The road less travelled – an interview with our founder
“I used to completely rearrange my gran’s house. I must have been into interiors from a young age.”
Perched on a quiet industrial street in Bethnal Green is the home of Debbie, Swoon’s Co-founder and Creative Director. Situated in an old warehouse block, Debbie’s two-floor apartment is right at the top. The front door sits adjacent to a dazzling white terrace, dotted with plants.
“When we had the heatwave, it was like being in Greece” beams Debbie. “The sun just bounced off of the white surfaces – it was boiling!”
Dressed in a simple black jumpsuit, Debbie looks fresh-faced and relaxed as she welcomes me into the apartment, padding around barefoot for the duration of the interview. The kitchen greets our arrival, sitting adjacent to the open-plan living and dining room. The walls and ceiling are covered in Farrow & Ball’s ‘Off Black’ and there are pops of green all over – be it emerald velvet or lashings of plant life. “Green’s my favourite colour but I’ve got so much of it now – I think I need to start exploring something new” she laughs. From ferociously sourcing the best materials, manufacturers and products for Swoon to tales of unusual adventures around the globe, it’s clear that Debbie is a fan of exploring.
Trinkets collected from travels and her childhood are dotted all over the place – lots of things from India, which starts to make sense as she tells me about her heritage.
“My dad was Anglo-Indian, so I’ve always had an affinity with India. I took my first ever trip when I was 21 – I took off with an adventure travel company. There were about 10 of us, and we travelled around the Northern region and went to Jaipur, which is where we now source a lot of things for Swoon. Then I went back with my parents and we actually managed to find my dad’s old school where the current headmistress managed to gather some of the people that would have been in the same year group as him. They actually threw us a little party – Indian hospitality is incredible!”
Wow – that must have been really special. It’s so nice that you have a connection – does that make it easier to build relationships with suppliers?
“Definitely. It helps build a really nice connection with suppliers when I talk to them and tell them about my heritage. It’s really interesting for them, I think. It seems to be a good way to build a bond.”
Debbie goes on to tell me that her mum is part British and part Irish, and that her parents actually met at ICI Paints. Was the obsession for interiors bubbling away before she was even born, then? Growing up in Crawley, West Sussex, she tells me that her parents were more interested in tending to the garden than paying attention to interiors, so perhaps it isn’t necessarily in her blood, but it’s definitely been a passion for a long time.
“You know when you’re in your 20s, it’s not really about interiors – it’s about fashion, isn’t it? But I’d always buy things for the home when I travelled. So I’ve been interested in interiors since a young age.”
So what’s the most sentimental thing you own?
“This antique carving set was my grandma’s, and this green jug. They’re my most sentimental things because they’re wrapped up in memories. She had a beautiful dressing table that I loved as a little girl, too – just playing with her make-up and everything. Unfortunately, it was stolen when we were clearing out her house after she passed away, so it’s sad that I didn’t get to keep that.”
That’s such a shame, but so nice that you have those memories.
“Yes – I’ve got incredible memories from going to my grandparents’ house. My gran was incredible. She lived until she was 98 and she was so quick-witted and funny – I just loved hanging out with her. She was quite controversial – she’d just spot a handsome man on the street and be like ‘Debbie, look at him, he’s really good looking’, totally in earshot. Mortifying, but hilarious.”
Grandparents are great for that! And what about your memories here? What’s been your most memorable moment in this apartment?
“Buying this place was quite an important move for me as I loved my last flat. I lived in Streatham for 15 years with my ex, so buying this place was a new beginning for me. The décor’s completely different here – I just went for it. It’s a lot braver and bolder. I needed it to feel like a fresh start. The most memorable moments have definitely been the parties, though. I had everyone at one of my parties dressed up in my clothes – including the guys. I’ve got this tropical jumpsuit that one of my mates put on, and we took pictures of him on the sofa with a plant pillow over his face and the big plant hanging over him so he was kind of camouflaged.”
That’s brilliant. And what about Bertie – does she like it here? (Bertie is Debbie’s adorable Boston Terrier)
“I’d never thought about getting a dog before, but after looking after my friend’s Boston Terrier, I fell in love. It was funny bringing Bertie home – she was just trying to go everywhere and chew everything. It was such a positive move for me to get her and move here at the same time. When I get home on a Friday night, I come in and light the candles, put the TV on and she curls up next to me. It’s the nicest feeling after a busy week at work.”
That’s lovely. And speaking of candles, where is this impressive candelabra from?
“Oh, that’s quite a funny story. It was on one of my ‘grown-up gap years’. I was travelling around India (again!) with my ex and I found it while we still had a month to go. It’s really heavy – pick it up. (I do, and can confirm it’s very heavy) I carried it around for the next month and he thought I was mad. I did a similar thing in Indonesia where I found this incredible mosaic mirror that I carried around for three days and had to work hard to convince the airline to let me take it on the plane as hand luggage.”
That’s a dedication to interior finds!
“Yeah, being well-travelled has boded well for my work at Swoon. The first product we ever sold was this pouffe. I’d seen one that I really wanted and I knew they were made in Morocco so I just flew to Marrakech (as you do) and hunted around the souk asking who made them. They weren’t a huge success but it was certainly an adventure to find them. The first real success we had was the Lille chair.”
The Lille chair is still one of Swoon’s bestsellers. As we move downstairs, the mood transitions from bold and cosy to clean and bright with crisp white walls and a subtle pink ceiling (‘Calamine’ by Farrow & Ball to be precise) in the bedroom. She recently did a mass clear-out after feeling inspired by the Marie Kondo craze that’s been sweeping the Western world for the past year or so.
How did having a big clear-out make you feel?
“It made me feel mentally better – I gave half my wardrobe to a charity shop. You don’t miss anything – I’ve not once thought that I need anything that I’ve given away.”
And it’s this ultra-minimal approach that makes this room feel like a real sanctuary. We start talking about sleeping, and the conversation quickly moves to Debbie’s mattress – the source of inspiration for the Swoon mattress. “I had a mattress for years that was so comfortable, so when it came to finding one for Swoon, I literally tore it apart to try to find out who the supplier was. I figured out they were based in Hampshire and then I tracked them down and now all of our mattresses are made by the same supplier.”
It must be really hard to leave this bed (and bedroom) in the morning – do you hit snooze a lot?
“Not at all. My morning routine would probably sound horrendous to most people but I get up at 4.45am as I like to be in the gym by 6am or I feel like I’m behind in the day. I go to the gym three or four times a week, then by the time I’ve got back and had a shower, I get to Southwark about 7.45am and I have this little routine where I go to Leon by the Tate to do an hour of work before the day starts. I find it helps me to get organised as, when I get to the office, there’s usually lots of people to catch up with.”
In the hallway sits a small bookshelf, packed to the brim with interior design magazines and, as we go back upstairs, Debbie explains what she does with her downtime. “I spend lots of weekends just re-reading interior magazines. So when I was thinking about starting a business, I just thought ‘what is it that I’m really passionate about?’ and it just had to be something in interiors.”
Back upstairs, my attention is grabbed by the well-stocked drinks trolley in the dining area. It’s the first bar trolley that Swoon ever sold and Bertie has subsequently made her mark on it by chewing every corner. “I was going to get a new one, but I’m quite attached to it now.” On the top shelf sits an impressive tequila collection, and underneath is a beautiful David Mellor cutlery set.
“It’s quite a grown-up thing to own isn’t it, a cutlery set? My mum encouraged me and my brother to both buy something when my gran passed away and I chose that. I love companies which really champion classic craft, like David Mellor, but which offer contemporary designs. I have this tea set from Royal Doulton, too, and it’s like nothing you’d ever think they’d usually make as it’s so modern in its design.”
As we bring the interview to a close, there's a sense that we could carry on talking for much longer – there’s a lot of feeling here. Everything has been considered and has a meaning or a purpose. Even in the bathroom, there’s a print hanging on the wall that Debbie proudly tells me is by an artist called Joe Webb.
I love having it in my bathroom because I get up, have a shower and I just think it’s such an inspirational picture because it makes me feel like I can take on the world.
For more blogs about humans taking on the world, take a look here.