IImagine, if you will, that you came across a painting of an unknown but beautiful British rural landscape 40 years ago at a French flea market near where you were raising your young family. You loved it, so you clung to it all these years, moving it from wall to wall, from house to house, from country to country. Fast forward to 2021, you take it to be reframed in Oxfordshire where you recently moved to and realize that the scene you’ve watched all these years is the very town you moved to.
‘I’m not kidding,’ says Suzie of Rohan Willner as she tells the story in the detached Georgian home
that she and her husband, Stephen, now live in Wallingford.
After driving through the city many years ago and wistfully agreeing that it would be a place they would like to live one day, when it comes to moving from London in 2020, fate will once again play its part in the place. capturing Willner’s attention from Rohan.
“Stephen took me for a surprise drive and we pulled up in front of the house with a for sale sign,” she explains. “At that point the owner came home and went into his player and I said, ‘We’re so sorry, we’re just looking at your house.’ He said, ‘Give me five minutes to clean up and then you have to come in!’ We walked through the house, saw a beautiful Victorian greenhouse against the garden wall and it was love at first sight.
Like many families, the couple moved from central London at the start of the pandemic in 2020, but it had been on their minds for some time. As CEO of clothing, homeware and lifestyle brand Toast, de Rohan Willner has a full-time job and was looking for a place to “slow down”.
“It changed my life… I don’t see myself backing down,” she smiles. “Because we moved during lockdown we didn’t meet anyone, but once the community opened up I was never welcomed anywhere like we were in Wallingford.” Her children and their families have also moved nearby, while her octogenarian mother, Joy, lives in an extension attached to the house. Thus, after his 90-minute journey from London, they meet regularly as a family to spend evenings and long weekends together; which doesn’t mean she doesn’t bring home work at all.
De Rohan Willner talks a lot about an appreciation of time, a feeling befitting his role as the driving force behind a brand that under his leadership has become a major player in bringing a renewed respect for slow fashion and craftsmanship to Britain’s high street.
“There’s nothing more empowering than surrounding yourself with craftsmanship, because it makes you think about who made each piece,” says de Rohan Willner, pointing to a basket of Julie Gurr, wooden cutlery from Takahashi McGil and a Viv Lee vase from Pain grilled. They are all alumni of the New Makers program which she created in 2018 as a platform for artisans. She invests every year in a special piece for her house. “It inspires me. These pieces make me think about the team and the tremendous effort they put in.
The house sees Toast textures mingling naturally with Rohan Willner’s prized possessions. Family portraits painted by his former mother-in-law, Vesla Stranger, and a huge canvas landscape by his late father-in-law, sculptor William George Mitchell, hang in the living room; Art Deco ceramics she inherited from her grandmother rest on a nearby table; and a vintage Marilyn Monroe poster hangs in the hallway. They all help create an artistic mix that suits a craft collector who she says has followed her everywhere. “My style hasn’t really changed,” she says. “Since my studies of French literature in Paris until today.”
De Rohan Willner’s stay in France had a sentimental influence on this house. After college, she headed south, where she raised her family in the Var, and the Farrow & Ball emerald green of her kitchen cabinets is reminiscent of Riviera shutters. They are met with walls painted in an eco-lime paint by Bauwerk to give a multi-dimensional finish synonymous with walls in the South of France. “It ages so well,” she explains. “You can see the handwork, so there’s a texture on the wall. When the light shines, it’s beautiful.
Elsewhere, a portrait of herself sits atop a shelf, and a chandelier picked up on a jump across Brussels’ legendary Jeu de Balle market hangs above the table. The Gallic influence extends into the garden where the spectacular greenhouse draped in hibiscus flourishes. “In summer, we eat there as much as possible on trestles, it reminds us of France.” The vine that crosses it “is heavy” with bunches of grapes that the couple offer to friends who return the favor by returning it in the form of jelly.
The bones of the house, she said, were already good. The flagstone floor, the sunny yellow Aga, the free-standing bath and the traditional door handles she is keen to highlight were all inherited, as were the wooden blinds she had repaired. “I love taking the time to close them all in the evening, imagining people over time doing the same. It’s a beautiful ritual.
Upstairs, the couple’s easy way to mix second-hand finds with new acquisitions extends to their shared dressing room where a Rohan Willner kilim rug sits next to an old shop cabinet she picked up in an antique shop in Islington. “I like to mix the old and the contemporary,” she says. “If you don’t try, everything fits together because you just buy what you like.” If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.
For more information, visit toa.st