“I think I was scouring flea markets for vintage fabrics while holidaying in France as young as 14,” recalls Vanessa Barneby. It came as no surprise then, that she went on to work as a stylist for House & Garden UK and later VOGUE as their living editor, before co-founding her own wallpaper and fabric design company Barneby Gates, with best friend Alice Gates...
Between the two of them, they had five children in the first five years of the business. “Our babies just tended to come everywhere with us in those early years… it was mayhem really, but looking back I wouldn’t have done it any differently,” says Vanessa. The company began in 2009, launching with a collection of four wallpaper designs. Today, they have 46 different wallpaper designs, 21 fabric prints, and 10 cushions, all in a variety of colours. Everything is traditionally printed in the UK. And everything is heaven on earth, which makes it very hard to pick which wallpaper or fabric you want (because you’ll want it all).
Here, we step into her creative world, and get a peek inside her charming home in Hampshire featuring endless print inspiration courtesy of Barneby Gates, and talk about her career and motherhood journey.
Photography: Helene Sandberg. Go to barnebygates.com
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family...
I co-own wallpaper and fabric brand Barneby Gates with my oldest friend and business partner, Alice Gates. I live in a small village in Hampshire (South West of London) with my husband Tim, a producer, and my two children Lily, 11 and Gabriel, 9.
What did your career entail prior to Barneby Gates?
My first job after university was as a stylist for House & Garden where I gained an intimate knowledge of Chelsea Harbour Design Centre and all the other fabric and wallpaper brands out there. After five years there I moved to Vogue as their Living Editor, where styling shoots, writing about upcoming trends and examining the correlation between fashion and interiors were all part of my job.
What inspired your shift from publishing into your own business?
I’ve been passionate about textiles and print for as long as I can remember. I think I was scouring flea markets for vintage fabrics while holidaying in France as young as 14, so it probably came as no surprise to many that this was what I ended up doing! But also both Alice and I had reached a point in our careers where we really wanted to do something on our own, we were doing up our own first family homes, and looking for specific things, and what started as a fun idea over a glass or two of wine one evening eventually became a business plan!
You and Alice started the business while on maternity leave. Can you tell us about this process? How did you manage to get a business off the ground with a tiny baby in tow?
Between the two of us, we had five children in the first five years of the business – but quite by chance, they were all born in Autumn, so we managed to take it in turns which worked quite well. Our babies just tended to come everywhere with us in those early years – they’ve been to the factory up in the Midlands when we were still breastfeeding, and to trade fairs like Decorex, where we officially launched to the trade in 2010. My second child had just been born then, and my mum had to wheel him around the tent all day and call me when he needed a feed. It was mayhem really, but looking back I wouldn’t have done it any differently.
What was the biggest challenge in starting your own business?
I had just ended a 10-year career at Conde Nast where I had a 9 to 5 job and a stable income. So it was a risk to start my own business at the same time as starting a family. We obviously had a few years with very little income as everything we made was ploughed straight back into the business. But fortunately children aren’t a huge expense in those very early years (they save that till later!) so we were able to take that risk and it worked. Since then, I guess my biggest challenge is creating boundaries between home and work. Running your own business is all-consuming, and so trying to set clear boundaries between home life and work is important.
How did you fund the launch of the business? Has this been a stressful process?
Alice had some savings from a few paintings she’d sold, and I had just inherited a small sum from my grandmother so we were fortunate in that we were able to self-fund that first collection, and we haven’t put a penny in since. We’ve never had external investment, the collections just started paying for themselves from the outset. During those first five years of launching a business alongside having babies, we had no choice other than to let the business grow organically. There was only a certain pace it could go, which I think was to our benefit, as we didn’t over-stretch ourselves financially or emotionally. Once we’d done with having babies, it was amazing to see how the business ballooned, and it’s grown gradually ever since.
Talk to us about starting and running a business with your best friend. How do you navigate business and friendship?
Alice and I have been the best of friends since we were 10 years old, so It was always a bit of a risk starting a business together. We did take advice and drew up a ‘prenup’ – even though neither of us really felt it was necessary. We both absolutely respect each other’s strengths and understand each other’s weaknesses, and I can honestly say to this day we’ve never had a fallout. We speak about five times a day (minimum) when we’re not in the studio together, so I guess sometimes we have to make a conscious effort to do something nice together – to spend time together with each other’s families and our godchildren, and NOT talk about work!
You have worked with some incredible clients and spaces. What has been a business highlight thus far?
We’ve done some really fun collaborations over the years, and these are the kind of projects that really keep us on our toes by taking us take us out of our comfort zone. One of the first collaborations we did was with Nick Knight’s ShowStudio – for his Fashion Retrospective exhibition at Somerset House in 2009. It was super early days for us, but we worked with them to turn a backdrop Julie Verhoeven had painted for a Vogue fashion shoot into a wallpaper – it’s quite a riské design, so quite different to our normal work! We did a bespoke wallpaper for Rag & Bone a few years ago, creating a natural plaster effect wallpaper for a number of their stores worldwide. Since then we’ve collaborated with Sofa.com on a bespoke collection of upholstery fabrics, and more recently with the lovely fashion designer Tabitha Webb, who’s designed a couple of wallpapers for us. But I guess our business highlight probably has to be when Prince Charles selected our Deer Damask wallpaper for the dining room of the guest lodge when he refurbished Dumfries House – that was a pretty special moment!
How have you approached scaling the business?
As I said before, the first five years could only go at a certain pace, so we sort of got into a rhythm. When we were done having children, it was amazing to see how the business naturally grew and it was then that we started taking on extra people to help out in the studio. But we have been quite organic about the whole process really, we’ve just allowed it to grow at its own pace, to enable us to remain in control at the same time as being active mothers to our children.
How do you balance business and family? Do you have family support?
I am lucky enough to live within 15 minutes of both sets of grandparents, and all four of them are a huge part of my children’s lives. I absolutely employ the notion of ‘the village’ with my children – they have been brought up by six people virtually equally, and I simply couldn’t have done this without them!
How do you look after yourself? Do you make time to exercise? Meditate?
I feel I probably need to meditate, but of course I’ve never ‘found the time’. But I do play tennis once or twice a week, and I run regularly, which is a great way of blowing out the cobwebs before the working day begins.
What tips do you have for women who might be looking to start their own business?
Go for it! Don’t be put off by feeling it’s the ‘wrong time’ – it’s never going to feel like the perfect time, so if you have an idea you think might work just go for it.
Can you share a little bit about Barneby Gates and your gorgeous designs?
We started off in 2009 launching a collection of four wallpaper designs. Today we have 46 different wallpaper designs, 21 fabric prints, and 10 cushions – all in a variety of colours. We have an online shop (www.barnebygates.com) but also have great relationships with a huge number of interior designers, and various showrooms around the world carry our line.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
It was no surprise when we had an immediate drop in sales at the very beginning when everyone was in the initial shock of lockdown, and of course, we did panic a bit at this point. However, I consider us one of the very lucky ones. We only sell interiors products and, with everyone sitting at home staring at their own four walls finally finding the time for some home improvements, sales picked up again quite fast and we were able to continue sending orders out throughout lockdown. April and May would normally be two of our busiest months with things naturally quietening down during the summer, but everything has shifted this year and July was one of our busiest months of the year so far. We operate from our studio, which is a large and airy open-plan barn conversion in Wiltshire. There’s a small enough team to allow for easy social distancing, and we hold everything in stock so even when our printing factories closed down we were able to send orders out while stocks lasted. Because we designed the running of the business around having children Alice and I have always been able to work remotely, so in that respect, it was relatively easy to carry on ‘as usual’ albeit from separate buildings. Of course, the true impact of Covid-19 on the economy is yet to come and I know we’ll all be feeling it for many years ahead.
As a family, how have you navigated the pandemic?
The home school/work juggle was probably the most stressful part of it all, to be honest. Fortunately, my children go to schools that offered 80% online schooling which meant that – to a certain extent – they were able to get on with classes themselves while I worked. It wasn’t always that straightforward of course! Technology nightmares were a daily occurrence, particularly here in the country with dodgy wifi connection and four of us logging on at the same time. We had good days and bad days. On the bad days, it was easy to feel completely trapped, but we are SO fortunate to be in the countryside and I have never taken our outside space for granted. One of the most important parts of our school days was some form of exercise – we did lots of biking, the occasional family-run, online dance workouts with @ryanheffington (hugely recommend) and I got quite professional at trampolining!
What have been the silver linings from this experience?
There can be no doubt that we have all benefited from having a father 100% around. All of us working from home could be quite stressful at times, but the good far outweighs the bad when the family is complete and there are little external influences pulling us apart. Sometimes I look back wistfully on the forced simplicity of lockdown – the children didn’t expect entertainment 24/7, and we the parents weren’t frantically juggling a social life while trying to give our children the attention they crave. It certainly made me realise that the less you organise for the children, the more they find to entertain themselves.
And what have been the biggest challenges?
The juggle! Work/school/parenting within the same four walls – it’s very hard to set boundaries when they all merge into each other. The other problem we faced was screen time for the kids. My son was doing the majority of his schooling virtually, so was already spending much of the day on a screen. If I wasn’t right there behind him each time he finished a lesson, he’d move straight into an online game during break times, and a lot of time was spent striking deals which normally involved outside time to earn that extra screen time. It was pretty exhausting!
Where do you look to for inspiration?
Anywhere and everywhere! Alice and I both grew up in the countryside, and our studio is set in a converted barn on a farm in Wiltshire – so a lot of our designs are inspired by the natural world around us (think Boxing Hares, Deer Damask, Honey Bees, Bugs & Butterflies and so on). But we tend to glean inspiration from whatever we’re doing in our daily lives, be it an art gallery, a record cover, the floor of an Italian restaurant. Alice and I have a constant what’s app chat of ideas and images flitting between us.
What approach do you take to wallpaper in your own home?
I have used about 10 Barneby Gates wallpapers in my own home – which sounds a lot, but it’s just a four bedroom cottage and I haven’t papered every room! I tend to paper the smaller rooms – the bedrooms, the bathrooms, and the snug are covered in wallpaper, and then the larger sitting room and kitchen have been left with a raw plaster finish – which is a lovely natural backdrop for our fabrics. My favourite rooms to decorate are downstairs bathrooms, and spare bedrooms. These are rooms where you can be brave – you don’t have to live in them on a daily basis, so you won’t tire of them – so I have done both mine in dark blues and teal wallpapers, cosy, inviting, with ceilings papered as well so it’s a bit like stepping into a jewellery box.
Other than Barneby Gates, where else do you source items for your home? Do you have any favourite sources for soft furnishings or decor?
I love all the antique markets – Ardingly and Sunbury Antiques are particular favorites. You have to get there at 6 o’clock in the morning to beat the crowds and get the best pieces. More locally, I love Andrew Smith Auction houses. There’s always a treasure to be found there. I’m like a magpie for vintage florals and love mixing old fabrics (bedspreads or cushions) with our more contemporary Barneby Gates prints.
How do you balance beautiful decor with the often garish reality of children’s paraphernalia?
When I first had children, I was determined to keep all the garish plastic at bay – only beautiful wooden toys for me! Of course, that was far from reality, but thankfully now my children are 9 and 11 the plastic is lessening, and what there is tends to be contained in their bedrooms thank goodness. I think you just have to give in and go with the flow. The more hideous the toy, the happier the child!
What tips do you have for families who are looking to create a beautiful, well styled and layered home, without looking cluttered and messy?
I do love a layered uncontrived look, a home that feels as though it’s grown organically over the years. I love mixing prints and textures, and different eras of furniture, and inherited pieces of brown furniture with modern art. I can’t say my house is never messy though – that’s a constant battle with two children! But the trick is to edit and keep on doing so as the years go by, and always keep William Morris’s motto in mind: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
What’s the last great book you read?
What podcast are you listening to?
I love the High Low with Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton. But I’m also really into Ted Talks and can’t stop listening to Sir Ken Robinson’s educational talks. I’ve listened to his ‘Do Schools kill Creativity?’ talk about 10 times!
How do you approach dressing every morning? Do you subscribe to a uniform, or plan your outfits?
Uniform of jeans, a jumper and sturdy boots or trainers – living in the country you have to be quite practical about how you dress, particularly in winter when the school run is very muddy. So I quite enjoy a day in London, when I can dig deep in my wardrobe and pull out something nice to wear.
Where are some of your favourite stores to shop for fashion?
I love Rag & Bone for utility wear, Alex Gore-Browne for the loveliest knits, and The Hambledon in Winchester who stock lots of quirky Scandi brands.
What’s currently on your list of loves?
Bamford Facial Oil.
Chantecaille Cheek gelée.
Stripe & Stare for the comfiest underwear.
Soleil de la Mer gradual tan.
Chilli salt Seaweed Thins.
Coffee Beans from Coffee Plant.