I first met Clare Piper when we worked together in the creative photography team at John Lewis where she freelanced as a stylist and designer. I was struck by her impeccably refined taste, larger than life personality but most of all her sheer unadulterated sassiness.
We would often work together, randomly breaking out into song or pirouetting across the set and basically having a great time together while shooting.
We sat down together in her bright and airy flat in London, which as you would expect is a stylist's dream with beautifully arranged, edited objects from her travels, work and her friends. Including a recently painted portrait by the photographer, Graeme Duddridge. We talked about her rural Devonshire upbringing and how this has formed her love of the countryside, the journey that lead her into styling and what inspires her. Full Q&A at the bottom of this journal post.
Clare chose pieces from North and styled them in different areas of her home, with her friend and photographer Dunja Opalko taking the beautiful images, including the portrait that perfectly captures her personality. I loved seeing my products come to life in this setting and also how she accessorised them with her own objects. This of course is all part of Clare's job as a stylist, but for me, it was inspiring to see how she interpreted the products I've chosen and spent time developing and made them her own.
Clare Piper Q&A 14/04/18
DH: Tell me about your upbringing in Devon.
CP: I grew up in a small village called Plymtree in east Devon and lived in a quiet cul-de-sac. My friends lived on the same street and we would ride our bikes, play shops, make daisy chains; the classic Devon upbringing.
My dad is a wine merchant and set up his business when he was young. My mum is a nurse but I think she would have done something creative if given the chance. She’s always been great at sewing and making curtains, she's also done some reupholstering and is an amazing gardener. I think that has been her creative outlet, the garden looks so lovely. There's a very creative side to my dad's work in wine. Every year he makes Beaujolais wine in France during the harvest season, which he's been doing for decades. I've got quite involved in recent years, I go and pick grapes and take lots of photos. I love immersing myself in the rural French life and staying in the amazing chateau.
My dad has inspired me to work for myself, as that's what he's done and I've seen him work really hard, starting from nothing, build his way up and now he has a really successful business.
My grandparents ran a hotel, but by the time I was born my Grandpa had passed away and my granny had retired. She always had very high standards of how things should be done and I think that filtered down to me. She would have the right plates, the right cutlery and we’d have proper tea on nice china and I really appreciate that. Even though it's not a creative field, it's a hospitable field where things were to look nice.
DH: So you're a rural girl? What are you doing in London?
CP: I think so, it’s always in the back of my mind “When I move to the countryside” - it's a no-brainer for me. I love being by the sea, that's important to me. Doing this job you’re tied to London, and I feel at home here but there is a little bit of a love/hate relationship as you love it and need it because you couldn't do this kind of work in the sticks but equally it would be nice to have a bit more of a balance, which is why we got a car a couple of years ago, mostly for work but we also needed that sense of freedom and adventure.
And that's the luxury of being freelance, I can immerse myself in work and then in the summer I usually take a few weeks off and do things like the grape picking or spend some time in the Devon countryside.
I like the contrast and I think I need both in my life. I’m inspired by landscapes that aren't in London, I think it's important for our careers to see spaces that are out of the city.
DH: When did you first realise you had an artistic flair? How did your creativity manifest itself?
CP: So, there are a couple of things that come to mind. The first is colouring books and how perfectly I wanted to colour them in. I’d like to outline them all perfectly first and make sure nothing went over the edges, I was a perfectionist in the making and I was only around 3.
And when I was a bit older and was able to move larger things like furniture, my mum would get home from work and I’d have completely rearranged the living room and she was so great letting me do my thing as it must have been chaos for her. I have always changed my room around, I loved to see a room completely change by the placement of objects, so I knew from a very young age that that was something I was good at.
DH: You were unknowingly styling and changing interior spaces!
CP: Yes and I got such a kick out of it but I didn't know it was a career until I got to university.
DH: So how did you get into styling?
CP: I went to university in Bristol and did a fashion degree and it was during that time that I realised I wasn't doing that degree because I loved fashion as such, but it was a creative outlet. It was good training for me, quite brutal. As you know from working in fashion yourself, it can be very intense.
I realised the part I loved was set styling for the shoots, getting the props together and the background of things rather than the model or the clothing. Luckily my course had a 2D option, so rather than making a collection you could art direct a magazine and that's how I realised I wanted to be a prop stylist and was starting to learn that it was actually a career.
After university I had the gloomiest summer of my life, temping back home in Devon at the Rural Payments Agency, writing down the number of cows that had died that week on a spreadsheet. It was bleak but one lunchtime I received a call from Studio Toogood (http://fayetoogood.com/) offering me an internship. I had 2 weeks to get to London and start, luckily my boyfriend Josh was already in living there, so I moved straight in with him and started. That was my first real experience and I learned a lot from Faye, she was amazing and she still continues to be a serious source of inspiration for me. Recently they kindly lent me her spade chair for a test shoot I did with the photographer Oli Douglas (http://www.olidouglas.co.uk/), which was a real honour as I remember it being produced during my time at the studio.
DH: Where did you go after your internship?
CP: When it finished there were a couple of dark months where I was applying for jobs and not hearing anything but a friend managed to get me a job in a shop on Oxford Street and it was so awful that on my lunch break on the second day, I walked up Regent Street to Anthropologie, asked for the manager and told her I love Anthropologie and the homewares and asked if there were any jobs. She loved my enthusiasm and told me to send her my CV. So I started at Anthropologie shortly after and worked there for 6 months, made some really good friends and just being around that product exercised my vision and sculpted my taste. It was a very visual environment and helped to train my eye further.
After this, I got a job as a photographic assistant with Hangar Seven, a creative agency in Old Street, who were working on a big project for John Lewis. I had an amazing interview with the Art Buyer Caroline Palmer, who I will always be grateful to as she took a chance on me.
I loved it and had such a good time, it was a lovely introduction to the industry. The work I was recruited for wasn't the most inspiring; I was polishing glasses for e-com and putting products on set for photographer Rosie Holdsworth who I was assisting and still absolutely adore. She was very forgiving as I’d regularly disappear to go and look on the home sets, which was more what I wanted to be involved in. I spent the year training my eye, learning about room sets, saw how it worked and often got asked to help out if there was too much work on the creative and styling side as Caroline knew that was the direction I wanted to go in.
When the contract came to an end Caroline returned to Hangar Seven and she took me with her as a freelance stylist. I went back to the fashion side of things temporarily and was launched into being a freelancer out of chance. I would never have imagined a year into my career going freelance, it sounds ludicrous with no contacts under your belt but I'm thankful I did, I was fearless!
I started building a still life and interiors portfolio and began doing test shoots. An early one was with Antosh Sergiew (http://www.sergiewphotography.com) which is actually still part of my portfolio now as I still really love it. I was learning as I went, learning about lighting, developing my visual eye and improving and refining it.
I returned to John Lewis for a meeting with the Art Director Steven Williams (https://www.stevenaronwilliams.com/) who I’d met during my time there. He knew I wanted to be an interior stylist, I showed him my portfolio and he booked me on a job to see how I’d do. I remember the first set I worked on so clearly and I was in my element, the product was all buddha's and candles everywhere, which makes me laugh now but it was such a fun and I was elated to be doing it.
So that's how I got in. John Lewis! I have a lot to thank it for, particularly Steven who believed in me.
DH: What do you like most about your job?
CP: It's a privilege to be around beautiful things all the time. I get to work in some fantastic spaces with lots of different people, making some of the best friends of my life along the way. The variety is amazing and there's no way I will ever get bored of doing what I do, and that's a really amazing thing to be able to say about work. No two days are the same and I still get excited about what I do every day.
DH: You get sent lots of beautiful things, what are some of your favourite pieces?
CP: Definitely ceramics. Whenever I'm lent ceramics I’m literally like “I need to buy a dinner set”. The tones, the textures, I don't think you'd look at my work and think its earthy or painterly but there's definitely a side to me, perhaps the rural side that loves the handmade, crafted feel. It's nice when objects feel like they are small batch or a one-off. I love quality and design and to know someone has sat down, thought of how they want their piece to look and has handmade it is a beautiful thing. I really appreciate that craft and skill.
With ceramics and pottery, particularly your pieces, I love the natural, organic, untouched palette but I also love highly pigmented things which is where the colour comes into my work. I appreciate the whole spectrum and certain unexpected colour combinations. This year I’m absolutely loving lilac with red which I noticed when I was wearing a lilac jumper and put on a really bright red lip.
A big thing for me is colour. I am obsessed with it and I think that's something that my agent Tattersall Love (www.tattersall-love.com) picked up on, my work is very led by colour. It's my starting point and a lot of things come from that.
Fabrics, especially linens. I love the Ren cushion you have, I've been following Ren for a long time on Instagram and I love her palette. There is something when you apply print to fabric, the tones that you get from it, you see it in a different way.
Things I'm coveting at the moment are Saskia Pomerol's wiggle vases, Freight HHG's brass pepper mill, Stoff Studio's new collection of screen printed glasses and the Small Batch Goods macrame jute shopper!
DH: Tell me about your style of image making.
CP: I’d love to ask you how you interpret it. I’m not working to achieve a style it's just my style, it's hard to explain what your look is as you do it naturally and don't think about it. If I was an outsider of my work looking in, I’d say my style is quite calm, I like space and allowing products to breathe, but for things to not feel too sparse or minimal. I have an eye for colour.
DH: I think 'edited' is a good word to describe your style.
CP: I agree, 'edited' is a good word to describe it. Edited and considered without being too minimal or cold.
DH: What would be your dream project? Who would you love to work with?
CP: I would love to one day do up a property. I'd want it to be a house that I can transform and do up myself and have people to come into that space and enjoy it - it must be the hospitality thing in me. I love to make people feel welcome and I want to look after them, I’ve got this natural nursing instinct, thanks, mum! I wish I had a spare room because all I want is for friends and family to come and stay. It’s lame but I literally dream about the day I have a spare room, lay the towels out at the end of the bed, do little hot water bottles, candles on the mantelpiece. I don't know what it is but I genuinely want people to feel comfy and that's why I want a house. I’d love it to be a location space and see how other people come in and use it, similar to Marianne Cotterill’s location house.
Dream projects for now; I look at campaigns for H&M and think that's what I want to be doing, they are really inspiring. Similarly Zara Home, their campaigns always blow me away. I'm pretty excited to be working on Nkuku's AW lookbook later this month.
There is so much talent out there and I'm making it my mission to collaborate with as many inspiring people as possible this year.
Essence + Alchemy scented candle - £45
Photography by Dunja Opalko
Styling by Clare Piper
Written by Daniel Hubbard