WHAT WE LOVE: A delightful emporium that mixes vintage furniture and homewares with plants. Mason & Painter, one of The Shopkeepers Best 10 Vintage & Antique Shops, specializes in French garden furniture and planters.
WHERE: Conveniently located next to the Columbia Road Flower Market, a must-visit Sunday destination when in London.
WHO: Michelle Mason, designer and author of Flower Market: Botanical Style at Home.
What motivated you to open Mason & Painter? A love of vintage and industrial salvage and the time just seemed right after working as a designer for a number of years. I felt that a change in direction would be a good thing.
Did you have prior retail experience? I was already wholesaling my homeware brand (designing textiles, rugs and ceramics) to stores such as Liberty, Heals and House of Fraser in London and Le Bon Marché in Paris but I hadn’t any real shop experience and neither had my then business partner.
Who designed the Mason & Painter shop? The shop is on the ground floor of an old upholstery workshop – once part of the booming furniture trade in Shoreditch, dating back to around 1880. We didn’t have to do too much to it as the original brick walls were already exposed; it has a concrete floor and good high ceilings. We painted the floor, added some new lighting and filled it with salvaged doors, furniture and other reclaimed pieces.
What is Mason & Painter best known for? Items that can be used as planters for gardens. We sell old copper vats and galvanized metal tubs and get a lot of landscape gardeners through the door. We’re also known for French café furniture; chairs and tables for outdoor use.
Where do you source your products? We source French pieces plus British and eastern European at large organized vintage fairs both here and in France.
What makes Mason & Painter unique? We’re situated on a street that holds a famous weekly flower market (Columbia Road) so we get access to lots of seasonal flowers and plants for decoration and we’ve just started to sell our own houseplants so that customers can buy a little bit of greenery on days when the market isn’t on.
Why did you choose Columbia Road to locate Mason & Painter? It kind of chose us. I had an email from one of the shop owners saying she was relocating and would I be interested in renting the space. My initial thought was how can I make that possible. I spoke to a friend, Tim Painter, who was interested in salvage and we just went for it.
How has Mason & Painter added to the local community? Hopefully we’ve added another dimension as it’s the only store that sells vintage furniture in the immediate vicinity. And it’s a unique street; made up of independent shops and designer / makers – no large brands, banks or corporates. It has a bakery, two old pubs, a couple of small restaurants, a newsagent and a pharmacy – it’s like stepping back in time, it’s even got cobbled street stones.
How has Mason & Painter evolved since opening? After 12 months of running the shop our landlady told us she was selling up. We were gutted as we’d put so much hard work into the business and we loved the community and location. Fortunately the upholstery warehouse opposite our original shop came up for rent. It’s double the size of the first shop, so it was a bit of a gamble, but it’s meant that we can stock larger pieces and more furniture. We also have a back yard (handy for my ongoing plant obsession!) and last year we started to collaborate with like minded small businesses to host pop ups and workshops. We have some very exciting guests workshops lined up for the remainder 2019.
Who are your customers? We sell to all ages from young ‘pocket money’ customers to octogenarians. Any one really, who appreciates the feel of an old book, a worn armchair or a bit of industrial salvage for their back garden.
How has the internet impacted your business? There will, I guess, always be people looking for internet bargains and I think this has definitely impacted on retail across the board but, on the plus side, Instagram has actually opened up a lot of opportunities for small businesses like ours.
How have you adapted your business to the pandemic? Two days into London lockdown I took the shop online and together with Instagram shopping it meant that the business could still trade throughout. I’m continuing with online shopping and now ship worldwide. I have also produced a digital magazine called Atelier (available through the e-shop). It means that I can reach followers and customers and support other independent shopkeepers and makers by showcasing their businesses. The Fall issue will be published in September.
Michelle Mason, shopkeeper at Mason & Painter
Who inspires you? Anyone who can think outside the box and isn’t afraid to do things differently. I studied art and design so a lot of my inspiration comes from artist, designers and filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Luca Guadagnino, Picasso, and Lucienne Day to name just a few.
What inspires you? I love the stories that often come with vintage pieces and try and imagine who sat at that café table from Paris in the 1920s or who inscribed the loving message on the inside of book. Putting together all the different pieces and playing with textures, materials and colour. Colour is my big thing. And of course plants and flowers!
What did you do before becoming a shopkeeper? I’ve always worked in design and was a web designer, animator and interior product designer.
Do you have any particular training or field of study? I have a BA degree in Illustration a Masters degree in Communication Design and a diploma in Business Management. So the retail side of the shop has been a bit of a learning curve.
The best lessons you have learned opening a shop? Try to be one step ahead; find pieces that will surprise your customers and also listen to your customers. I’m often asked to look out for specific things for stylists and individuals and like to be able to find good pieces for them.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to open a shop? The best advice is probably be prepared for lots of hard work – not just the physical but the planning, financial, social media – all the stuff behind the scenes. But most of all enjoy it; if you run a good ship the pay off is huge enjoyment.
Which famous person would you like to visit your shop? Being located centrally, just east of the city, we’ve had quite a few famous people through the door. Lots of actors and models come in and buy stuff. And I had a lovely chat with David Baily when he came in and told me about his childhood in the east end of London.
Can you share your favourite shops? I love John Derian’s designs, so that would have to be one. I also get lots of inspiration from Liberty, Le Bon Marche, Rebel Rebel Flowers and far too many independent shops to list. Labour and Wait and Merci and Les Fleurs, in Paris, to name a few.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood coffee shop and restaurant? I’m going to be rather biased here and say that east London really is my favourite area. I love where we are. It’s the arty, creative part of London and the vibe is relaxed and friendly. There are plenty of coffee shops to choose from – my favourites being Paper & Cup, Pavilion Bakery & Lily Vanilli (across the road from us), I also like Flying Horse Coffee in Mare Street Market and E5 Bakehouse on London Fields, where I live.
Which Instagram accounts are you currently loving?
If you weren’t a shopkeeper you would be…? A perfumier or something to do with food. I love combining ingredients and colour. It always comes back to colour! And I’d love to bring out another book so that I could find an excuse to do more photography.
I wish I could…. Find more time to help the local community, like community gardening or talks in local schools. Maybe I’ll try harder this year!
Portrait photo of Michelle Mason by @dvoraphoto
ON THE FUTURE OF RETAIL
“As online shopping grows progressively popular I think it’s even more important, as a shop owner, to keep finding ways to entice both new and existing customers.
It’s increasing hard for the smaller independent bricks and mortar shops so offering ‘experiences’ is, I think, the way to go. As well as unique products and dazzling stock.”
Michelle’s book, Flower Market: Botanical Style Home, was published this year. The book focuses on seasonal and locally grown, using reclaimed or recycled items to style flowers at home. Michelle has photographed flowers throughout the seasons and has included sections on color, styling, and living with houseplants.
67 Columbia Road, London