Children’s furniture designer Fiona Jolly tells Kate Freud about juggling her twin girls, Poppy and Harryo, with her thriving new business
“When I was newly pregnant with the twins, I was put on bed rest for seven weeks,” says furniture designer Fiona Jolly, recalling the memory with a smile. “I thought it would be dreamy, relaxing in my cottage in Wiltshire, but I went stir crazy!” Looking at her today – the twins, Poppy and Harryo, now seven, safely tucked up either side of her on the sofa – it’s easy to see why a woman with so much energy and enthusiasm might find such incarceration tortuous.
We’re sitting in the sun-bathed sitting room of her London home – on a pretty mews just off Notting Hill’s Ledbury Road – drinking tea and eyeing a splendid array of Peggy Porschen cakes on the coffee table. The twins seem particularly keen on a jaw-dropping unicorn cake and hover over it impatiently, before their mother finally relents and allows them a slice. Though the girls look identical, and are great friends, their personalities couldn’t be more different. “Harryo is a total tomboy, she’s wild and energetic, and super sporty. She can’t sit still! Poppy on the other hand is a seriously girly girl; she’s organised and thoughtful and loves dolls and teddies,” says Fiona. And apparently they both love cake.
The girls were, of course, the inspiration behind her furniture brand, Reasons to be Jolly, a practical collection of wooden furniture painted in delicious pastel hues from duck-egg blue and mint to peach and pale pink. When their first birthday loomed, Fiona had a romantic notion of the children and their young friends sitting outdoors around a communal table, but soon realised there was nothing in the kids’ furniture market that offered what she was looking for. “I had this idea that it would be like a mini dinner party, but couldn’t find anything where the children’s feet could touch the ground. And all the children’s furniture I did find was either plastic and hideous or MDF and self-assembly. And so the idea for Reasons to be Jolly was born.”
As the children perch on benches either side of a beautifully made, low wooden table, on the family’s roof terrace, her vision has been realised. The girls and Fiona’s godson Sebastian, five, can draw, eat and play around the table and it very much feels like their own space. This design comes in two lengths – 5ft and 7ft – and you can squeeze almost 30 under-10s on the seven-footer. And there’s science behind the beautiful aesthetic, too. Having spoken to a paediatrician about children’s development, Fiona explains, “it’s great for children to have their feet on the ground while eating, playing and doing homework. It helps with feeling independent, too.”
The range extended into square play tables and eventually wooden stools which are dotted around the house, perfect for little ones wanting to reach bathroom sinks, and high cupboards in the kitchen or bedroom for the grown-ups. Fiona and her husband of 10 years, Jamie, a screenwriter, find themselves using them as much as the girls.
The couple divide their time between their London home and the countryside, where their eight-bedroom house, six miles north of Salisbury, is home to a menagerie of dogs, cats and the girls’ ponies that are very much a part of the family. Fiona’s furniture is a permanent fixture in the garden, and with its hardwood and waterproof, non-toxic paint it’s survived the British elements to stand the test of time. All the tables are made in Wiltshire from local sustainable wood, and Fiona has designed them down to the smallest detail. They can be folded flat for storage, and have stainless steel clips that hold the legs in place, meaning no assembly is necessary.
Fiona and Jamie met through a mutual friend. They hit it off immediately during their first date at Fiona’s favourite Italian restaurant, Assaggi. And the fact that his writing work could take him anywhere sealed the deal, as it meant they really could do the town and country thing properly, splitting their time between the two. These days their house in Wiltshire is full of friends at the weekends, many of whom live nearby and some taking refuge from London.
This was always Fiona’s dream. In fact, she knew she would end up owning the couple’s country house from the moment she saw it 10 years before it was theirs. And she’s clearly a girl who always had a vision. Like the way at age 12 she decided school was not for her and after leaving at 15 (she was later diagnosed with dyslexia) she set about becoming a make-up artist. “I loathed school” she says, “and was constantly made to feel very stupid. But I always saw things in picture and colour form, so make-up proved the perfect medium for expression.” Her passion caught the eye of the brilliant make-up artist Charlie Green, who took 17-year-old Fiona under her wing and spent two years teaching her everything she knows.
Her work took her all over the world, doing make-up for everyone from Kylie Minogue to Goldie Hawn, but it was full on, and transient, and when she met Jamie she wanted to settle. After several miscarriages, they were thrilled to fall pregnant naturally with twins, and after a C-section at 37 weeks, their family was complete. “In a way, it was a relief to find out I was pregnant with twins,” Fiona says. “It meant I got the help I needed from Jamie, family and a nanny. I was also so terrified of giving birth – when I was told I would have to have a caesarean I was delighted.”
Though Fiona makes sure to be around for her girls, it’s important to her that they see her work too, and muck in themselves sometimes. “I try to get the girls involved where I can, they love helping out,” Fiona says.
Which is not a bad thing, given that Fiona’s business is growing and she’s full of ideas for where to take it next. “We’ve already expanded into animal-print cushions and wall art, and at the moment I’m designing crockery and cutlery too, but next I plan on designing bedspreads, rugs and bookshelves. There’s so much I want to do!” And with her boundless enthusiasm and keen eye for design, we’re going to watch this space.
All photography by Helene Sandberg