Beyond the pale
PUBLISHED: 11:23 07 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:24 07 October 2014
Tessa Allingham meets Lesli Murphy, who artfully restores furniture - just don't call it shabby chic . . .
Lesli lives in an oasis of pale calm. Her tiny cottage, tucked away behind the main street through Stradbroke, near Eye, is a paean to duck-egg blue, chalky cream and smoky shades of grey. The low beams are lime-washed, floors are wooden, furniture artfully scuffed, cushions and throws soft and comfortable. Objects – just a few appropriately coloured pieces, and the occasional black and white family photograph – complete the serene picture.
“I’m frightened of bright colours,” Lesli laughs. She’s pretty, blonde and blue-eyed, a gentle embodiment of the world she has created around her. “Even in the garden if an orange or red flower pops up I’ll dig it up!” she says. A peep outside reveals a blowsy English cottage garden, an abundance of white roses, lavender, and scrambling – pale-coloured – clematis.
Lesli’s home environment is an absolute reflection of her furniture restoring business, Pale Imitations. The business has only been going a year, but already Lesli has a spot at Risby Barn, sells on the handmade site, Etsy, and through her own website. Her story is a typical one: she loved her London job creating artistic window displays for big retailers such as Fenwicks, but the pull of Suffolk became irresistible. In 2001 Lesli and her husband, Clive, moved, first to Lavenham, then to their current home in Stradbroke. She threw artistic energy into renovating the cottage – “it was a 1960s abomination!” – combing the county for pieces of furniture to restore and putting the techniques learnt on a City & Guilds diploma in decorative painting to good use.
And, as the story often goes, she started painting a few pieces for friends, and word got around.
“Before I knew it my hobby became a small business. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to sell a piece for the first time, a chest of drawers for £185!”
One year on, Lesli spends two days a week working at Denny’s, the art shop in Bury St Edmunds, and the rest of the week giving a new lease of life to unloved pieces of furniture that she picks up mainly at auction (TW Gaze at Diss is a favourite).
“I can usually see what the wrecks I bring home could look like, but it takes hours of painstaking work. Some pieces need to be treated for woodworm, repairs need to be done, handles or feet replaced. I then really work on getting the finish right using layers of paint and wax to create a time-worn look.” She loves hand-painting typography on some pieces, often in French, and frequently adds quirky finishing touches, a decoupage tag to an old suitcase, some wooden numbers to a peg rail, or a paper rose dangling from a drawer handle.
Is it ‘shabby chic’? Use that phrase at your peril around Lesli!
“There’s a lot more to what I do than scuffing with a bit of sandpaper! I prefer to call it a French rustic style.”
Lesli works at her kitchen table, using chalky Annie Sloane paints and different waxes. When we meet she’s working on a set of suitcases.
“I use cat litter and Febreze to get rid of the musty smell!” she explains. Then it’s a question of making sure catches work, painting the outside in such a way that any original stitching detail is enhanced, perhaps relining the inside.
“I work alone most of the time, but my husband is a huge support. He might not be as creative, but he helps with transport and does a lot of the carpentry work. I’m very lucky!”
See Lesli’s work at Risby Barn Antique Centre, Risby, or at www.pale-imitations.co.uk.