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A New Lease of Life to Timeless Beauty with Anna Unwin

Suzi Davis Monday 22nd February 2021

Life in the early noughties for accomplished interior stylist Anna Unwin was fast-paced. Living in the heart of cosmopolitan Primrose Hill and running her fashionable lifestyle shop, Anna and her husband Willie relished London life. But after returning from a spell living in Ibiza, the time felt right to move her young and growing family to the countryside. When the chance arose to buy an increasingly unloved monastic retreat, Anna couldn’t resist the opportunity to offer it a new lease of life, turning it into a desirable and incredibly spacious home.

St Francis House, originally a Georgian home, was repurposed in the 1950s as a silent retreat. The result was a sparse interior stripped of its historical detail. Over the past 15 years, Anna has brought it back to life through a brilliant combination of homage to a Georgian past and her own approach to chic modern-day minimalism.

Throughout the house, the colour palette is pale, restrained and considered, granting space for the family collection of treasures to shine. Anna holds an unfaltering passion for reclaiming objects and bestowing them with a new life. We can see an excellent example in the fabulous World War 1 brass bullet cases adorning the kitchen mantel granted a new existence as unique and exclusive vases.

Anna’s sense of repurposing carries through to her new business AU Bespoke – an online offering that sources bespoke and timeless objects from the past. The carefully curated collection of previously owned items with stories to tell are chosen for their ability to transcend time.

Whilst she has changed gear from the hustle of bustle of a London life to the quiet contentment of countryside living, Anna Unwin hasn’t slowed down. Through AU Bespoke she is now sharing her passion for giving things a new lease of life. We caught up with Anna to talk more about her career, moving to the countryside and the wonderful AU Bespoke.

Can you give us a whistle-stop tour of your career to date?

After graduating from Chelsea with a degree in textiles, my first job was at the Conran Shop in their iconic Michelin building, followed by a role at a props house. I then became a freelance interiors stylist and eventually opened up an interiors shop in Primrose Hill called Maiden.

Maiden was open for several years, selling interior lifestyle products and vintage pieces. I then had my children and moved to the countryside, where I carried on with interior styling, but I was always sourcing. A stylist’s job is to collect like a magpie, so all of my experience helped me develop this desire to search and gather. Two years ago, this led me to open up AU Bespoke, my online Vintage store which sells vintage furniture and textiles.

What sparked your move in 2005 from London to the Cambridgeshire countryside?

We had just moved back from Ibiza — where we had lived for a while. I had had the twins, and I was pregnant with Betty, and we were keen to move out of London and get into the countryside. We knew we needed to be North London, where both Willie and my parents live. At the time we were both working a lot in London and had a place in Norfolk. So we needed to be somewhere in between. St Francis House came up, and we fell in love with it.

How is life at St Francis in the Cambridgeshire countryside different from your years in Primrose Hill?

When we moved to St Francis House, we had young children and were ready to move out of London. We wanted to give them the space to run around and be children in the countryside, which has been lovely. We made the ‘proper’ move from London, with all the countryside trimmings, even buying pigs. The aim was always for the children to have a wonderful childhood.

Space is the real game-changer. Having all this space, not just in the house but also around you in the countryside, allows us to enjoy nature. We always need our London fix though, and it still feels like home when I return to Primrose Hill. Lucky for us both my folks and Willies Mum live there so we can go and visit whenever we want to feed the London craving.

St Francis House is enormous. When you began the renovations, how did you know or decide where to start?

St Francis House is vast, its 8,500 sq ft! When we began the renovations, we knew we had to create a family home quickly. So we stayed on the side of the house with a chapel in it and renovated the rest. It took several years to do. It has been a labour of love.

We know you like to reclaim and reuse to give treasures a new lease of life. Can you tell us about any gems throughout your home with exciting stories to tell?

We salvaged the oak parquet floors from the former Mi5 London offices. They are beautiful, and we have them throughout the house. I also knew I wanted some huge French fireplaces, so I sourced some from France. They came over in individual pieces of stone and were a challenge to put together!

You are drawn to styles and objects from history. What in particular catches your attention about elements of the past?

I am attracted to things that age elegantly. I think patina and aged items look beautiful. It’s so disappointing when new pieces look damaged or distressed when you have had them a while. Whereas old pieces, pieces made from marble, stone or wood age are timeless in style and age so gracefully. You can put them in any interior setting, and they will always look gorgeous because they are made beautifully.

Tell us a little about how you source items for both AU Bespoke and your home?

I source pieces with timeless design, things that will stand the test of time. I tend not to follow trends. With a degree in textiles, I am intrigued by surface pattern, whether that’s fabrics or indeed wood, leather or marble. In essence, things with an interesting surface which age well. I’m relatively minimal in style, and I also appreciate pieces that will fit any interior as I like to change things around – that’s the stylist in me!

We heard a rumour that St Francis was on the market? What’s next in store for the family home?

St Francis House was indeed on the market – but then lockdown hit, and we realised how lucky we were to live where we live, and we fell in love with it again all over again. However, it is a huge property, and we don’t need that much space. So we are converting it once again, this time into three properties. We will stay in the main house and create two more homes in the village. As a family, we plan to split our time once more between the UK and Ibiza.

Finally, as someone renowned for bringing a new lease of life to the unusual and adoration for the minimal, we’d love to unearth a few unknown viewpoints from Anna Unwin:

If you could bring back any fashion trend, what would it be?

I think the 70s – but again, this goes back to fashion and interiors – the Yves St Laurent 70s tuxedo “The Smoking jacket” is just as relevant now as it was then. I think that’s my point with all of this. If the design is good, it will stand the test of time. I feel that its classic, timeless, and so elegant.

The 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s: Which decade do you love the most and why?

Again, the 1970s for the same reason. With regard to furniture, lots of the Italian 1970s marble tables I source, sell very well. They are also still being copied today with modern twists. Again, it’s about good design will stand the test of time.

If you had a time machine, would you go back in time or into the future?

I would go into the future. As a retailer and stylist, I’m interested to see how shopping is going to change. I think we have coped incredibly well without going to physical shops and doing everything online. So I’d like to see what is going to come next. Virtual shopping days? Will shops be set up in home environments more than online stores? Time will tell.

If you had to delete all but three apps from your phone, which ones would you keep?

Instagram, 1stDibs and thesaleroom.com

Read more about Anna Unwin and AU Bespoke 

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