I’m a little at a loss as to how to describe Natalia Willmott, owner of the eponymous L’Atelier Natalia Willmott. Interior designer, retailer….her business seems to sit on the line between the two, with a good dollop of French je ne sais quoi thrown in for good measure.
Growing up in France, she because fascinated by the culture and ambience and used both as inspiration to set up her business, where she sells her vintage finds online and also opens her home as a showroom for customers to seek inspiration and buy the pieces they love. Sara Walker spoke to Natalia to find out more about how her love of eclectic vintage finds turned into a career.
SW: Could you start by telling me a little more about you and your background? Why were you living in France, and whereabouts did you live? Why did you decide to come back to the UK? What do you miss most about France?
NW: I was born in London and my mother remarried a Frenchman when I was four so we moved to Paris. I lived very close to the Eiffel Tower and could see the top from my bedroom window. I went to school in Paris, but spent a lot of time in Brittany by the seaside in a little fishing port called Erquy. I studied art history at the Ecole du Louvre and then went on to Oxford for a masters in art history. That’s where I met my now husband, and we moved and lived in London for ten years before relocating to York.
What I miss most about Paris are my family and friends but also the cafe ambience, the markets, the shops and the beautiful monuments and sights I studied. I was lucky to have a free pass to all the museums in France when I was a student so I could just go and spend half an hour in a new place if I wanted and, most importantly, not queue! That was a real treat.
SW: How do you source your vintage products now? Do you still make trips to France to hang around at vide greniers and marches de puce (flea markets)?
NW: I have been a collector all my life, I started with stickers, hotel ‘do not disturb’ signs, stamps and perfume bottles. Then, when I set up my business, I started collecting ceramics, textile designs which I then sell on. For L’atelier Natalia Willmott and my other business My Billet Doux, I am always on the lookout for new items…….so everywhere I go and travel I am always picking up quirky finds. I am attracted to unusual pieces and love mixing old and new. I do go to France a few times a year, and I shop at flea markets, auction houses, little antique shops and trade fairs.
SW: I really like the idea of doing the ‘house sales’ as well as selling online, I think it’s an unusual and engaging selling method which allows people to see items in context. Do you find it intrusive or stressful, though?
NW: I started my business l’Atelier by selling pieces that were underneath my sofa- textile designs from the 1920s from one of the most famous Lyon-based silk manufacturers, Bianchini Ferier. Because my family had moved to York and I had two small children and wasn’t working, I went on a year-long, one-day-a-week upholstery course for fun. But then I got the bug, and bought antique pieces of furniture to do up and sell.
Then followed the idea to sell things I just loved, my style and from my home. I have been selling from home for more than seven years now. It is such a different experience for the buyer- to come and have a cup of tea or a drink and look around in a peaceful environment. I love to talk about the pieces I have found and selected. I can only buy things I am attracted to visually, that have a story to tell. Storage is difficult and our guest room is often full to the brim! That is the only negative, but meeting, chatting and displaying beautiful items in my home really make up for it. In fact, I am open on the 8, 9 and 10 December!
SW: Have you ever loved something so much that in the end you just couldn’t sell it? If so, what was it?
NW: There are items you get attached to more than others, but when you create a connection with the buyer you know you have made the right choice by letting it go. It is a question that I am asked often but I often see the object, piece of furniture or light in its new setting and that makes me happy. I get attached to items that have memories attached to them, it could be a drawing or note from my children or husband or something my family has given me.
All images (c) L’Atelier Natalia Willmott/Damian Bramley 2018