Knitted furniture debut at Tent London

Why LDF first-timer Melanie Porter is spinning a yarn, says Annie Deakin
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‘Tent London is a scary thought,’ admits knitted furniture designer Melanie Porter who has never before exhibited at a show. ‘It’s the first time I will stand in front of people to show off my product and see their faces.’ Opening today at the Old Truman Brewery in London’s East End, Tent London is one of the largest design trade shows taking place during this month’s London Design Festival.

Porter’s nerves are understandable; over 19,000 international trade buyers, design savvy media and consumers will scour the 200 exhibitors at the four-day event that closes this Sunday. There will be concrete benches from Budapest, rugs from Australia, flat-pack seating from Japan - and knit-covered chairs by Porter. ‘I’m nervous because people either love or hate my designs. I get very strong reactions,’ Porter says of her hand-knitted covered furniture, lamps, clocks, cushions tables and chairs which sell through the design boutique of 'I’ve had to knit like mad to create things representational of my work like a knitted laptop cover. If people say, ‘I hate that’, I will try and laugh. I know it’s a reaction to the knitting of their childhood and to the bad jumpers their mothers forced them to wear. I take it as a reaction to knitting, rather than personal criticism.’

Knitting has always been Porter’s thing – her grandmother taught her as a child and she spent ten years knitting for major fashion houses Burberry and N.Peal. ‘I can’t remember not knowing how to knit,’ she remarks. In 2008, after failing to find a fabric to re-cover a chair, she knitted it a cover. Unwittingly, it was the start of a new career. ‘People kept phoning to ask for other versions of my knitted chair. It quickly became a business,’ says the Central St.Martin’s graduate. ‘I got more excited by the furniture and less so about the fashion. It was a big jump to step away from a full time career and salary at the end of month but it was exciting to be back at the core of the design.’ Today, Porter sources and restores vintage pieces mostly from Sunbury antique fair at Kempton Park racecourse.

In addition to showing at Tent London, Porter’s work is dotted around the capital during London Design Festival. She has re-designed the iconic Sound Chair for Natuzzi’s Chair Affair exhibition in their Tottenham Court Road shop. Over in Notting Hill, Porter’s knitting creativity has gone extreme; ‘I’ve created two knit-covered freaky mannequins, a man and a woman, at the lifestyle boutique Wolf and Badger. Their fingers stretch down to the floor and they have long-cabled necks. It was a completely creative challenge and a nice escape from having to be commercially viable.’

Once she gets over her nerves, who is Porter looking forward to seeing at Tent London? 'I’ve admired and got into conversations on Twitter with Abigail Borg who I’m looking forward to meeting. She makes beautiful hand-painted floral wallpaper with natural and bold prints in a vintage style. I’m also looking forward to seeing Zoe Murphy's fabric-covered furniture and the unusual coloured glassware by Curiouser and Curiouser.

Tent London - a scary thought? Porter should have more confidence in her work. Amongst the interior great and good, her knit-covered chairs and clocks hold their own. 'I think people like my stuff because I can tell them about each little stitch. Clients keep asking me about the provenance; where I find the yarn, who does the knitting etc. Social responsibility might not be the right term, but it’s the origin of where things come from. It's the hands-on approach.'

Annie Deakin is interiors writer for sofa and interior design website