Many people will not have heard the name of freelance interior designer Sandra Sayers, but her innate sense of style is a leading influence on designers and the high street. Sandra studied the Diploma in Window Dressing at Bradford Technical College from 1967 to 1969.
“I was always interested in furniture, colours and paint. My mother was Austrian and my father was of Swedish descent and I inherited my interest in interiors from them. They were very houseproud and liked to decorate in a style totally different to neighbouring homes on the Skipton council estate where I grew up. We had stained and colour washed floors and rush mats instead of carpets, unheard of in the 1960s. As early as I could lift things I moved furniture and ornaments around at home and made things for my bedroom. As a child I drew wallpaper and made furnishings for the little stage set type rooms I made out of boxes from the Co-op. I had three sisters and the only thing we had to store our clothes in was a shelf in a big sideboard downstairs, so I made my own beside table from a wallpapered orange box.
When I started at secondary school I decided I wanted to be a window dresser. Unlike my friends’ parents, mine never made me do homework and allowed me to miss lessons to help my dad decorate. As the eldest of five I was expected to go out to work. I had to fight to go to College but I enrolled on the two year condensed Diploma in Window Dressing in 1967. Our classes were in the Old Building in a room with little booths for the shop windows. I remember making a big paper swan for a display of Swan brand pans. I went to London in 1969 but I was too ambitious for the junior positions on offer in the big stores there. They wanted me to start at the bottom and train from scratch. I had the skills and I wanted to design the windows not be a runner.”
Totally disillusioned, Sandra took a couple of jobs selling shoes in New Bond Street shores where she could adjust the displays. She moved to Southampton when first married and later combined motherhood with some window dressing, retail interiors and interior design. She then worked for Laura Ashley for eight years before running her own business with her husband in Skipton, designing interiors and selling furniture and accessories. “I sold lots of old pine and one of the dealers who stripped pine for us and who we traded with was struggling with his showrooms. I started helping him, and then other dealers, developing his showroom from a very attractive warehouse to a lifestyle display.”
As the antique pine trade dried up this client’s business started developing more of the accessories side of the business. Sandra’s flair for styling led to her travelling to Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, Thailand and India sourcing stock, as well as designing the aspirational showroom and trade fair displays. “Although I am still self employed I now work four days a week for Coach House, who supply retailers such as Harrods, House of Fraser, John Lewis, Barker & Stonehouse and smaller select stores. They are the largest wholesaler of furniture and ceramics in the country. I frequently see photographs of my room sets on other people’s websites and even big name designers ask what wallpaper I have used and copy my displays. I don’t get the credit but it generates more sales for Coach House. I also do other freelance work, for instance, I am currently working on the interior of a private house for a client in Jersey.”
This modest approach is typical of Sandra. As one of the original Calendar Girls whose alternative Women’s Institute calendar sparked a mini industry, Sandra featured as Miss June posing with her sewing. Although Sandra’s subtle styling and idea to use black and white photographs was part of the calendar’s impact, she later stepped back as the project gathered unexpected momentum. “I hated all the attention and as the thing became bigger we were expected to make personal appearances and give talks all over the place. I had a year when I spent three days a week doing promotional things and as I am self employed this wasn’t sustainable.” Sandra also grew increasingly uncomfortable at what appeared more naked ambition than charity. “I didn’t want fame and fortune. I had been so terrified when I had posed that I could have been sick at any minute but I was glad to do it for Leukaemia Research. I have no regrets but I did not want to go on.
I see all my work as an opportunity to express myself. I owe what I am doing now from what I studied at College.”