Lizzie Mary Cullen: The drawing's on the wall

Her imposing murals have been used by Somerset House, but Lizzie Cullen's biggest challenge was transforming her tiny flat into a stylish home. She tells Huma Qureshi how she did it
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The Independent Online

When you think of living somewhere romantic, a flat on the edge of an industrial estate in south-east London might not be quite what comes to mind.

Yet romantic is exactly how acclaimed artist and award-winning illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen describes her home, a small two-bedroom flat tucked away at the top of a spiral staircase, at the end of a quiet vacant road overlooking red-brick warehouses.

"I love that it's so industrial around here," she says. "It feels quite quirky and slightly raw. I've always wanted to live in a romantic hovel, and that's what it feels like up here. It's very quiet, very peaceful and it's somewhere I can work and live."

Cullen designs wall murals and pen-and-paper prints of crowded cityscapes, so it's no surprise that she's inspired by being surrounded by city buildings; a view of a warehouse from her kitchen window didn't put her off the way it might have done any other potential buyer.

"My illustrations are city views of real places," she explains. "They illustrate where I was going and where I've been, literally mapping my journeys. I call it alternative cartography, mapping and recording the sense of childish wonderment that comes from seeing somewhere for the first time. You can map anything, really: a body by its scars, this old flat of mine by the damage in the brickwork. I map real places that mean real things."

It's been nearly two years since Cullen moved into her flat, which she bought two years ago when she was 23 years old, the result of saving the earnings from her first job for a deposit and a little bit of help from the bank of mum and dad. "I bought it right in the middle of the recession. It was scary, and it still scares me thinking I've got a mortgage, but now I'm so glad that I've got somewhere to put down roots. And I love the flat so much."

In the last two years, Cullen's career has taken off, winning acclaimed design awards, launching a celeb-studded exhibition at The Framers Gallery and drawing wall murals for big clients such as Harvey Nichols and Zizzi. She also raised thousands of pounds for the Big Issue charity with her first solo exhibition.

Her successful run has enabled her to quit her job as a designer on a magazine and work from home full-time as an illustrator and designer, unfurling reams of paper on to the living room floor or her bedroom table and settling down to draw with her trademark black fineliner pens while her lop-eared pet rabbits, Maud and Norman, hop around her.

"It's difficult not to work through the night when I'm drawing. I do risk being a bit of a hermit, but it's not hard for me to work at home. I'll have a movie on in the background, and then when I really get into it, I don't pay much attention to anything else and the drawing starts to take form."

Despite its non-romantic outside location, Cullen has transformed her first-time buyer flat, which she shares with her childhood friend Faye as well as her house rabbits, into the dreamy artist's home she'd always wanted while growing up.

"When I was younger, my dad gave me a copy of The English Dreamers, a book full of whimsical pre-Raphaelite paintings," she explains. "I've always wanted to recreate that feel and to live somewhere inspiring. When I moved in here, it was completely plain and I was ready to put my stamp on it. I had in mind the idea of living in a Victorian sewing workshop, with fabrics flowing and draped everywhere."

With her wavy long hair, velvet skirt and laced-up boots, Cullen looks every inch the pre-Raphaelite and true to form, she's filled her home with pre-Raphaelite prints, vintage floral fabrics and flea-market furniture, all bargains found within a first-time buyer's budget (one of the most expensive pieces of furniture, an antique carved cabinet picked up at the Tower Bridge antiques market, cost £125; everything else is either cheaper, second-hand or salvaged).

Despite being a little on the small side, the flat is full of drama, feature walls and statement pieces, all cleverly put together inexpensively but creatively.

One living room wall is covered from floor to ceiling with cheap pine frames from Tesco, holding prints of magazine cuttings, old postcards, dress patterns and the occasional object such as a key or badge. It's an impressive but not overwhelming feature showing that a little creativity can go far without costing the earth; elsewhere in the kitchen, Cullen has indulged her romantic side even more, framing Rob Ryan cards ("His words make my heart bleed," she says).

In another corner, there's a massive faux-vintage mirror bought at the Grand Designs show for £80, an old-fashioned lamp with an imposing floral shade picked up at Greenwich market for £30 and an ornate French-style telephone table, a bargain found at a car-boot sale in Cullen's home town of Royal Leamington Spa for £15.

Even small details are precious bargain finds, such as a pair of old, tapestry-style curtains that Cullen found in a charity shop and now uses as a throw on the couch, and cushions picked up for no more than £2 on eBay. It all shows that small-scale dimensions and tight floorplans don't mean you have to sacrifice character or individual style, even when on a budget.

"Going 'antiquing' is really fun," says Cullen, who has spent many a weekend foraging at markets with her housemate. "I'm lucky that Faye has a really good eye and a lovely sense of style. It's been really fun putting the flat together with her. I think you should always have someone to go with you when you're shopping for home pieces; it's not as much fun when you're on your own."

The drama continues in Cullen's bedroom, which is dominated by luxuriously dark William Morris floral wallpaper, while the wall behind her bed is taken up by one of her own hand-drawn prints of London by night and a free-flowing wall mural she has penned straight on to the wall.

There's another mural in the living room, interweaving flowers and swirls in black and white that look like they've been drawn in pencil. "If I had it my way, I'd have a huge mural in the living room, and maybe a bit of colour," she says. "But I'm lucky Faye's on hand to stop me from getting too out of control."

The end result is a deeply theatrical, romantic and opulent look, but it's never too serious or too old-fashioned – a close look at her bedroom walls reveal she's a closet Spider-Man and Spider-Girl geek, with bits of comic strips in spray-painted Poundland frames making a mini-artwork feature.

"I love Spider-Man comics!" she says, pulling out a hardback book from her little library stashed in what was once an old fireplace. "It's cool, fun and vibrant – sort of how I'd like my designs to be seen."

Impressively, given the scale of Cullen's work (such as her huge imposing wall murals for Zizzi), she still prefers to work from home and not from a studio. "You should have seen this place a fortnight ago, I was making a papier-mâché ribbon for Clerkenwell Design Week and it looked like a bomb had gone off in the living room! But I quite like the routine of working from home, settling down with a cup of tea to draw. I'm a creature of habit – I just get on with it."

Several of her drawings, of New York streets and parts of London, hang in the lounge and in her bedroom; the drawings look like pretty illustrations for a children's book, with skyscrapers twisting into starry night skies, and the Thames pencilled in swirls and curls.

"It's like second nature for me to draw now. There's something so magical about recording a journey, to capture places that mean something and have an emotion to them. That's all I'm trying to do."