Creative Women at Work: interior design consultant Sue Parker
Spending six years as shopping editor at Elle Decoration magazine under the editorship of Ilse Crawford provided the perfect grounding for style expert Sue Parker. Whose impressive CV also includes a stint working with Tom Dixon, in the days when he was employed as Design Director, at Habitat. Now a 55-year-old, freelance creative consultant specialising in interior design and founder of Sue Parker Projects handmade plant stands, Sue’s lifelong love of nature is reflected in her work, ‘ I guess I would say that I always had a passion for plants. I remember reading botanical books as a kid, even though I grew up in the suburbs of south London!’
We meet at Fourth Floor quite possibly the coolest hairdressers in central London, where Sue has her haircut in exchange for curating the plant and flower installations. The founder Richard Stepney is one of Sue’s oldest friends and this creative collaboration feels like the perfect skills swap.
TNMA: Tell us a bit about your background
SP: I did a degree in Fine Art and Sculpture at Cardiff University, then when I left there and came back to London I got a job working on Elle Decoration as a PA. I remember when I went to the interview, the editor said ‘Well I can see that you’re a creative person, and that’s great but I don’t need a creative person, I need a PA.’ And I was like ‘Absolutely, I can type and do this. this and this…’ and after six months or so she said, ‘Oh go on then, go on a shoot,’ because she could tell that I was desperate to go and do something creative! I eventually became Shopping Editor and was there for six years before I left to work with Tom Dixon at Habitat. I did trend predictions and seasonal product development for them. It was quite a demanding job. When I left Habitat, I set up a pop-up shop called ‘Ground’ and it was all plants and flowers and rocks and stuff. Somewhat preempting the current wave of houseplants and greenery as decoration. Although the shop was short-lived, it was really great. People thought it was an art installation, they would come in and say this is amazing but what do you do? What do you sell?
Fortunately, we also ran a studio for interior design, and I worked on the interiors of Soho House with Ilse. By then she had left Elle Deco and worked for Donna Karan in New York, before coming back to set up on her own. She did Babington House, and then asked me if I wanted to help her with Soho House in New York. So that was a fantastic opportunity. It was me and her, my friend Sarah Hollywood, the three of us did it together. Which is hard to believe really. That you could do something that directly, without having a massive team, it was good, but it was also very intense. I carried on working with Ilse for a bit after that and then I had my son in 2004. That’s when I started working on my own projects.
TNMA: And do you still do that now – commercial projects and consultancy work?
SP: Yes, ever since the pop-up I have always kept doing interior design projects. This can range from an installation in an office or shop, to colour consultation for a chain of boutique hairdressers, to propping flowers for TV, photoshoots and events. Recently I curated a summer show for the New Craftsman gallery in Mayfair. I did an installation called ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’. And a big exhibition of plants for them, too. I design my range of plant stands and I’ve just started working on ceramics. One of my clients wanted some decorative saucers to go under the plants, so I started experimenting at a pottery class I was attending at Morley College and it worked out really well. People wanted to buy them and so I’m intending to expand this into a small range.
TNMA: Who makes your lovely plant stands?
SP: I can weld, but I have a friend who makes them for me in London. They’re just really generic, in a good way, it’s all about the plant. And they have a mid-century feel. The whole point is to have different heights of plants, so you’re not always looking down. I said to Richard (at Fourth Floor), ‘Do you fancy having a jungle up here?’ – and that’s when I started making them. At first there were a couple dotted around and it all went from there…
TNMA: Do you have lots of plants at home? And where do all the plants and flowers go when you’re not working with them?
SP: I’ve got quite a big garden and a big shed…I call it the Shed of Shame. My partner is an architect so he designed me a studio in my garden, his take is that the ‘client took possession before it was ready to be taken over’ and so it’s a bit on the rustic side. I’ve certainly filled it up with stuff. Sometimes plants go in there or in the garden.
TNMA: So what’s a typical day like? Is there a typical day?
SP: Not really, it depends on what I’m working on at the time. I do a lot of searching around for stuff, I have a lot of objects I hoard for styling. And at Christmas I do a pop-up here at Fourth Floor, with all kinds of vintage finds and crazy objects. So a typical day could be a car boot, or going to the flower market, or I could be putting together a mood-board for a client. I’ve just done the interior design for a house in Blackheath. Nothing is that typical. I do so many things which is really nice, no one day is the same. I’ve been collaborating with Richard for a good 20 years. He has always been encouraging, inspiring me to plant seeds in different places.
TNMA: It seems like a very busy, quite physical role – what do you do to keep active?
SP: A friend encouraged me to do ‘Couch to 5K’ and now I’m running for about 30 minutes, three times a week. I feel immediately like I’ve accomplished something when I run. Your body feels invigorated. A lot of my day is behind a desk, I have to steel myself beforehand and I never think, ‘Whoopee, a run.’ I don’t think I’d ever had an endorphin rush until I started, and that was a mild one. But all you need is your running shoes and off you go…
TNMA: That is a gorgeous blue outfit you’re wearing today, talk me through it:
SP: These trousers are French workwear. I bought them in a flea-market in France. They were really long for ages and then I decided to cut them up, to shorten them. And then this towelling fabric I found somewhere like The Cloth Shop and I got a friend to make me this t-shirt because I knew exactly the shape I wanted. She thought it was weird, cheap towelling but I knew exactly what I wanted and the t-shirt is perfect. And then the Birkenstocks – the plastic Birkis. I was on the bus coming home and there was this really amazing African guy who had such a spectacular outfit that he could have been a model or stylist or fashion designer or something. He had these African printed trousers on and a camo jacket and some Birkis – and when I saw them about a year later, I thought I’ve got to have those, they are THE shoe. My glasses are from Cubitts (the style is Cromer in clear plastic).
TNMA: So is your wardrobe really colourful?
SP: I can’t really do pattern, I really struggle with it unless it’s a dress. I’m very keen on colour. I hardly ever wear black. Almost never. I prefer to wear orange – orange jeans and an orange t-shirt is my signature. I find it sort of easier. I prefer blocks of colour and clean, minimal simple shapes. I love an A-line.
My favourite dress at the moment is an A-line bright canary yellow dress from COS. My advice to anyone wanting to wear more colour is just go for it. I think if you’re going to do it go big or go home. I love red. And I have so many orange things. Go for a really strong colour and own it. Recently, I was out and bumped into a friend and she said, ‘ Gosh you’re not hiding are you!’ I was wearing neon Birki’s and orange trousers And I’d never really thought about it like that before. I feel like I’m in a little dome of my own, I never feel like I’m drawing attention to myself…
TNMA: As we are conducting this interview in a hair salon, tell us about your hair:
SP: I’ve had this haircut for 20 years, and in fact six months ago I said to Richard at Fourth Floor, ‘I fancy a change, I fancy softening it up or something like that, just do it’ – and I hated it! When I got home my son said ‘Oh mum you’ve got a new haircut. It looks nice. Actually, you look a bit like Teresa May.’ And we laughed. But he kind of nailed it! I don’t do soft, I’m better at geometric. It’s funny how your look evolves and it’s all part of the brand, or the image you’re projecting. My natural colour is really dark and I’m very grey now, so the colourist blends in a selection of lighter highlights. They know the kind of thing I like. Every time I’m on my way home after having had my hair cut, someone will compliment me. Richard is such an amazing hair stylist, so sharp.
TNMA: Do you have any tips on interiors style for the TNMA readers:
SP: It’s really good to have a prune every now and again. Although my husband will laugh his socks off if you write this up, as I’m a terrible hoarder. I find it reassuring to have lots of things around. Until it gets messy, and then you clean up and tidy everything away it helps to clear your head. I call it ‘tidying the sock drawer.’ To be completely honest I’m better at sorting other peoples stuff than my own.
Photographs by Neil Mackenzie Matthews.
Plant stands by Sue Parker Projects.
Special thanks to Richard at Fourth Floor.
Please note: affiliate links in this post may generate commission.