Seb Bishop is an evangelist for the family meal. “The whole world slows down when you lay a beautiful table. It’s where the big decisions are made. It’s where you as a family tell stories, make jokes. What happens at the table is our whole life.”
When his mother, Bernadette Bishop, and her close friend June Summerill opened a little shop in London’s Holland Park in 1994, their plan was to put the kitchen at the heart of the enterprise, offering practical but beautiful pieces for what they considered was the most important room in the house. Walk into the Portland Road shop in 2021 and much of that original essence remains: lavandine scents the air, Mozart plays in the background and the walls are a warm, pink plaster that in 26 years has never been painted. Glassware cabinets are lined with Carlo Moretti Murano and there is a giant collection of Astier de Villatte ceramics (from £75 for a dessert plate). Front and centre sits a 3m x 1m table, usually showcasing the brand’s latest tablecloth design.
Today, instead of selling the pieces June and Bernadette once picked up at brocantes abroad, much of the dinnerware, cutlery and glassware – such as a hand-blown carafe (from £275) decorated with marine life – is made by artisans specifically for Summerill & Bishop. “We look for things that will keep us at the table for longer, and for conversation pieces,” says Bishop, who now runs the brand alongside co-owner June as CEO and creative director.
The back wall of the shop is hung with 4m-long tablecloths (from £275), gallery-worthy linens that are now the company’s bestsellers – linen sales grew by 47 per cent in 2020. The tablecloth business was conceived during the dark period after Bernadette’s death, from a brain haemorrhage in 2014, when the family and June were trying to decide whether the store would have a future. “I couldn’t bring myself to go into the shop because the shop was her,” says Bishop. “When I finally plucked up the courage, her half-full perfume bottle was still next to the counter, her scarf hanging behind the door.”
It was only when Bishop’s brother, Oli, came across an old cookbook signed with the little flower drawing she always scribbled below her signature that he found his inspiration. “In honour of Mum we made this beautiful tablecloth in what we called the Falling Flower design. And it made me think, ‘What if we make tablecloths relevant again?’ Back then they were an heirloom, something you kept in a linen cupboard and that never saw the light of day. And that’s what led us to these slightly crazy, fun, beautiful designs.”
“Tablescapes” – as artfully laid tables are known in the world of Instagram – may adorn the brand’s social-media feeds, but Bishop is cautious about a word he says “feels overly contrived”. Call it what you will, there’s no denying that the average S&B table setting, in all its undone glamour, has been carefully considered. “We came up with a rule in the design studio,” says Bishop. “If you’re not willing to hang your work up on the wall as a piece of art, it shouldn’t adorn a table.” Collaborations followed, with jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge, MatchesFashion, artist and interior designer Luke Edward Hall, chef Skye Gyngell and June Summerill’s favourite restaurant, La Colombe d’Or, in Provence.
During the March 2020 UK lockdown, Bishop began to channel the store’s energy online, and the growth there has clearly set him thinking about the future. As the former international CEO of Bono’s nonprofit (RED) and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, expansion is in his veins, but he insists that any new bricks-and-mortar venture beyond S&B’s second shop on Elizabeth Street in Belgravia would have to have the same feeling as the small shop on Portland Road. You can hear the love in his voice when he speaks about the neighbourhood. “Julie’s, the restaurant, is opposite us, and Mum and June would sit out on the terrace enjoying the sunshine. The Cross is a fantastic boutique run by Sam [Robinson]. And back in the day this is where Cath [Kidston] had her very first shop. And you’ve got Sara [Fenwick]’s antique store, Myriad. All are shops founded by female entrepreneurs that have stood the test of time. It would be strange for us ever to leave this part of town.”
100 Portland Road, London W11 (summerillandbishop.com)
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