Facing the future

April 25, 2020

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What lessons will we learn from 2020, I wonder? The year that turned all our lives upside down and forced us all to stop in our tracks. I can’t help thinking about a synergy with another time in my life, when my love of upholstery began.

When the recession hit in 2008, my career in fashion abruptly ended. Leaving London with no income and no future plans, I was like a lost ship looking for shore. A year of job-hunting followed and I gave up my lovely, rented loft apartment in London and moved to a mid-Century maisonette in Teddington. It was hard to see a brighter path ahead.

Looking for that lightbulb moment

But then my lightbulb moment arrived. I had a 1960s Guy Rogers day bed re-upholstered, and I loved the whole process of choosing the fabric and seeing the quality and design of this piece being brought back to life. It made me wonder, what if I could do something challenging and creative every day? Upholstery was my answer. In fact, it was the lifeline that pulled me back to shore.

Everyone around me thought I was mad. Spending almost every last penny I had on training and then embarking on a service people may not want or need in a tough financial climate seemed crazy. But I was determined, and so at the age of 40 there I was starting all over again with a new craft, a new passion and a new career.

View of blossom tree from bedroom window - Charlotte Bland photography

Photo credit: Charlotte Bland Photography.

Getting on the road to recovery

So far it sounds like I’m about to tell you about my fairytale ending, right? Well, not quite. The path didn’t run quite as smoothly as I had hoped. Not because business wasn’t good or I’d made a bad decision. Actually, it was my health that took a turn for the worse. I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Lupus, and then I contracted Parvovirus. The combination of the two conditions nearly killed me. In reality, I consider myself lucky to be alive today.

So here I was taking the biggest career gamble of my life and I could barely leave my bed. For six months I recovered slowly, picking up bits of work and taking on commissions to my capacity when I could. Thankfully I had patient and understanding clients, and for the first time ever I was my own boss, which was liberating.

And fast forward to now. A whole different set of circumstances, but definite parallels with where I found myself almost 10 years earlier. I’m extremely fortunate that things haven’t ground to a halt. I run my own studio which is just around the corner from where I live. In essence, my business operates at a social distance even at the best of times. I’m grateful I have a skill that allows me to bring some optimism into people’s lives. Even if that is just by giving them the chance to enhance their home.

Sharon O'Connor browsing flee market for upholstery projects

Photo credit: Caroline Jones Photography.

“I’m grateful I have a skill that allows me to bring some optimism into people’s lives. Even if that is just by giving them the chance to enhance their home.”

The last few weeks have made me rethink how my business runs. I’m not sure it will ever be exactly the same as before, but I mean that in a good way. I’ve discovered that video calls work brilliantly for fabric meetings and I will continue these. In fact, in many senses they work better – I can see the pieces in situ and it’s helpful to get a flavour of my clients’ home environment.

Upholstery fabric pinned to studio wall

Photo credit: Caroline Jones Photography.

I’ve used this time and space to reflect on my business, streamlining processes and systems that will ultimately make it flourish. I’m also desperate to paint my studio. I’m thinking a bold, bright pink. No more dark tones, I want to be uplifted when we emerge from this lockdown.

Support small business

One thing I hope that doesn’t happen as a result of this situation is that we as small business owners get asked to reduce our fees. In fact, I’ve seen it pop up as a topic with many people within my industry and beyond. These challenging times are going to hit most of us – especially in the pocket, but I hope we don’t surface from it with an expectation that bargaining is the name of the game.

Actually, over the coming months, small businesses are going to need support to get back on their feet more than ever before. Now is not the time to say, ‘let’s do a deal’. If people are able to spend then my message to them would be, please shop locally and support small businesses. It will make such a difference.

Reupholstered armchair in Rebecca J Mills fabric

Rebecca J Mills Falling For – Magic – Fabric.

It’s a sentiment echoed by @ritakonig from @createacademyofficial. She decided to open up her carefully curated ‘little black book’ of small, secret sources such as @tallboyinteriors and other wonderful names in the antiques trade. Her message is…

“If you are able to Spend then SHOP!!! This is the thing we can do to keep the wheels turning so we don’t emerge from this and find these wonderful small businesses have sunk without trace.”

You’ll find her suggestions by searching the #dealersofinstagram hashtag on Instagram.

Drawing pins laid out on table - Caroline Jones photography

Photo credit: Caroline Jones Photography.

I think I can draw comfort from the fact that in 2008, when I faced an uncertain future after the recession, I learnt that it is definitely possible to pivot. Even better, you can carry on and thrive. Traditional crafts, such as upholstery, in particular, are something that can be appreciated forever. I won’t rush back to the place I was before, I’ll be looking ahead. Hopefully in a freshly painted, bright pink studio.

If you’ve got an upholstery project in mind, now or in the future, do drop me a line. Email sharon@vintiqueupholstery.com or call 07764 182 783.

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