PPeriod features were conspicuously off Becky Nolan and Barny Read’s wish list. The couple, who ran the Peanut Vendor, a 20th-century design store in east London, lived in a Victorian flat but decided a more modern space would better showcase their collections of abstract art and furniture esoteric.
“We were ready to change bay windows and wobbly walls; we wanted to try an art gallery-style white box,” says Read. They found a two-bedroom apartment built in the 1990s to rent and were won over by its two small terraces, front and back. The apartment itself was uninspiring. “It was nondescript and a bit tired, with lots of magnolia,” Nolan recalls. But a quick peek under the beige carpets revealed a concrete screed floor: “We thought that had potential,” says Read.
With the agreement of their landlady, they repaint the walls in shiny white, resin the concrete floor and remove and store the existing fittings, “so that we can put them back in place when we leave”. They replaced faux Victorian metal doorknobs with vintage bakelite handles, fussy curtains for crisp white linens, and replaced pendant lights with mid-century glass designs. These “sit flush to the ceiling to maximize the sense of height and give continuity to each room,” says Read.
The couple’s landlady had planned to replace the floors in the kitchen and bathroom, so the couple were able to steer it towards terracotta quarry tiles, which match the tiles on the canal-side terrace. But there were compromises. “There were limits to what we could do,” says Nolan. “We just have to live with kitchen and bathroom amenities that wouldn’t be our choice.”
When they moved in, the plan was to create a clean look. “We had big ideas about being minimalist, having a lot of empty white space,” Nolan recalls with a laugh. “But we are natural collectors: we love art and always find new pieces.”
Much of it is surprisingly large for a small apartment, like a large abstract painting that sits next to a low 1970s sofa by Vico Magistretti, or an amorphous ceramic sculpture in the small hallway.
“Whether it’s a sculpture or a painting, we like to have huge things that mess with the sense of scale,” says Nolan. “This makes the room look bigger.
With its white walls and emphasis on art and sculpture, the apartment has a contemplative, gallery-like feel, but tactile rugs and warm woods keep it from feeling sterile.
Choosing the couple of coins to sell to the peanut dealer is just as carefully thought out. “When we’re looking for stock, we wonder if we’d have that at home,” Read says. In a market crowded with mid-century design dealers, the couple are constantly striving to find unexpected and thought-provoking pieces, from a post-modern Italian armchair with a sunburst red leather pattern to chunky wooden chairs. “These unique pieces always seem to sell out quickly,” says Nolan.
They buy many of their pieces at trade fairs in France, where dealers congregate from all over Europe. “We also go to flea markets, if we have time. We used to go for a lot of Scandinavian design; now we are into modern and post-modern Italian pieces. Their thoughtful editing has attracted an admiring following among influential interior designers such as Kelly Wearstler and Faye Toogood, who buy vintage pieces to bring depth to their projects.
Peanut Vendor’s name comes from an old Cuban jazz song. “We just loved it and didn’t want anything that tied us to any particular genre or era,” Read says. Starting the business in 2008 was a leap of faith for the couple, who were only a year into their relationship.. “We started with a small store and spent time watching what other dealers were doing,” Read says. “We saw that many only had a basic website with a hold page. I think our great strength was to have a real online store from the start.
At first they had to bolster their finances by working in pubs. “It took us about four years to really learn the business side,” says Nolan. In 2015 they moved to a large showroom. It is open by appointment, freeing them to purchase trips to France and Italy. “We haven’t had any problems selling over the last couple of years, but it’s been harder to buy stocks and with Brexit it’s also harder,” says Read. “Now we have to arrange shipping, permits and paperwork, which many of our dealers are simply not prepared for. This will make everything more complicated and expensive.
On a more positive note, Nolan used the lockdowns to become an accomplished ceramist. “A friend bought me a course at the Turning Earth studio a few years ago. Loved it, but didn’t get a chance to touch clay again until first lockdown. It’s very soothing.
She started at the dining table, taking her pieces to a local potter for firing, but quickly outgrew this way of working, so the couple turned their spare bedroom into a small studio, complete with an old portable oven that they wheel outside to use. Inspired by traditional pots from ancient Greece and Africa, as well as the work of artist Cy Twombly and potter Magdalene Odundo, Nolan documents her efforts on Instagram and has begun selling pieces online.. In 12 months, her pots appeared in Elle Décoration.
Ceramic fits perfectly into the mix of the apartment: “I love creating new thumbnails of rooms: it keeps things fresh and inspiring. I could still opt for a Victorian apartment, but for now we really like the contemporary vibe. It suits the art and furniture we love, and we just appreciate that pleasant white cube of a space.