home stories - the vintage sellers at home, part 1 Karen Barlow at The Old Potato Store
Making a home from pre-loved items not only brings instant character and a tangible sense of history but is a planet friendly, sustainable way to shop. To my mind, to reclaim, reuse and repurpose is the secret to creating truly unique homes, I always find vintage interiors so appealing and inspiring. My home is full of old stuff, which I developed a taste for as a teenager when I would visit collectors fairs and antiques centers with my Mum.
Whilst lockdown has halted days out hunting for vintage treats, thankfully there are still online treasures available from small businesses dedicated to finding the most unusual pieces guaranteed to make any vintage lover swoon. I love a small business who eats, sleeps and breathes what they do. If you are like me, (read nosey) you would love nothing more than to to see how these devotees of vintage bring the passion for their work into their own homes.
This weeks home story comes from Karen Barlow, interiors stylist and owner of The Old Potato Store. I met Karen a couple of years ago and have watched how her beautifully curated business has flourished. Karen has a particular weakness for antique oil paintings and portraits , evident in her beautiful home and business. You are certainly in for a treat, so pop the kettle on and read on...
Since graduating with a BA in interior design 12 years ago, I have worked as a set designer, stylist and provided art direction for many large commercial interior brands, creating images for websites, social media, interiors trends, look books, TV commercials and press.
I’m also the owner of The Old Potato Store, an online vintage and antiques shop.
I’ve always bought and sold antiques since buying my own first home over 30 years ago and when my children were little, I had an online vintage clothes and textiles business, selling all over the world to some very well know vintage stores in cities such as LA and Paris. I eventually opened a small concession within a larger vintage emporium and expanded from clothes and textiles to furniture and decorative antiques but, after I graduated with my interior design degree, my styling work took over and eventually I stopped selling.
Around 8 years ago I bought an old allotment storage premises with a friend who was looking for a workshop and showroom for her upholstery business. I had no intention of buying a commercial building by it was love at first sight. The building had been owned by our local allotment society since the turn if the 20th Century. It was completely untouched with original flag stone floor and high brick walls, down a small cobbled street, next to our local market. I immediately saw the potential for a future business, or my retirement plan as I call it.
For the first 6 years I rented my half of the building out but, when my mum fell terminally ill and I wanted to spend more time with her and less time travelling around the country on shoots. The Old Potato Store idea sprang to life and I’ve never looked back, now juggling my time between client photo shoots, sourcing and selling antiques.
How I got into Vintage
I’ve always been interested in antiques and vintage since being a child. My parents bought antiques for their own home and my dad repaired antique clocks and watches, as a hobby job, for local antique dealers. I was always being dragged around antique fairs, we lived in an Edwardian house with open fires and lots of architectural detail, so it was an aesthetic I was familiar with. I used to take my pocket money to the antique fairs and buy clip on earrings from the 1930’s and 40’s and little pieces of china for playing with my dolls.
When I bought my first house with my boyfriend Chris, now my husband, we started collecting Art Deco furniture, lighting and bought Victorian free standing furniture for the bedrooms. We were both very creative and interested in old films & art. We would spend many hours in art galleries all around Europe, so in our 20 something minds, we were trying to create that romantic, nostalgic look and feel in our home I guess. I remember our friends used to come around and laugh at the latest “junk” we’d bought from a car boot sale or antique fair. At that time Ikea was where every young 20 something was buying furniture for their first homes.
My Vintage Home Style
I think when I try to describe my own vintage home style I always reference the hotel group Soho House. I love the way their designers use a mix of modern country house style furniture, with beautiful textiles but accessories their rooms with pieces of vintage furniture and lighting and always lots of art on the walls.
The designer Ilse Crawford was the designer of Babington House, one of the first hotels Soho House group opened. She has always been a huge inspiration to me and I always look at what Ilse is designing next. She has an exceptional talent for using traditional designs but some how making them look modern and new. I would love to think that our home has that same look and feel, although ours is done on a much lower budget.
Although we live in a traditional Victorian Semi in a suburb of Manchester, I like to emulate the feeling of a period country house. I’m aware of trends through my job, I have to be able to create trend shots for my clients, but I never follow them myself. My favourite colour palettes are always monochrome, after my love for Amsterdam and the merchants houses. Muted period colours, mixed with slouchy sofas, lots of wood for warmth, tiled floors, open fires, always art everywhere and always flowers, oh and books. We have bookcases and baskets of magazines everywhere. I’m constantly reading and absorbing ideas.
Another huge design influence is Charleston House, country home of The Bloomsbury group. I’ve always been inspired by their style, but it wasn’t until I visited the home now owned by the National Trust, that I really got a sense of how incredible it was. It’s probably the most atmospheric, creative house I’ve ever visited and their use of colour and the way they could elevate a simple piece of furniture with paint is just extraordinary.
My Favourite Vintage Style
My favourite period for vintage style is anything from between the 1920’s and 1940’s.
I just love looking at photographs of the homes of my favourite artists and designers from that period, such as Picasso, Jean Cocteau, the photographer Lee Miller who was the muse to Man Ray -incredibly creative and artistic herself. And of course as I’ve already mentioned The Bloomsbury group.
It seemed to me to be a highly creative period during the inter war years, as though all these artists and creatives felt that time was of the essence, that every day counted and they were so productive. I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of their homes and we even purposely booked our honeymoon to Menton in the south of France to visit La Salle Des Marriages. Part of the town hall where marriages take place was decorated by Jean Cocteau in his inimitable swirly mythology style. I am that geeky design nerd yes! He designed everything from the doors patterned with diamond points to the bronze candelabra.
I have a Jean Cocteau print we bought there over our bed. I also have a copy of the original brochure produced for the opening of La Salle De Marriages in 1957, framed in our bedroom.
I collect a lot of art and prints that are constantly being moved around the house from room to room. My favourite types of painting are portraits painted in the realism style from that inter war period. I love the glamour of them and the sludgy colours they’re often painted in, olive green, deep red and dirty pink.
My favourite Vintage Find
When we bought the house we now live in, 23 years ago, it was two tired rental flats and we had the task of renovating it back into a Victorian period property.
We spent a lot of time scouring salvage yards to find just the right materials, such as reclaimed parquet flooring, slate fireplaces, old stained glass to have made into windows that had been taken out and replaced with thin framed picture windows in the 1970’s. We even bought reclaimed deep skirting boards and double width architrave for around the windows that we had made to look like the original sash windows that the house would have had.
During one of these salvage yard visits, we came across a pair of amazing stained glass doors, with an arch of stained glass over the top. They had been salvaged from Victorian hospital and had been used to separate two wards and still had the “No Smoking” stickers on them.
We instinctively knew that they would look amazing as French doors leading onto the garden and as luck would have it they were the perfect size to replace the double width window that had been put in in the 1970’s when the house was turned into flats.
They really are the crowning glory of the house and look as though they have always been here. They were so cheap, as much of the glass was broken and the leading had to be repaired. Luckily we knew a brilliant artisan glass maker and repairer who put them back to new using pieces of reclaimed stained glass.
They are the one thing I always say I would have to take with me whenever we sell the house!
A piece I bought for my business and couldn’t sell
I wouldn't know where to start to answer this really. There have been so many. I’m quite possibly the worst antique dealer ever. But I always think when you really fall in love with something, you should keep it and if you ever find something similar that you love even more, you can always pass it on then.
I buy so many paintings that I intend to sell, that never make it onto my Instagram or website but the one thing that springs to mind, that I could have sold 100 times over, is a coral pink set of drawers, hand painted with garlands of daisies around the 1940’s or 50’s.
They were in such a state when I found them in a big warehouse near the docks in Liverpool. They were so battered with no back left on them that I bought them for just £30 and after we’d cleaned them and replaced the back, I had every intention of selling them to another stylist friend who had spotted them in my building when she’d come to pick up a stool she’d bought. But the more I used them to photograph stock and the more I realised just how rare these original hand painted pieces of furniture were, I decided I couldn’t part with them.
What are the chances of finding something like that again for £30! That really is Ikea prices.
They are perfectly Bloomsburyesque and always get so much attention when ever I post any photos of them, that I know I would instantly regret ever parting with them.
A piece I’ve sold and always regretted
To be honest I’m so sentimental about things and instantly fall in love with pieces, as you’ve already discovered, that there’s nothing that really springs to mind. There are however plenty of things I’ve not bought, walked away from and then regretted.
I can remember being on holiday in Suffolk and finding a beautiful pair of hand painted blue drawers, possibly Scandinavian or eastern European. It was love at first sight and the only reason we didn’t buy them was because we were in a VW Golf on holiday and there was no way we could transport them back in our car. We were young at the time, in our 20’s in our first house and totally unaware that there were couriers who could transport things for you. I’ve often thought about how beautiful those drawers were.
Another regret was a beautiful large original grey painted wooden yacht for £50 from Newark antique fair that one of the French dealers was selling. I really wanted it for on top of a large cupboard we have in our home but the dealer wouldn’t budge on the price and because I’m a Taurus and stubborn, I wouldn’t buy it for £50. It was probably worth 4 times as much. After I’d walked away and regretted it, I tried to find the dealer at the end of the day but couldn’t. I’ve never found a wooden boat just quite the right size or shade of colour since. As they say, when you know, you know and you should seize the moment. I’ve learned a lot since those days and now I’m very instinctive when I’m shopping and its an instant yes or no when I see something.
Thank you so much to Karen for sharing her stunning home story and business journey, I told you it was a beautiful home didn't I. I love Karen's style, she has such a natural talent for creating interiors with rich character and a intrigue in every corner. You can follow Karen and her stylist work on Instagram just click HERE and keep up with The Old Potato Store HERE