Rachael South went from art school to upholstery and now shares her experiences through teaching at The Cass School of Art based at the London Metropolitan University.
Words: Alex Larmen Podcast: Rosie Coxshaw
Rachael South has established a significant reputation in the field of craft and upholstery, especially when it comes to the upkeep and repair of furniture. Yet, as the Harrow-born South says, it has been a long and eventful progression from her beginnings to actually making a career. “I set off on my upholstery journey by working for a lot of upholsterers, and I acquired experience from the workshops, which was very different from what I’d learnt at university. The more people I worked with, the more I learnt. Yet I always wanted to be self-employed, and I’ve thrived running my own business; I’ve enjoyed that side as much as the ‘creative’ one, because I get to run it exactly how I want.”
The business that she currently runs was greatly inspired by her father. As she describes it, “I grew up in his workshop and observed the process there. My parents didn’t directly encourage me, but I always got the impression that they hoped that I’d join the business. Therefore, when I was being a bit rebellious, and went to art school, the impression that I was giving was that I definitely wasn’t going to join in. And then I decided that I wanted to be self-employed, and changed my mind.”
Nonetheless, it wasn’t a massive shift from what she had done before. ‘I’ve always enjoyed working with textiles, and would have loved to work in textile design, and costumes, so it’s similar, but a slightly different angle.’
South runs her eponymous business under her own name, rather than a company name. “We do upholstery, re-upholstery of antique furniture – and especially chair caning and rush seating. We also do a lot of creative seat weaving, using old frames and contemporary material such as leather and ribbons. Additionally, I teach an upholstery qualification at The Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University, so it’s a bit of a three-pronged attack, really.” When it comes to unloved furniture that needs to be restored, she always strikes a balance between personal preference and what she’s been commissioned to do.
“I’m always working to my client’s requirements, really, and am always interested to see what they want. Nonetheless, people often want quite a lot of guidance, and advice, and I’m always happy to work towards that.”
To ‘listen carefully’ has always been her golden rule, both in life and in business. To this end, her teaching has been a central part of her career for the two years that she’s been at The Cass. “I teach the AMUSF upholstery qualification, a three year part-time course, and it’s the training course that takes you through from having no upholstery to being able to go and work as an upholsterer. It’s incredibly popular, as we get a lot of people who either want to begin a second career or to work for themselves. I also teach chair caning, a side part of the course; it’s fascinating.”
For someone as outgoing as South, the opportunity to deal with the students is another bonus. “Many of them have a business, or have worked in other industries, so it’s fascinating to see how upholstery changes.”
As for where she teaches, she couldn’t be more effusive.
“I think we’ve got a really great location in east London, a great range of students – some school leavers, but a lot of adult learners as well, a lot of interesting people – and the facilities are great. Also, we’ve got a long history of teaching craft courses, particularly the upholstery, which have a really great reputation.”
Teaching is something that South has been coming towards for a while. “I began to think after a while that ‘I’ve worked hard, and I’d like to give something back’, so I began teaching. But I run it in tandem with my business, so it’s always a nice contrast.” When she’s not teaching or working, she occupies herself in a variety of ways; travel is a particular passion. She believes that “a full life, feeling inspired and motivated, is the full definition of success, and travel gives me a bit of head space. It brings me new ideas when I’ve got that time out, and it’s mysterious how it works; I’ll return, and I will have all sorts of new things in my mind.” She singles out Mexico as a particular favourite: “It’s so diverse, and there’s so much to see both there and in Central America, especially the way that the textile manufacture out there is done on an almost village scale. It’s a place that lives and breathes design.”
The ‘self-motivated’ South is a successful, energetic presence, always searching for new experience, and looking for fresh ways to solve problems. Her favourite dinner guest would be Margaret Atwood – ‘”she manages to combine many different elements in her books” – and, defines kindness as her mantra in life. “I try to be kind to people, even if it’s proving difficult.” As she says that “I don’t want to have a creative life that I stop at some point”, one hopes that South goes on for ever.