Lucy Bryant learns about one couples journey from Michelin star to masters of interiors.
Working from a building with as varied background as their own, Rowland and Mary Leach own the interior company, French Loft.
They operate from an old brewery building in Arundel, which was originally used to dry the hops.
The two floored structure is an impressive sight, and well suited to the business it now holds. Perhaps less suited was the previous utilisation of the property as an old metal workshop.
”It was filthy when we got it, and took us around five weeks to gut, get rid of the old metal and re-paint the place in white so it wasn’t dark and horrible,” recalls Rowland.
Restoring the building to a state that does it and its content justice, the couple has also utilised old French windows and doors at the front of the building, keeping out the cold in the winter months, but opening up in the summer to reveal their plethora of stock.
“Upstairs is like a loft, and that’s where our name originates from,” explains Rowland.
Starting the business four years ago, the couple share the buildings varied background.
They started their careers working in advertising in London, before trading Soho for Sussex, and buying West Stoke House on the Goodwood Estate.
After taking on the property in 2000, they transformed it from a private home to a ‘boutique restaurant with rooms’ which went on to gain a Michelin star.
“It was a fantastic operation, but very draining and consequently, we decided to return the property to a private house and sell it on,” says Rowland.
After ten years there, the couple went on to open another restaurant in Chichester, Amelie and Friends.
Two years down the line, a ‘young couple interested in entering the restaurant business’ approached them and asked if they were interested in selling.
“We were only two years in but we could see a long haul ahead,” explains Rowland.
“We thought we’ll get out now, do something different and follow our interior styling and antiques path.”
The first spark of inspiration for the world of antiques, came from their time at West Stoke House.
They enjoyed looking for interiors, and ‘developed a French style look to the property, with huge great mirrors and chandeliers’. The property had a very decorative look, and that’s where their ‘love for French antiques was born.’
“The ability to do up a ten bedroom restaurant with rooms showed us that we could push our passion further,” reveals Rowland.
Having exited the service industry, the pair ‘completely renovated and styled a property on St Martins Square’ which was then featured in the Sunday Telegraph.
“We got some good PR from that to kick-start the business” explains Rowland.
Starting slowly at the beginning, they later bought their warehouse in Arundel which they now operate from. They also have a presence in the Petworth Antiques Market, so work from two renowned antique hubs in the South of England.
“Our key principle is our French influence, so we travel there regularly to buy unique decorative antiques,” Rowland explains, adding how it really is hard work.
“People think it’s very glamorous but there’s a lot of travel and early morning markets, as well as staying in some not great B&Bs.”
Despite this, both Rowland and Mary enjoy the whole process immensely, adding that ‘there’s so much fun in the chase of finding something special.’
One particular item which Rowland found a little too special to sell and so to this day remains in their family kitchen, is a zinc sign from a French butchers.
“The old zinc and shop lettering is just wonderful, it’s so impressive,” he smiles.
As well as dealing in antiques, French Loft coordinates interior design projects.
“We did a cafe for the National Trust up at Woolbeding House and then we did Artisan which is now Arties Kitchen in Chichester,” he reveals.
The couple has found that ‘there’s an awful lot of French furniture out there’, which can make it hard to find something unique.
“A lot of it’s quite ordinary,” explains Rowland, “so we look specifically for something different, and then give it a bit of a twist.”
These twists could be bleaching some oak, or re-painting something, whatever they feel will compliment the original aesthetics of the antique.
“We like original paint and are always looking for things that have an original faded look to them,” he says.
“The natural wear is what an antique’s all about, so we maintain that character, but maybe put a new cushion pad on so you actually get to use it.”
The couple work with another colleague, Graham, who they describe as ‘the lifeblood of the place’. He helps with the restorations, as well as their two trade upholsterers who they send items to every week.
Although a challenging business to run, the couple find such ‘joy in delivering pieces to someone’s home,’ knowing it’s something they’ll love.
Find them online at www.frenchloft.com or visit their stores on Fitzalan Road, Arundel and East Street, Petworth.
This first featured in the May edition of etc Magazine pick up your copy now.