Your place or mine?

Cayte Williams visits fashion partners whose neighbouring flats are in perfect sync
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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU'D THINK a fashion designer's home would be easy to spot. First there'd be the copies of Visionaire (the fash-person's ultimate style bible) lying on an exquisite coffee table; then you'd spy Prada bags just spilling out of the walk-in wardrobe; and finally you'd come face- to-face with Polaroids pinned to the kitchen wall of said designer hugging supermodels/actresses/whoever.

But the home of Burnstock Speirs, the hat design due who have now turned their hand to clothes, is the antithesis of flash. It's more Thirties Spanish hotel, the kind Hemingway (Ernest, not Margeaux) would have loved, than Nineties fashion pad. There is an atmosphere of tranquillity here, a far cry from their studio on the ground floor. They've been preparing frantically for their London Fashion Week show, which stars supermodel- of-the-month, Erin O'Connor.

It was all a bit of an accident that they ended up living and working in the same East End house. Paul bought the first floor flat in 1988, Thelma and her product designer husband bought the second floor flat soon after, and they all bought the ground floor flat two years later and converted it into a studio, shop and showroom. "It's a good way to live," says Thelma. "It's like a family or a little community. We're always having friends over and entertaining."

"When we first moved in," remembers Paul, "it was a typical builder's conversion, with hard-board over the floor and magnolia woodchip on the walls."

"We had hardly any furniture, because we'd always lived in rented, furnished houses," adds Thelma, "and Paul had been living at his mum's. It was a really nice space, but we didn't have an idea what to do with it. We grew into it, really. After we'd got rid of the woodchip."

Thelma's flat is the larger of the two, stretching over two floors. Her kitchen is now an old-fashioned, comfortable room with Latino influences - as if Wallace and Gromit had gone to South America and come back with surreal goodies. The lamp-shade is made from an over-sized metal colander and a huge old clock ticks away lazily on the wall. "It's very slow, but I like the noise," says Thelma.

An old-fashioned cooker, comfy chairs and original Thirties radio share space with Hispanic wine racks; a salvaged plank of wood acts as a shelf, supported by two ornate plaster plinths, and fairy lights weave in and out of mug-hooks. A faded wooden mirror looks like it's from the street markets of Spain but it's a local junk shop bargain. Even the white lace table cloth seems more Basque than Brick Lane.

A burgundy sofa and Indian coffee table dominate the living room, while silver-plated brass candlesticks and a black lamp, designed by her husband, bring the room up to date. The simple black and gold mirror on the far wall looks 100 per cent Seville but, again, it's a local bargain.

In the bedroom, the walls and cupboards are painted in a rich, deep burgundy. "It changes colour in the different light," explains Thelma, "it goes almost pink in the daylight and it's warm and womb-like at night."

Paul and Thelma are enviably relaxed about their space, and saunter from one flat to another. They have similar tastes in just about everything, and it's hard to tell where one home ends and the other begins. All the rooms, apart from the kitchen, have just the bare minimum - a bed, a chair, a cupboard; a sofa, a table, a row of books. Few pictures hang on the walls, and any ornaments are of the huge-and-striking rather than the small-and-fussy variety. The walls, apart from the burgundy exceptions, are painted in muted shades of sand or pistachio. Down in Paul's flat, the living room carries on the simple Thirties theme. It's plain apart from some striking objects, like a wire horse his friend bought him for his birthday ("from a junk shop, I suspect"), as well as dramatic mirrors from street markets in Spain. "There's a really great gypsy market just outside Barcelona," he explains, "and I just came back armed with loads of stuff. But the chairs are from a Hackney Road junk shop."

Paul has run a line of rope between the walls and the ceiling, and has tacked rope tassels to the top of the muslin curtains for impromptu valances. The walls are covered in William Morris-inspired wallpaper, giving the impression of faded grandeur.

It's hardly surprising that Paul and Thelma's flats are so similar. They've known each other for nearly 19 years, after meeting at Middlesex Polytechnic, where they were both studying fashion. After 10 years collaborating on a successful business designing hats, they turned their attentions to clothes in 1995, and now sell to Browns and shops in New York and Japan.

Their collection is fresh and modern, but their taste in furniture is anything but. "We don't really tend to buy new things," says Paul, "as we go shopping together a lot. We tend to buy things together and then decide who gets what. We've only argued once, and that was over a chair, which I ended up with!"

"The most we've ever paid for anything is the Moroccan chair in Thelma's hallway, which cost about pounds 100 from an antique shop in Islington," he continues. But the star mirror above it looks rather expensive. "That's made from papiermache," he explains. "I got it when I was about 12 from Brick Lane Market."

"Even the bed was pounds 35 and I bid for that in a Kingsland Road auction," adds Thelma. "I don't want to spend lots of money on furniture, I'd rather spend it on clothes."

The Bernstock Speirs shop is at 10 Columbia Road, London E2, 0171 729 7229

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