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349 Hagley Road, Edgbaston,
Birmingham, B17 8DL

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When I was a lad...

This month at John Charles Interiors we’re celebrating 30 years of me being in business, and the boss of this fabby magazine (Live 24 - 7) has kindly said that I can ramble on a bit and reminisce.

I set up my own business in 1983, the year that the compact disc was first marketed in Britain, Cheryl Cole was born, and breakfast TV made its debut. I had of course been in the soft furnishings trade for many years previously, mainly in and around the London area, and can boast (?) of once being insulted by John Pertwee (of Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge fame) when I was manager of Soft Furnishings in Barker’s of Kensington because I didn’t have shower curtaining on a roll !!!

In the early days I couldn’t afford showroom premises, so I set up a curtain fitting business, and dealt with private clients on an individual basis. Mind you, I’m surprised I ever got anywhere, as I’ll always remember my first big opportunity. A lady in Roman Road, Little Aston (which was almost hallowed ground in those days) wanted some sheers for the whole of her house. I didn’t have any samples of my own, but one of the reps, who was either very forward thinking or just felt sorry for me, lent me all of his hangers for a couple of days. Call it naivety if you like, but I actually went into this huge house, knelt down on the hall floor and opened a suitcase full of fabrics. I’m shuddering even now as I write. She must have thought the local brush salesman had come to call !
 
I was also eager to learn the practical side of the trade as well as the design side, so I asked my Mum, God rest her, who was a dressmaker and tailoress, to teach me how to make curtains. We started at “Lesson 1, sewing straight on a sewing machine” and finished at . . . “Lesson 1, sewing straight on a sewing machine”. John, she said, I should pay someone else to make your curtains if I were you.

After a couple of years having a concession in a kitchen and bedroom showroom in Little Aston, and another couple of years inside Cooke and Son furniture store in north Birmingham, I decided that the only way forward was to have my own four walls. So in 1990 I re-located to Hagley Road Edgbaston, and I’ve been here ever since, aided and abetted by some excellent designers and showroom managers, the latest of whom for the last five years or so has been my very talented daughter. (Well I would say that wouldn’t I, but then so do many other people, so that’s alright.) Pride of place on my office window sill goes to an old ceramic van with our original logo on it, that my Dad bought me for our 10th anniversary.

So what’s changed in the last thirty years? Well everything and nothing really. We’ve weathered three recessions, and seen trends and colours come and go, and in some cases come again. When I first started in the trade in the seventies everything was a riot of colour and pattern, with co-ordinating massive floral papers and fabrics – just like we re-invented a few years ago and called it Retro. Carpets were mainly shag pile, often so deep that you could easily lose a small child in, and even came with their own rake !!! The next big thing was the loose weave acrylic fabric, that everybody wanted and all the curtain makers dreaded. The fitters would go out to hang it, and it would look fabulous – for hours. The following day the client would come down to find that the seams and edges were still the right length, but the middles between the seams were sagging at least an inch on the floor! 

Hands up if you remember the Dolly Mixture prints. They were small print fabrics and papers that exactly matched each other, except that one was positive and the other negative in the same colour. Sounds awful ? Well believe me they were extremely popular at the time. And then there were the birds. I remember one particular fabric that we used to sell by the mile, and that I still see in some houses today. And what do we see in great abundance on many of today’s best prints? – yes birds.

Next came the resurgence of the dado rail (I’ve got a very funny story about that which isn’t printable, but ask me if we meet and I’ll happily tell you), so all walls were split in two. It was about this time that swags and tails were big – metaphorically and literally, along with frills attached to everything. Even the family dog was afraid to sit down for too long, as someone was liable to attach a frill to it’s collar. I suppose this excess of frills, flounces and trimmings was bound to end in tears. It was then that the dreaded minimalists emerged from their dreary holes. Regular readers of this editorial will already know my feelings on this subject, so I won’t bore you again. Least said soonest mended as my old gran used to say.

We’ve now thankfully all but shaken off this austere look, and are once again embracing pattern and colour, along with the smart neutrals we’ve enjoyed for the last few years.
 
So what have I learned over the last thirty years ? Well, more than I could write in the whole of this magazine. I certainly learned the art of diplomacy pretty early on. In the late eighties I was called to a newish mock Tudor house into which the clients had relatively recently moved. I showed them my ideas for their kitchen and living room, and all seemed to be going well as they then asked me to look at the rest of the house with a view to following on after the initial phase. We covered the remainder of the ground floor, and then proceeded to go upstairs, me giving my ten-penneth as we went. We talked about each of the four bedrooms in turn, and by the time we got to the main bedroom I was in full flow. I opened the door to be met by huge purple Chrysanthemums on virtually every surface. They were in the curtains, on the walls, and even a matching bedspread !!! Now bear in mind this wasn’t in the seventies or late noughties when this would have been perfectly acceptable. This was the era of delicate co-ordination, of frills and fancies. So I opened my trap and blurted out “Well, I can see this is obviously the first room you’ll want to do !!!” I can still hear it now to this day. That moment of shocked silence, followed by “Actually this is the only room we’ve done”. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
But principally I’ve learned that I’m so lucky to be doing a job I absolutely love, meeting different and splendid people nearly every day, and helping them achieve their dreams. Sounds corny ? Well believe me, it works for me, and has done for the last thirty years.

John Biddell, John Charles Interiors

Live 24 7 magazine editorial - October 2013