INTERIORS: CHRISTMAS MESSAGE FROM AN ANGEL
To the enthusiasts who flock to her eccentric shop, designer Angel is hailed as the last word in taste. But, as Dinah Hall finds, she is content to be seen as the large lady creating small objects of desire
Sunday 11 December 1994
But in the world of interiors it is not Angel's size they talk about - it is her eye. Angel's eye is fabled, legendary; and her shop with the equally legendary name, Tobias and the Angel, is the stuff of stylists' dreams. It is a mixture of refugees from the past: raffia-embroidered tea cosies, linen sheets, thick rustic pottery, small objects of desire; utilitarian beauty from the present: lilac and red dusters, plain string- coloured cloths and linen scrim, tied with ribbons in bundles so seductive that you have to get a grip on yourself (it is, you have to keep reminding yourself, only a pile of floor cloths); stuff that Angel herself has made: teddy bears dressed in clothes made from scraps of antique fabrics, gilded flowerpots; and strings of objets trouvs: a dried mushroom dyed red, a gold walnut, a starfish, an antique button. `We used to call them just strings,' explains Angel, `until one day a lady came in and told us they were objets trouvs.' She and her staff now try to introduce the heavily emphasised expression into conversation as often as they can. `Oh, I'm great trouv-er of objets,' she declares.
Angel opened 10 years ago with her partner, the Tobias of the shop's title, from whom she is now "divorced", while still keeping custody of the name. Their names were, you might say, a godsend, though in fact Angel is not her baptismal name; she was given it at university. Her family knew her as Biddy, which she hated - "it sounds like a workhorse; Biddy was always the cook in the kitchen, the washer of Jesus' feet. Nothing glamorous about it."
Angel finds the whole idea of being the Queen of Taste very funny - "Oh Angel, you've got such wonderful taste," she mimics, "mm, mm, kiss, kiss, kiss." But her business is something she takes very seriously. Christmas is a major production here in White Hart Lane, where chi-chi Barnes threatens to fizzle out and become mundane Mortlake, and where a few unglamorous traders - motor mechanics, launderettes and Indian newsagents - are still holding their own against a tidal wave of decorating and antique shops.
For four days each November the windows of the shop are blacked out while Angel and a team of helpers set about creating Christmas. Angel is the motivator, her brother Sean the doer. "You know those builders who always say `Oh you can't do that'," explains Angel, "Sean is the opposite." This year what she had in mind was a small cottage in the shop, with a bedroom window looking out on to a gloriously gloomy garden of lilies of the valley, hyacinths and amaryllis planted in tin tubs, old wooden sieves and enamel mugs. Sean's solution was to dismantle a derelict shack in the country and rebuild it in the shop.
Re-using things is a driving force in Angel's life. "I think it's a matter of feeling sorry for things," she muses, "but it's a wonderful feeling when you can use even the tiniest scrap of marvellous cloth to make something new."
Her Christmas baubles are upholstered in sections of old fabric, the joins covered in braid and then they are embellished with old beads or sequins. She also makes exquisite trios of padded hearts and shoe decorations out of antique fabrics. Nothing is cheap: at the same time as people are wandering round the shop loudly proclaiming, "It's a poem, an absolute poem," you can also hear quite a lot of sharp intakes of breath and incredulous whispers as tweed-skirted ladies try to convince each other that the decimal point is in the wrong place.
Angel is not apologetic about her prices - after all, she knows exactly how much labour went in to each piece. And however much some customers may mutter under their breath, "I could do that", the truth is that they probably couldn't. The sewing she does is a lost art these days when for the average female a running stitch is something one gets in the side during aerobics.
Angel did O-level needlework but it was handling old things and seeing "the beautiful way they were stitched that made me want to do it. The trouble today is that people want everything to be quick - and so the world gets filled with badly made things. This is why I hate all these `craft' books with their `short cuts'; all they do is diminish expertise." But she hates the idea of being thought of as someone who rejects the new. "I think it's just that it's easier to judge quality when things are worn because you are not seduced by their immediacy. I suppose you could say I was a coward. But also if you're buying second hand you are generally getting better value because you are not paying the initial making price. I mean, I can never get over the fact that you can buy hand- woven linen sheets."
So when it comes to decorations Angel thinks it's far better to buy just two of something that has been beautifully made in Britain than to buy cheaper mass-produced ornaments from the Far East - though she does have these as well, discriminately selected. "Oh, please don't make me sound precious," she begs, "no one is totally refined all of the time. It's like eating sliced white toast with Golden Shred - we all have our moments."
To appreciate that last sentence you have to understand that Angel really loves food, good food. She talks about it with great enthusiasm, unlike most overweight people, who like to create the impression that their layers of extra flesh crept up on them while they weren't looking. So when you tactfully ask Angel if she was a big child, expecting her then to reveal some diabolical glandular problem, she laughs hugely as she remembers how she used to sneak off to neighbouring farms in the German countryside where she lived as a child to cadge meals off the farmers' wives by telling them her mother didn't feed her.
Angel's childhood - and particularly her mother, who is a constant source of reference in her conversation - was obviously enormously influential in her creative development. The imagery of childhood remains very vivid to her and there is something about her delight in objects that is still essentially childish. And something of this is passed infectiously to her customers. When you go into her shop and handle the things she has made you are put in touch with your own childhood and feelings of creative omnipotence.
So yes, you tweed-skirted ladies, you can buy linen scrim and tea towels in John Lewis. But they won't be tied up in ribbon and have handwritten labels that say, "A pair of nice linen tea towels. £14." Nice. Who could put value on that?
8Tobias & the Angel, 68 White Hart Lane, London SW13 OPZ; 081-8782
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