Summerill & Bishop's Seb Bishop On His Late Mother & Why The Table is the Heart of a Home - The Grace Tales

Summerill & Bishop’s Seb Bishop On His Late Mother & Why The Table is the Heart of a Home

While this pandemic has brought unbelievable sadness, suffering and stress, as the weeks have unfolded, the silver linings have quietly emerged...

For me, one of the biggest blessings has been sitting down with my family for dinner every night. We never used to do this. Mid-week, I’d feed the kids, then my husband and I would eat together later. It was just the routine we’d fallen into. It wasn’t something we prioritised or placed much importance on – it was just another thing on the to-do list. The weekends were always a time for us to come together, but mid-week just felt like one big marathon. But there’s no rush now. We’ve all pressed the pause button. And while there’s plenty of stress in our household, coming together at our table reminds me of what’s most important in life – my family.

According to research, children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits. It’s such a simple ritual and one that I won’t be letting go of once we press play on all of our lives again. It has also reminded me of how much I miss entertaining and while I might not cook (I do a great cheese plate and salad, or anything that doesn’t require cooking, according to my husband), I love having friends and family at our table. Mostly, because as someone creative, I love setting a table, putting fresh flowers in a home, and making the table look special for our guests. Which is why when I first discovered Summerill & Bishop a few years ago, I quickly realised I’d found the most dreamy tablewear store in London, home to the world’s most beautiful tablecloths.

The store was founded by best friends June Summerill and Bernadette Bishop, who wrote the business plan for the store together on a notepad, perched at a local café. Inspired by home cooking, entertaining and the table being the heart of a home, more than anything, they wanted it to be a “happy, inspirational place to be — where people will want to spend comfortable time.” The store first opened its doors on 18th May, 1994 in London’s Holland Park and it has remained on the same quiet, leafy corner of Clarendon Cross ever since.

It was when Bernadette passed away in 2014, that her son Seb Bishop took on the role of CEO (he was formerly the CEO of Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP). “Sunday lunch was particularly important in our household – even after my brother and I both moved out, we would always go back with our own families most Sundays. Until she passed away it was a very important part of our family dynamic,” recalls Bishop. Today, he’s passionate about reminding his customers – new and old – that the table is the most important place in the house. “It is where you make life’s biggest decisions and surround yourself with those most important to you,” he says. “I believe passionately that mealtimes are becoming increasingly important because society is moving at a faster pace, technology is taking over our lives and digital devices are consuming so much of our time. Spending more time at the table means that we communicate better, are truly present for our family and friends and vitally learn the art of conversation and storytelling at an early age. I know I did.”

Today, the company continues to celebrate the tabletop – the place where families share the day-to-day, where big decisions and announcements are made and where those most important to you gather for meals and celebrations. Their heavenly tablecloths are designed in their Notting Hill studio and stocked at retailers around the world from Matches to Liberty London to Moda Operandi.

In the spirit of supporting businesses we adore, I caught up with Seb to talk about his most vivid memories of his mother, his love of the table and I also share my top 10 items from Summerill & Bishop (which is near impossible to do, by the way, given everything is so divine).

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Seb Bishop

What are your most vivid memories of your mother? 

Where do I start – there are so many – we had so many happy times. She had the most beautiful smile and she would light up rooms with her incredible energy. My most vivid seem to all involve mum calling my brothers and I down for dinner and sharing wonderful family meals – or being dragged out of bed at some awful time in the morning to make sure that we were the first at the Brocante. She was at her happiest in the South of France and my most vivid memories down there are of her running after me, to put sunscreen on my nose, when I was a kid. That and playing backgammon at the side of the pool on scorching hot days – we would both be standing in the water to cool down. I miss her so much.

What do you remember about the home she created for you...

I really love the Maya Angelou quote “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Probably because I always think of mum when I think of it.  She had a real skill for making people feel welcome and ‘at home’.

I grew up in a very social house. There would always be guests over for Sunday lunch and my parents would have many dinner parties, with different guests every week, which my brother and I loved as we got to stay up late and join everyone for dessert.  It was a warm and welcoming household. From a young age, mum and dad wanted us at the table with them, even at their ‘grown-up’ dinner parties – they saw it as a vital part of our education and development. Our family home was beautifully elegant as mum filled it with pieces she found on her travels, alongside special items that were handed down from my grandmother in Aix. Dad was a fashion photographer, so we also had his beautiful photos everywhere.

S&B is inspired by your mother’s and June’s love of gathering friends and family around a table – what do you remember about how she liked to entertain?

She would always get the table ready the night before a lunch, or for a dinner party, she would get the table ready in the morning before she went to work.  It was very important to her. The guests were always an eclectic mix of interesting people from the worlds of fashion, music, entertainment, and film. It was a little rock and roll. I have a lot of memories of being sent out to the garden to forage for beautiful huge leaves in Autumn (I think from an old London Plane tree), to use as place-settings or decorations. They really have stuck with me. She always lit a lot of candles before the guests arrived and music would be playing. She was an incredible cook and liked to re-create dishes she and my father had discovered in restaurants around the world. Food was a passion for her – she even wrote a vegetarian cookbook back in 1979.

What do you remember of the early days when the store first opened?

I remember it being so beautiful and feeling very proud that my mum and June had set up their own business. At the time there weren’t many role models for female entrepreneurs, so they really were ahead of the curve. I would often just pop down to the store and sit at the table to talk to mum for long periods of time – it was such a lovely place to be. I will always remember the annual Clarendon Cross Christmas party, which was one of the coolest places to be. For a small kitchen shop, the guest list was quite incredible!

You like to say that the table is the ‘heart of the home!’…

The impact on society of the family meal is huge, which is why I believe that mobile phones and tablets do not belong at the table during a meal. Our experience has shown us that there is a direct relationship between the time spent creating a beautiful table-scape and the time your guests and family will spend at the table, which is why it is so important. People will stay longer at a table that is beautifully laid and the foundation for this, for me, is a beautiful tablecloth.

We were delighted earlier this year when a study published by the University of Hohenheim validated our findings. They showed that not only do people spend longer at a table dressed with a tablecloth, but even more excitingly they showed that using a tablecloth makes the food taste better … More than any other external factor that they tested.  After all, we eat with our eyes as well. So, a tablecloth can compensate for a multitude of disasters in the kitchen!

Every time we sell a tablecloth, I know that people are going to slow down, gather, and sit around it – which is an incredible feeling.

Talk me through the process behind your exquisite tablecloths…

When we entered the market all we could find were thousands of tablecloths out there that were uninspiring repetitive patterns, because it is the cheapest way to produce a tablecloth. Effectively cutting a length of material to fit the table. However, we approached it differently. We do not start from the material, we design to frame the table and make it our hero. All designs are built around this foundation to make the most of the tables shape. It is also very important to us that it looks beautiful from any angle in the room and at any entry point – so this is all part of our consideration. In the design studio we also have another important rule, “if we are not willing to hang the tablecloth on our walls as a piece of art, then it has no place on the table either”.  So, this is always how we judge any designs.

There’s a range of tablecloths and napkins featuring the flower she used to draw – how do these pieces make you feel?

Incredibly proud. When I took over the business the year after mum died in 2014 I had no idea what we were going to do with it and which direction we were going to take it in. However, my brother walked in a few months into the project with mum’s cookbook (published by her back in 1979), that he had found in my grandmother’s attic.  In it, my mum had written a note to my grandmother and signed it with her trademark flower.

Whenever she wrote a letter or signed a card, she would always use this flower as her signature. It represents so much about her, so it suddenly seemed the most natural idea to have a range of tablecloths and napkins featuring the flower in her honor.  It was a wonderful opportunity for me to create something beautiful that would mean she was still at the table with us. The flower was, therefore, our first tablecloth design and its success inspired me to focus the business around the tablecloth. Having the flower around reminds me of my purpose on a daily basis and the legacy that I want to continue for mum and June. It grounds me and reminds me of why I am doing this, which is helpful, as having built and been involved in many digital businesses I would have laughed 10 years ago if you told me I would ever go into retail and run a bricks and mortar shop. Breakages, returns, and stock management was never part of my vocabulary. So, it is good to remind myself just why I am doing this and the importance of what we are trying to achieve here. Every time we sell a tablecloth and get people together around a table I know mum will be looking down with a smile on her face.

You’ve collaborated with some incredible creatives – how do these collaborations come about?

Most of our collaborators have been long term friends or customers of S&B so already share our passion and vision for the table. We are very lucky to have an incredible mix of very creative and eclectic contacts to choose from. Most importantly for any collaborator, they need to be people we enjoy sitting around the table with, the design process needs to be fun.

How has the way we entertained changed over the years?

Whereas in the past the focus had been mainly on the food preparation, now the emphasis is shared between the food and the way it is presented. Our customers understand that a meal should be savored, not rushed, so the environment you serve it in is hugely important, as much if not more than the food. We have been saying this for many years, but even we did not anticipate how huge the rise of the ‘tablescape’ as a social media phenomenon has been! The way you lay your table sets the mood for the evening and a beautifully laid table will instantly make your guests feel welcome. There is nothing like arriving to an unlaid table and a stressed cook to make you feel like you are in the way!

We obviously believe that all the best ‘tablescapes’ start with the tablecloth as a canvas. A tablecloth can be an extension of your wardrobe, a conductor to good conversation, and laughter, it is a canvas around which you often make life’s biggest decisions and surround yourself with those most important to you.  And now we know it can hide a multitude of culinary sins in the kitchens as well!

How do you want people to feel when they enter your store?

Inspired and welcome. The space that Mum and June created was always more about the atmosphere than anything else – they did this not just through the décor, but by the music they played and the candles/incense that they burned – the shop always smelt delicious! It was a place where friends old and new would be welcome, where they would sit at the table, always beautifully laid up, and put the world to rights. It felt like you were being welcomed into their homes. A lot of people talk about creating an experience in retail nowadays, but I think that Mum and June were the first to create that, long before the word was coined. I hope that we still manage to create that same sense of warmth and invitingness in the shops today and inspire people with our table settings.

What has this pandemic taught you?

I think it is too early for life lessons – but they will definitely come with time and hindsight. I am very grateful that my kids are of an age (11 & 14) where they still think my wife and I are cool enough to want to spend all this time with. They don’t yet have social lives that they are missing, so I really am appreciative of getting to spend this much time at home with them, as I know it is a luxury that I will most likely never get to experience again. Until I move back in with them when I’m 80 that is…

My top 10 from Summerill & Bishop