Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 55 seconds
Everyone has a story. Textile designer Clarissa Hulse explains how Islington’s plants and trees inspire her best selling lines of bedlinen, cushion covers, bags and scarves, from the studio where they are created, just off Highbury Fields, N5. Interview by Nicola Baird
“If I’m filling the world with stuff I want it to be beautiful and for people to have it until it is falling apart and hanging by a thread,” says textile designer Clarissa Hulse in her shop and studio of the same name, tucked behind Highbury Fields on Corsica Street. A visit to the shop is a chance to enjoy an explosion of colour as you try to pick from a fabulous selection of beautiful scarves, cushions, bedlinen, bags, framed prints, oven gloves and even a new wallpaper range and screenprinted-scrap-wrapped soap.
“Imagine a world without colour it would be so depressing,” says Clarissa, 46. “Colour is so uplifting: I do love pinks, reds and oranges… lots of shades and hues too – deep plum and really acid pink genuinely quicken my pulse. I also love peacocks and turquoises – opposites on the colour wheel.”
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Clarissa’s parents – her diplomat father and Greek mother – moved to 53 Ripplevale Grove when she was four-years-old, so she knows Islington well. “Ripplevale Grove is famously one of the prettiest street in Barnsbury,” says Clarissa laughing at herself and clearly wondering what people living in the other streets near Thornhill Square will make of this bias?
For a while she attended Thornhill Primary, but when her father was posted to Brussels she moved schools too.
It was when she was 12 that she first discovered a passion for printing that was to take her to Brighton University and then to the top of a career as a textile designer. “I went to a friend’s house. She had been given a silk painting kit. I spent four hours that day doing it obsessively, and then made my parents buy me one.” Thinking back she adds that, “My mum always had a big love of textiles. She often bought local fabrics and textiles to make our different accommodation look homely.”
Once Clarissa graduated she rented her parents’ Barnsbury home and set up the business at a studio at the Cockpit Arts in Holborn.
“I didn’t have a clue. I’ve learnt everything on the hoof, so I’ve made a lot of mistakes. My advice to anyone wanting to run a business is to work for someone else first! I’d just left university. I didn’t know you had to file or what an invoice was…”
However she did print a range of scarves which were snapped up by a buyer for American department stores. Ironically Liberty’s buyer saw her scarves in New York and then put an order in too.
“I was churning out scarves 24 hours a day,” remembers Clarissa who then moved her business to Goswell Road, now part of the City & Islington College campus, then to Whitechapel.
Seven years ago she moved into her current Corsica Road base.
Places around Islington that inspire Clarissa Hulse
- SWAPS “I’ve swapped cushions for coffee at Little Gem, 15 Corsica Street. I love coffee and her soups are delicious.” Little Gem Coffee Shop facebook
- NATURE “At the moment I’m obsessed by pressing leaves and really into some interesting oak leaves on Highbury Fields.”
- PARKS “Highbury Fields is a source of inspiration, and I go to Clissold Park all the time.
- SECATEURS “I saw a tree on the corner of Battledean Road and Ronald’s Road, from the acacia family, and took a stepladder and shears to cut a sprig that turned into our Espinillo design. I love Chinese Lanterns too – I remember asking a gardener at Arvon Road Community Garden if I could have some. They are on display in the studio now.”
More than scarves
Clarissa may be a master of ombre shading, where one colour gradually blends into another, but she’s probably best known for her plant designs as they are currently stocked in John Lewis and the House of Fraser, and have been sold in Heals, Liberty and independent boutiques.
“It’s not easy to tell you my favourite flower,” she admits though. “It depends on the scent and the colour too. For my work I tend to use delicate silhouettes with an interesting structure or shape, especially umbellicals. Dill, cow parsley and angelica are all great for design – and I tend to prefer plants in seed,” she says pointing to a heart grass used on a cushion cover.
However bucolic her patterns, it is often while she’s out and about in Islington that she spots a plant that inspires her…
“I was with my seven-year-old son and saw a house on St Paul’s Road that was covered with ivy. When I cut a couple of tendrils he was horrified. It was a little bit naughty…” But that ivy misdemeanour inspired her brand’s best selling bed linen, Boston Ivy. The colourways change, sometimes the ivy has a sulphur hue, which sets off the purple Virginia Creeper design – which she found in her own garden, in Barnsbury – perfectly.
“We make thousands of products a year. We do eight designs of bed linen a year, and one bedlinen design will be 2,000 units,” says Clarissa looking round the studio. But despite the unstoppable nature of homemakers’ need for a new look and feel she’s very aware of waste and makes efforts to prevent it.
“I can’t bear to throw things away. When I’m designing I print loads of different colours off on the computer. They’re so beautiful so they are now all turned into soap wrappings. I get the soap from Florence which has a big assortment of yummy smells and sell really well.”
The studio also transforms the highly coloured backing cloth – created when screenprinting cushion covers (in what Clarissa calls “serendipity” designs) – by mounting and framing them to sell as art. “Smaller bits are made into zip up purses, sewn by the Whitechapel-based Working Well Trust which supports people with mental health issues. They are brilliant as will do two or 200 which means I don’t have to hold a lot of stock,” she adds.
Clarissa’s family – her husband and two young children – have just moved again, into another rented house in Barnsbury.
The joy of colour
“People can be a bit scared of colour. I’m convinced that grey on grey on grey would make you feel depressed,” she says adding that, “if I had my way I wouldn’t have a single white wall.” Which is why she convinced her landlady to let me “put wallpaper up all over the place. It makes things feel homely and cosy.”
If you want to be cheered up – or need fresh designs for a room makeover – do take a visit to Clarissa Hulse’s shop. Her bold mix of colour and plants make for a happy tonic. And if you spot them while shopping remember that many of the designs were inspired by Clarissa’s walks around Islington.
- http://www.clarissahulse.com/ @clarissahulse (instagram)
- Clarissa Hulse’s shop, 29 Corsica Street, N5 is open Monday – Friday. During studio sales, and around Christmas and January it is also open at weekends, look out for the sandwich board on Highbury Fields.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.