BRISTOL CHARACTERS OF CULTURE: LEIGH-ANNE & THE UPHOLSTERY COLLECTIVE
BRISTOL IS HOME TO SOME RIDICULOUSLY TALENTED ARTISTS AND SELF STARTERS. FOR OUR THIRD INTERVIEW IN THE CHARACTERS OF CULTURE SERIES, WE TALK TO LEIGH-ANNE OF THE BRISTOL UPHOLSTERY PROJECT, ABOUT HER JOURNEY FROM FINE ART TO CREATING AN UPHOLSTERY BUSINESS & SCHOOL, WHERE SHE BRINGS COMMUNITY & JOY INTO THE WORKPLACE.
Published: April 2019
Josie: So, can you take me back to the start, how did the Bristol Upholstery Collective begin?
Leigh-Anne: Well I studied a fine art degree in Bristol. & I’ve always loved making. A lot of my artwork invited people in to experience it in some way. So after graduating, I became a community artist in South Wales delivering workshops in all kinds of community environments. I ended up moving back to Bristol because I thought it would be great to be a part of a collective of artists that meant we could run many projects at the same time.
Of course I ended up not continuing my art as such, but managing The Old Duke Jazz pub. Which were such memorable, and fun days. I absolutely loved working there and really got absorbed by the lifestyle, the family that was The Old Duke, the bohemian clients that would drink there. The staff were all musicians, artists, actors, actresses, performers, fashion designers. We were quite a collaborative crowd full of ideas. But then I got to the point where I’d lost touch with making. There was a women’s college in Easton called Silai for Skills where they were teaching needle based skills, mainly for women in the community to enable and empower them. The teachers were really wonderful, very talented, very old school, they did things properly the old fashioned way with traditional methods.
So I signed up & within days I’d torn apart the pub seats in The Old Duke to reupholster them thinking well how hard can it be? It’s just a staple gun and some fabric, wrap it up, there we go. There’s definitely a lot more tricks than that! I was hooked. Having a tool kit of my own felt so satisfying – to grab hold of these tools each week and go off to a class. Delving into chairs and seeing what was beneath them – I never knew anything like it existed. It’s all hidden in there. And it’s such a skill & a craft. The process itself was really therapeutic, as just one day a week I was back working with my hands, coming up with ideas.
Josie: How did you find the experience of studying something creative again?
Leigh-Anne: So I studied for two years, every Wednesday. And it was lovely because it gave me a break from my pub job, which was great, but very easy for it to become your entire life! It was so good for just one day week to get out and make something, actually see something for my efforts. At the end of the day I’d have a chair that I could sit & relax on, and I be proud of. So then quite quickly, because of my work in teaching previously in the arts industry, I started cover the classes. Then I had an idea to open up evening classes for my art studio.
Josie: Where was your Studio?
Leigh-Anne: Bristol Studios in Barton Hill. I rented a tiny studio space there that was probably a meter by two. You could barely fit a chair in! And that’s where it all began. I started running upholstery courses. In fact, that’s where Harriet and I met – I taught her, and now eight years later she’s become the first employee.
Josie: And how did the collective form?
Leigh-Anne: There’s a severe lack of affordable space for people to create livelihoods. I thought there must be many people in a similar boat to me, wanting to become upholsterers. I’ve always worked in art studios, and ever since college, those were the kinds of atmospheres that I would really thrive in. So my first idea was to create a multi-disciplined space. Soon we had furniture designers, surface pattern designers, fashion designers. That however was really challenging because you’d have painter working one minute, then you’d roll out the fabric and realise that the table had paint on it.
So then I thought well let’s just narrow it down to just getting upholsterers in. People who have an idea of a business they want to do for a living, and need an incubation space, and a group of supportive & skilled people around them. With some made up projections to, a dream, & no credibility, it was just so hard to find a space. Then a friend that I’d met while studying at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. They informed me that there was this shop on Old Market, someone was about to call me, you need to answer the phone and say yes. I had three hours to make a decision. And I took it on. This was after a year of being turned down and rejected and putting in proposals for every single place that I could possibly find.
Josie: So was it set up as a cooperative group?
Leigh-Anne: It was set up as a business because from past experience, I knew that having any kind of legal structure of a charity or social enterprise would present a lot of obstacles in the early days. I’m wasn’t quite sure how it was going to turn out, so I wanted to be free enough to make decisions after investing and committing to managing it. I needed to be able to act quickly, and make changes.So for a good couple of years we started Bristol Upholstery Collective in Old Market as a project from my own sole trader status. I remember the day that I got the keys for these premises. And it was the scariest thought. Suddenly, the excitement of all the potential. But the sheer, nervewracking commitment.
Josie: What were you most worried about?
Leigh-Anne: I was most worried about financially being able to afford it, attracting the upholsterers to actually come in and be part of it. That was probably it really. I’m a quite determined, open-minded person. I kind of love making mistakes because they are great learning opportunities. Maybe that’s the teacher in me, but I could read a business book and I’d still make all the same mistakes as what I’ve done to get here. I don’t regret a single one of them. I think I told somebody I had the space, and they said ‘Great – is it the vision?” And I told them no but it’s a start. It’s better than nothing. And I thought hey if it doesn’t work, I can make into anything. It can become anything.
So then within a couple of weeks I’d found seven upholsterers who were really passionate about having a go at running their own business.
Josie: What did you learn through creating the business?
Leigh-Anne: I learned a lot about how to try and build a community and how to manage needs. And I think I’ll be forever learning in that sense. In different crowds, with fluctuating dynamics, you suddenly have the networks of seven people rather than one person. And the fun and opportunities that come with community. Quite quickly I realised we needed more space. We opened a new space in Joseph’s studios with an office, and a classroom. The lessons & the courses are what I love doing. I love sharing my skills, I love seeing people achieve things that they never thought possible.
Josie: You mentioned that you learned a lot of lessons about building a community. What are the most important aspects?
Leigh-Anne: First and foremost is shared values – it’s really important that people share the same vision. Though everyone is different, everyone has their needs, and must be able to communicate those. I don’t take things personally, and try to be impeccable with my word. Any kind of obstacles or changes requires skill in communication. To be honest, at the start I had no idea what I was creating. You know that phrase winging it – yeah, I did a lot of that! You know I couldn’t have planned it even if I had dreamt it. The beauty of anything growing organically, and evolving means that there is so much room for growth. I do love it. I do get tired. But I give it everything I got. But this move into the new venue, expansion, employed staff – gone are the old days of winging it!
There’s also a lot of joy that needs to come to a workplace. Whilst you’re working, in the process, sharing it with other people when you collaborate. I think we now aim for maximum joy, minimal winging it!
Photographs and interview by Josie Rae
Check out the first Characters of Culture interview with Nick Hand here.