Shaper: Karen Howes

Show aired on 20th October 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. Our guest today is Karen Howes Founder and CEO of the luxury design practice Taylor Howes. As a child Karen was always re-arranging and designing her room, her mother would put her to bed and then find her bed in the opposite corner the next morning. Design has been her passion for years. Founded in 1993 when as Karen said the job of interior designer wasn’t taken seriously as a profession, Taylor Howes grew from a two woman and a dog business to a studio team completing over a thousand bespoke projects worldwide, including private residences, royal palaces, family offices, boutique hotels and spas. With a history of a deep respect for collaboration Karen also founded Business of Design in 2015, a professional network for the design industry. There is going to be lots to talk about with Karen in just a few minutes. First treat, it’s George Benson with Gonna Love You More.

That was George Benson with Gonna Love You More, I saw him live at the Albert Hall a bit earlier this year. My Business Shaper today here on Jazz Shapers, and thanks again for joining is Karen Howes, Founder and CEO at Taylor Howes and as I said earlier also this fabulous interior design company.

Karen Howes
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
Built from the bottom up.

Karen Howes
From the bottom up, top down, it’s an interesting way of looking at it, isn’t it I suppose.

Elliot Moss
I mean it was yours and you were young and you kind of didn’t know better.

Karen Howes
No, you’re right I didn’t know better, I think if I tried to start it now, I would have hesitated too much, you know when you start things when you are young you don’t ask questions do you? You just go for it and it kind of just unfolds in a way that you can’t begin to imagine when you started. But I think I have been, you know they say, I always say I’ve been lucky, and they always say do you make your own luck? Exactly, rolling of the eyes going on here, and you do make your own luck and you work hard, yeah I think it’s passion for me, you know when I look to recruit people now I am looking for people with passion and energy and excitement and I still have that after all these years, so…

Elliot Moss
So, let’s go back, so how old were you when you set this business up, I read somewhere, it could be wrong, that you were in your twenties, is that right?

Karen Howes
I was in my very early twenties, yeah I was.

Elliot Moss
Just twenty one.

Karen Howes
So yeah only ten years ago, yeah.

Elliot Moss
No only five years ago, the 90’s were literally there, I remember them well. But in seriousness yours is a passion. Tell me a little bit about how you got interested in this world of the surroundings that people live in, why it chimed with you and why you did something about it, because often I meet people who are passionate, I’m passionate about stuff, you know I love football, doesn’t mean I am going to become a professional footballer, I am a little short, and no talent, but apart from that…

Karen Howes
I’m sure you can run well.

Elliot Moss
I can run very well, thank you (ish) I am old now. But tell me about that passion and how it converted into a business?

Karen Howes
Well it’s an interesting one because a lot of people who know me think that I was kind of arrived from Mars, because I come from a family that are not creatives in any form. I’m from a good working class background, I grew up actually in a pub, so I think that gave me a good work ethic from the start which is something that is quite essential in our business, and I think in my environment we moved a lot. I went to ten different schools as a kid, and we moved from North to South, so I would have to arrive at a new school mid-term, no friends, new uniform, different accent, I learnt to blend quickly and easily. I learnt to make friends really easily. My school report used to say, ‘she could do better if she talked less’, so that’s not changed and I think it was just, it taught me about people first, and I think, yes, I do a very creative job and I have a very creative company, but really it is all about people and its about communicating and understanding and fitting in and so I learnt to read people at a very young age. And I think that then gave me the confidence then to step into different environments and backgrounds and, you know, I am somebody, I always say I am a traitor to my past and my castle, because my accents gone I have lived in London now since I was, I moved to London when I was eighteen. For me London was just where it was happening, where I had to be, there was a buzz, I have moved thirty two times in my life, I worked out the other day. So, I am used to, yeah fitting in and getting on with things.

Elliot Moss
But the interior design love, the love of soft furnishings, the love of the way function works inside of a room, just tell me a little bit about that, we will spend some more time on it but just the initial why it became something for you that was inside you that you needed to express?

Karen Howes
So I think that came from the many moves my mother, her one thing she always said is ‘the first thing you do is make your bed’, and I think for me creating my own bedroom, my own safe place, she put me to bed in one corner of the room and she would wake me up and I had moved my furniture around and be in a different corner of the room. I think it was my way of creating my special space. And I think for me now to create really special spaces for people, you know, the home is where you can feel, should feel safe and I think that is really important actually.

Elliot Moss
Before you started your own business up I think you were either working on Fulham Road or you were…?

Karen Howes
I was an estate agent. So that is really how I got into property, so at nineteen years old having worked for a PR Company as a secretary I became an estate agent for two great guys Nick and Barry, in Westminster and I sold flats to MP’s and Politicians and saw lots of spaces that worked and saw many more spaces that didn’t work. It kind of tuned my eye, but I think really the big introduction to the world of interior design was through my first flatmate when I was eighteen. I shared a house with the amazing Martin Waller who set up a big company called Andrew Martin and in fact runs the International Interior Designer of the Year Award which we won in 2006. and that kind of… he had a crazy eclectic kind of collection of things. When I left school at seventeen I had worked for an art dealer, so I had already got an eye and a passion for art, and that is often the starting point for me in projects, the art for me is the real soul of a home and a space, so we often start with that.

Elliot Moss
Now in that, what you have just described is kind of a whole collection of really interesting experiences, no qualifications as such…

Karen Howes
None whatsoever.

Elliot Moss
…but actually one could argue that you can’t teach someone taste…

Karen Howes
No.

Elliot Moss
…as one of my guests once said, and it sounds like that is absolutely true. Twenty one years old, what’s the moment when you decided to go ‘do you know what I’m just going to set up my own thing up, I can do this’. Whatever this was?

Karen Howes
Well I’d bought my first flat, because you could in those days on a hundred percent mortgage, and Local Authority grant, and I taught myself to make curtains and sand the floors, and all of the things that went into it and then I invited friends and property developers for dinner, and they said, ’well we love what you do, will you come and do it for us’, and it just, it was kind of a natural organic process I guess in those days. Again, being so young it was like ‘well yup let’s go for it’ So in those days the business was very small it was me and the dog basically and then it kind of grew from there, I met up with Gail Taylor of Taylor Howes and we are still business partners in other businesses now, and for me again over the years, I love design but I realise as I mentioned before, I love people and now I realise I actually I love business as well. So, I have a number of businesses that I have started and grown and am building, and I love that process.

Elliot Moss
And in the early days was it apparent quite quickly that you were going to be fine. Did you have a moment when you, in those early years, where you thought ‘oh okay I can do this, this is going to make me a living’. Or do you still have doubt?

Karen Howes
I still have, that’s a really interesting one, I remember 1990 really well, and we think the world and property recessions have been bad, it was really bad, and in fact my first late husband who was a war correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, sadly died in 1990, he got sick he had a heart condition, and I thought the world was going to end at that point. But, of course what you do is you pick yourself up and you bury yourself in your work which was a great saviour for me and has been actually over the years. So, I feel very fortunate actually that I have had some of those early experiences that have taught me, yeah that everything is going to be alright. Even now I kind of hesitate sometimes about things, I am quite tough on myself, I think.

Elliot Moss
But it sounds like that horrendous tragedy has given you perspective that maybe some people don’t ever get to have.

Karen Howes
No, I think that’s right, I mean you know really valuing what is important, to really know and dig deep that you can just get through things that tomorrow will be a better day, I think is really important in life.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my lovely guest, Karen Howes, and she will be with me again in a couple of minutes, but first we are going to hear from one of our partners Mishcon de Reya and that partner is Daniel Farrand and they have some advice for your business.

There are many ways for you to enjoy our former Jazz Shapers and indeed to hear this very programme again, you can ask Alexa your little friendly device to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes or your podcast platform you can enjoy the full archive. But back to today’s guest, it is Karen Howes, Founder and CEO of Taylor Howes, we have been talking about all sorts of unexpected things, things just pop out and suddenly present themselves. And I just want to pick up on the perspective point, because obviously now your business is, however many years it is?

Karen Howes
Twenty five years, we are celebrating at Taylor Howes this year, I can’t believe where that has gone.

Elliot Moss
Was there ever a time when you said, ‘enough is enough I’m not going to do this anymore’, or has it been generally, people often say you know from the bottom left to the top right on the graph, has it gone up that way?

Karen Howes
It’s gone up that way and I still only feel I’ve started, so, no I’ve still got loads more to do, you know I am passionate about my businesses and the people who work with me in them have been with me a long time, through the whole journey, so for me they are my kind of second family. And I think I am doing a lot more with philanthropic side of what I can now do and work on, which is really amazing, so no I’ve only just started.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of the skill that you bring and obviously you’re the talent as it were, and I know you are going say ‘oh lots of my team are talented’ and all that, but from a platform you have to have the innate skill to deliver a beautiful space. Where does the managing all the money bit fit in and ensuring that your profitable and the really serious commercial stuff, is that you too? Or have you just got fabulous people that know what they are doing?

Karen Howes
Yep. No that’s me too. I think, you know I know all aspects of all the businesses, I’m quite open with my clients now and say ‘I’m really the curator and editor of the businesses’, I can’t be in there doing every single aspect of it, but I do understand the financials, a few years ago I started working, it was a big turning point actually, when people say ‘what took your businesses to the next level?’, was I started working with a business coach, the amazing Shweta, and she really became I suppose another business partner, I meet with her every week, we go through things and yes I have an amazing FD, I have obviously amazing Lawyers, Mishcon and all of the fabulous people but it is a team effort and I think if you are wanting to really run and push your businesses forward you do need to understand every aspect of it. You know in the early days we did everything, we now have a purchasing team and an installation team and all of that, but you know Gail and I did it all ourselves.

Elliot Moss
And what made you seek out the help of a business coach? Because you’re however many years into you running your own business, I mean that is pretty humble to decide, or was there a specific moment, when you went I need some help here?

Karen Howes
I realised actually that you know, I’ve got a wonderful husband, Andrew, I can take so much home and talk to him about it, but I really wanted to have an independent sounding board, and I realised that I have as we have already discussed, I left school with no qualifications. I don’t have a Degree in business, I am self-taught, and I wanted to understand more about it, I wanted to understand about buying and selling businesses, how to make them grow, really how to expand them. So, it’s been a really interesting learning curve and journey, I have really enjoyed it.

Elliot Moss
Before we talk about philanthropy because that to me goes to the kind of person that you are, and I think I am already getting a feel for the kind of person you are. But collaborations, if I look at your business, you’ve done a lot with other brands. You’ve done Christies is one, the USA base Urban Electric Company, it looks like you like to look outside and then do stuff. Tell me a little bit about how those have come about?

Karen Howes
Yeah, I think they come because we have worked with amazing craftsman over the twenty five years and we have just launched, in fact this week, a dining table with Davidson, we designed the first one with them twenty five years ago. For me, I love being inclusive not exclusive in that respect, I think there is a lot to be learnt from talented people outside your organisation. I love working with British craftsmanship, craftsmanship worldwide actually, because I think we’ve got unbelievable talent sitting in all sorts of lovely workshops all over the world, and I think, I don’t want that to get lost by mechanisation and things just becoming too big and too fast. So still working with them to create really special pieces, and they bring something fresh to the table. So, I think you get the best of both worlds when you collaborate on things like that.

Elliot Moss
Do you think there will ever be a time when you are bored? When you feel like you’ve looked at that space, there is only so many ways to cut it, there’s going to be some… I mean I am exaggerating a bit, oh well that’s a marble top over here and I know where the window… I mean has that ever happened to you, or do you intentionally keep it fresh?

Karen Howes
I intentionally keep it fresh, every project is a new fresh clean sheet. We are very lucky, I would say half of our projects in the studio at the moment are returning repeat clients, which is great because we’ve been through the learning curve together. So that makes the process easier and simpler for everyone, but we get to work on some of the most amazing houses across the world. So, we are always looking for new and different things, we are always out there searching for fresh inspiration, you know the team around me, I’ll never forget when I first started saying to the amazing Nina Campbell, ‘you know, how do you keep doing this?’ and she said, ‘oh darling just keep the young around you’ and I very much remember, very much my mantra, so I have a very young, passionate team, who challenge me all the time and I just love it. Everyday is different.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with Karen, plus we are playing a track from Ray Charles that is coming up in just a moment here on Jazz FM.

Another Jazz Shaper classic, a proper Shaper, it was Ray Charles with Mary Ann. I’ve got Karen Howes for a few more minutes and I don’t want to waste them, I hope I don’t. You talked before about philanthropy and about where your values lie I guess. What’s important to you, and what have you spent time doing over these years? Because you have, and you do make your own life, you have become a very successful person which means there is a bit of space and also, I imagine a sense of wanting to give back?

Karen Howes
Yeah, there is. I mean I have two amazing children, Georgie who is 24 and Isabella who is 21. They inspire me everyday to be a better person. And I think I started working, for me there are two main channels I am working on at the moment, so number one is the mental health of our children to me it is the foundation of everything, it’s really important, I think the pressure that kids are under these days is huge. I grew up in a world where that pressure didn’t really exist, there was no social media, no mobile phones and so I am very involved in a Place2Be which we train counsellors and we put them into under privileged schools for 4 to 11 year olds, and it gives kids a space and a special place to go and talk about everything that is going on in their lives. And that came really through meeting Dame Beni Refson who was the Founder of a Place2Be through, I lecture in interior design around the world and I am passionate about it as you have heard. So, we were designing rooms through KLC the Teaching School and met her and kind of ten years on we are still involved and have a carol concert coming up on the 5th December so please log on to Place2Be and buy your carol tickets. And then I got approached, my youngest daughter is a trainee paediatric nurse and I got approached a few months ago, an email from Nadia, this amazing Ward Sister at St Mary’s, and saying, ’Would you help us. There is a room where the nurses rest and they have to sleep at night and it’s awful, will you come and help us?’ and I emailed her back and said, ’how would you know that my youngest daughter is training to be a nurse, I’m on my way‘. So, it has been an amazing journey with them, we have called it the ‘Rest Nest’, we handed it over to them last week, it was just amazing. These women and guys, actually all the nurses go above and beyond, they do things simply that we can’t begin to imagine. We all need nurses at certain points in our life and for me it’s just a great way to pay back. My next challenge is how I get it out there to all of the hospitals and all of the nurses. So, that’s what I am working on at the moment, is how we can scale it.

Elliot Moss
Just a small project for you then.

Karen Howes
Just a little project.

Elliot Moss
Because there aren’t many hospitals, across the country are there? And the NHS is pretty small.

Karen Howes
And my real weakness in life is I am useless at saying ‘no’, I am a real ‘yes person’, so I am already, it’s already out there on social media and I am getting enquiries, and I’m like ‘how can I say no to you know the nurses down the corridor’, how can one lot of nurses have it and not another. So, I am going to be coming out to big businesses and talking to them and…

Elliot Moss
She just looked me in the eye then, by the way.

Karen Howes
Yes, Mishcon I’ll be heading down your way soon. Actually, that is my one thing I’m absolutely shameless when it comes to asking for things for people who need it, I honestly don’t care.

Elliot Moss
But it must be right, and I think obviously at some point you will be paying a trip to the Minister…

Karen Howes
I will be.

Elliot Moss
…the Minister of Health as well.

Karen Howes
I will.

Elliot Moss
It’s been a real pleasure and listen good luck with that, I am sure with your tenacity and your focus and your shamelessness in a good way that you will make that happen…

Karen Howes
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
…and I hope in every hospital in the land there will be a Rest Nest and indeed from a mental health perspective that Place2Be continues to flourish because you are absolutely right our kids are going to need more help than probably we did.

Karen Howes
Yep.

Elliot Moss
Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Karen Howes
So, I asked for actually anything by Jamie Cullum, because his divine wife, Sophie Dahl has read regularly at our Place2Be carol concert and as luck would have it, a few years ago Jamie happened to be free, and said he would play, it was completely out of the blue, last minute, amazing. We were on our feet singing and dancing away, so I have asked for a wonderful track by Jamie Cullum.

Elliot Moss
And as if by magic here on Jazz Shapers, you have got it, it’s Sack O’Woe by Jamie Cullum especially for you Karen, thank you.

That was Sack O’Woe from Jamie Cullum, the song choice of my Business Shaper Karen Howes. She talked about her mum saying the first thing you have got to is make your bed and how that was really the beginning if you like of the importance of space to her. Be inclusive not exclusive and that fabulous attitude towards collaborating and keep the young around you. If you are going to keep your business fresh make sure you have got fresh talent, young people they have brilliant ideas. All really, really good stuff. That’s it from Jazz Shapers, have a brilliant weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive. To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or head over to mishcondereya.com/jazzshapers.

Karen Howes

Karen Howes is the Founder and Chief Executive of London-based interior design practice Taylor Howes, founded in partnership with Gail Taylor in 1993. Karen’s real love affair with interiors began when she was just 18 years old when she rented a room in King’s Cross owned by Martin Waller, worldwide furniture retailer and founder of Andrew Martin. The flat was a real treasure trove, full of unusual artefacts which shaped her eye for design. By the age of 21, Karen had launched her first interior design business and was steadily climbing the property ladder. She met her future business partner when they started working on an important show apartment for a leading house-builder, which led to fifty more commissions of this kind. This fruitful collaboration led to the birth of Taylor Howes, which was launched from an office located in the London home of fashion guru, Isabella Blow. In 2011, Karen took sole charge of the company when Gail left to spend more time with her family.

The DNA of Taylor Howes is very much Karen’s own vision: positive, approachable and refreshing, producing great work creatively, whilst ensuring clients enjoy the whole experience.

A member of the British Institute of Interior Designers and a well-respected representative of the industry, she participates on a regular basis as a guest lecturer at the design school KLC.

“Art, for me, is the real soul of a home and a space, so we often start with that.”

“I taught myself to make curtains and sand the floors, and then I invited friends and property developers for dinner and they said, ‘we love what you do, will you come and do it for us?'”

“We may have to think where the double-buggy will be kept, but the trick is in designing a solution that also looks drop-dead gorgeous.”

“My first late husband, who was a war correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, sadly died in 1990. I thought the world was going to end at that point.”

“You pick yourself up and you bury yourself in your work which was a great saviour for me. To know you can dig deep and get through things is really important in life.”

“I left school with no qualifications.  I don’t have a degree in business; I am self-taught. I wanted to understand about buying and selling businesses, how to make them grow, really how to expand them. So getting a business coach has been a really interesting learning curve.”

“If you are wanting to really run and push your businesses forward you do need to understand every aspect of it.”

“We are known in the industry for running a business like a family. It imbues what we do with softness and an approachability that people who commission us clearly appreciate.”

“I have a very young, passionate team, who challenge me all the time and I just love it. Every day is different.”

“I love being inclusive not exclusive – you get the best of both worlds when you collaborate.”

“I am useless at saying no, I am a real yes person.”