to Stoke for Christmas, homeward bound, and it’s those feelings, the unshakeable sense of home, that I wanted to try and instil and put into the shop.
How would you describe the interior style of the store?
I’d say it’s quite smart and traditional, in keeping with the building we’re housed in. It’s a listed building on arguably one of the smartest streets in Leek with its many listed and heritage buildings. Ours has its very own blue plaque for its notable chimney pots, which was added this year. It has ‘good bones’ – some lovely architectural details to work with such as a decorative terracotta quarry tiled floor, a lovely sandstone frontage, an amazingly large nine paned window in the studio area and really tall ceilings. It’s a fairly small space but we’ve fitted it out to be sympathetic to the building, which I couldn’t have done without Jake who helped to build shelves, counter tops and hanging spaces, which I’ve then painted in some handsome traditional colours.
Tell us about the range of products you stock…
Our tagline is ‘good things well made’, so everything I sell is good quality and made to last. I come from a making, creative background so I’m interested in provenance – what things are made out of and how they are made. I am genuinely interested in a maker’s processes, their reference points and what inspires them and it feels really important to buy from like-minded folk who care about what they are putting out into the world. I only sell stuff that I like and would have in my own home and from people that I like. So it’s an absolute pleasure to showcase a growing range of small batch handmade pieces from a community of talented artists, craftspeople and makers.
We have lovely pieces of pottery, handwoven rugs and cushions, knitwear and candles, placemats and tea towels, a vintage chair or two that we’ve had reupholstered for the shop and also our own ‘Ette Range’ of oak benches and stools. This is a collaboration between Jake and myself, designed and made by us in Leek, using locally felled and seasoned Staffordshire Oak. It’s a mid century inspired, small-batch collection of footstools, side tables and benches with the option to add a detachable made-to-order seat pad for the benches and stools in a fabric of your choice.
I have never bought or wanted to stock plastic items, unless they were vintage or made from recycled plastic. That goes for my preferred choice of upholstery fabrics too. Recently I got involved with ‘Plastic-Free Communities’ and have been successful in becoming ‘a plastic-free champion’ so have looked closely at ways of reducing single-use plastics coming into the day-to-day running of the shop, as well as replacing or reducing plastic in anything that I make for it. A simple but good example is doing away with a zip altogether when making up cushions for the shop and switching to sheep wool cushion inners instead of nasty polyester hollow fibre.
What does a ‘normal’ day look like?
It’s quite a multitasking feat! As well as running the shop, I also offer a design and upholstery service from the studio. We supply a wide range of woven natural fabrics and a small range of screen printed artist-designed textiles and work with a select few, time-served professional upholsterers that are local to us in Staffordshire. I advise on colour and pattern and can help customers choose fabrics that will fit with their existing furniture and room schemes. I’m often down a rabbit hole looking for and gathering samples to help choose fabrics for customers, getting estimates from suppliers and putting quotes together. And there are always website updates to do!
How do you choose your wares?
I look for quality and authenticity over fads, fashion and trends. I like to think that everything at Homeward Studio is honest, thoughtfully designed and made with care and will last a lifetime.
Which item is your bestseller? Why do you think that is?
Our handmade oak Ette Benches are popular and also the cork placemats. Both of these items are useful, beautiful and sustainable, made from natural, renewable materials which pleases me no end.
Which items are your personal can’t-live-withouts?
I’m pretty obsessed with hand thrown pottery and love a good stoneware mug and bowl to use at home. There’s something lovely about using things that are hand made rather than machine and mass produced. I’ve read somewhere recently about having a meaningful relationship with the things you choose to buy and have in your home and that really resonated with me.
What do you enjoy most about running the store?
It has to be meeting my customers. They are lovely! I realise now how much I missed out on when Homeward existed in a shared space. It’s not just the chats and friendliness but also the feedback I get. It’s really valuable to listen to what people like in the shop and what they need. I also love being able to curate and display my wares.
You’re passionate about sustainability – reusing and utilising furniture. Can you tell us more about this?
Creating a special, one-off chair and restoring old furniture is one of our favourite things to do.
I’ve always chosen vintage and antique stuff rather than new and enjoy browsing at markets and shopping for it. When I was living in London I was known to pick up the odd abandoned chair and other pieces of furniture from people’s front gardens and give them a makeover for my own home.
As part of our recent wedding gift, I had a bentwood deco armchair I found over 20 years ago in someone’s front garden in Tooting Bec reupholstered in a lovely textured wool flax cloth from our range of fabrics in the shop.
I worked as a specialist decorator in London, where I transformed all sorts of furniture with new paint and decorative effects, sometimes making over entire kitchens. So in that respect, I’ve been working in the circular economy for years, transforming things and giving them a new and longer life.
One of my biggest joys has been the transformation of many vintage chairs. I’ll find a chair at an auction or fair and find a fabric to suit it. We’d never detract from an antique chair’s individual history or style, and always try to respect the chair’s original era, often by reupholstering it in beautiful contemporary fabrics that subtly enhance its design.
I’ve picked up on my decorating skills too and have completed a few one- off pieces of hand painted furniture for Homeward using decorative paint effects, which was fun and I’d love to do more for the shop.
You have a studio in the store too – how do you balance things?
As folks enter the studio bit I keep finding myself apologising that it’s not quite finished! We’ve been so busy this year as the shop move coincided with our house move and subsequent renovation so it’s been all go! But they don’t seem to mind at all and are excited and interested to see behind the scenes and accept that it’s a working room where there may be bundles of fabric being sorted through, or a growing collection of vintage bits and bobs waiting to be made shop ready. I’m lucky that I also have access to Jake’s workshop just down the road to get the messy, dusty work done there.
What is the neighbourhood like around the store?
Leek is an attractive market town right on the edge of the Peak District with a thriving community. It has everything you need.
Leek has a thriving community of independent shops and creative businesses and I’ve been struck by how many times folks walk into the shop and say ‘I love Leek’. It’s a genuinely well thought of town with great weekly markets, its own arts centre, open studio event, great indie shops and lovely places to eat and drink. I’m excited to join the mix.
The strong independent shop scene was fuelled by the Totally Locally scheme, which had just been set up in town when I first came to live here back in 2011. It’s also a really creative town with lots of artists, makers, creative studios and businesses dotted about town. All the indie shops are extremely hard working, talented, encouraging and lovely.
What has been your career highlight (so far)?
I think it has to be finally opening my own shop after all these years of thinking about it! We are very much in the early days so I’d like to think in that respect, the best is yet to come.
What do you wish you’d known before opening the store? Any advice for those thinking about opening their own shop?
I wished I’d done it sooner! There’s so much value in being face to face with your customers and I think it’s much more fun than online. It’s a place for me to be more organised and make plans, which feels so much easier with everything under one roof.I think it’s important to make it a space you are comfortable in and happy to hang out in and equally a space that feels interesting and inspiring for your customers. It’s not the easiest of times for the high street but I feel lucky that I’ve found good landlords who haven’t tied me into a long and expensive shop lease, which feels very reassuring too.
60b St Edward St, Stoke-on-Trent, Leek