Alison Vance, Design Director of Jeffreys Interiors, may have a deep love of Edinburgh, but her heart is well and truly in Perthshire, home of the company’s stunning Dunkeld showroom.
Attention to detail is key to Alison Vance. So much so that the room sets the Jeffreys Interiors Design Director has created in the company’s flagship store in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge come complete with their own real-life lapdog. Perched on a bespoke sofa waiting to meet Alison, I’m joined by her beloved terrier, Duffy.
“She likes it here, but she’s become a bit of a country girl. She prefers hanging out in our Dunkeld store. I think it’s the wood-burning stove that’s the real draw,” Alison tells me as all three of us head to her office. Now, Duffy along with Alison and husband Jeff Laing – the company’s managing director – mix and match town and country life working between the two showrooms.
Belfast-born Alison showed an (artistic) eye for business at an early age. “When I was 16, myself and a girl friend started designing sales posters for local companies. We used to hand paint them – can you imagine it? We were deadly serious about our enterprise, though. My father even made us a little studio at the top of our house.”
Things really came together for her when she joined a firm of auctioneers. “The valuation side of things got us into some of the biggest houses and estates in the area. Seeing those beautifully proportioned rooms, looking at the lavish furnishings fuelled my love of interior design. I took a correspondence course in design, got my diploma and opened my own shop in Belfast. I’d made some good contacts while working at the auction house, including the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn. I got a call from them one day to say they were doing some work on their home, Barons Court in County Tyrone with world-famous designer, David Hicks – would I come along and meet him and help out with the project? That was an incredible experience.”
Alison’s reputation as a talented designer with a good knowledge of local products and crafts was growing. In 1995, after a fire caused major damage at Belfast’s historic Stormont parliament building, she was asked to oversee the revamp. “I’m so lucky. This job is all about unique experiences. About being involved in projects that can’t be repeated. That was most certainly one of them.”
It was one of those unique experiences that brought her to Edinburgh 17 years ago. “I was introduced to Jeff by a mutual friend. We got on like a house on fire. I soon learned that he was the fifth generation of the same family business – Jeffreys Interiors. Back in 1842, his great-great-grandfather had founded one of Edinburgh’s first department stores in Leith. Now based in Lothian Road, Jeff realised that he needed some help in reconfiguring the shop. If it was to survive, he needed to change their ‘pile them high, sell them cheap’ philosophy. He asked if I’d be interested in taking it on and I thought, ‘Oooh, that sounds interesting!’
“I’d always loved Edinburgh. My father was born there and every summer I’d come over and stay with my grandmother in Great King Street. I’d wander the streets from morning to night, marvelling at the Georgian architecture of the New Town and rummaging in the antique shops of Stockbridge and the Grassmarket.”
After a few years developing the Lothian Road store and indeed their relationship, Jeffreys Interiors moved to their Stockbridge two-storey townhouse in 2006. “Jeff’s mantra is, ‘never stand still’. It’s something I completely embrace too. Sometimes it would be easy to say, ‘this isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it’, but you’ve got to keep moving, exploring.”
The award-winning interior design house has certainly never looked back. Under Alison’s expert guidance, they’ve created one of Scotland’s largest and most eclectic design teams. Tucked away downstairs next door to the extensive wallpaper and fabric libraries, seven specialists with a wide range of different backgrounds and styles are there to offer advice and ideas on a whole range of design and renovation projects.
It was while renovating Knockendarroch Hotel in Pitlochry in 2010 that the couple first contemplated country living. “We began looking for a weekend place in Perthshire because we loved the area so much. Among our stipulations were that it had to have an enclosed garden for Duffy and be within walking distance of a good pub.”
They soon found their perfect Perthshire pad – a cottage built in 1792, idyllically set in a conservation village. “We rented it for a few years and loved it so much that we bought it and now live there permanently. I’d previously lived in the country but Jeff was a real townie – he’d never lived outside Edinburgh. He took to it immediately, though. The renovations have been a labour of love. We’re currently working on an extension. We have a wonderful circle of friends and our social life is there now. Though we do still like eating at Prestonfield House in Edinburgh or popping into the Cafe Royal Oyster Bar or Valvona and Crolla.”
It was the couple’s move that triggered the purchase of their Dunkeld showroom. “We visited Dunkeld often and bought a few pieces at the antiques business that was in the old church. When we heard that the owner was retiring, we told them we’d be interested in the building. Almost four years on it’s doing really well. The locals have really embraced the store and there are some stunning properties in Perthshire.”
Two of the most challenging and exciting projects of Alison’s career have happened in the past four years. “Yorke Arms near Ripon is a magnificent 19 bedroom hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Working with the clients, the builders and the decorators while keeping as many areas open to the public as possible was quite a challenge – especially as it was a six-hour drive away.”
The other job was a little closer to home. “Yester House in East Lothian is an 18th Century Adam-designed mansion. It is the most remarkable building. We’d done some work previously for the new owners and when they asked us to transform it into a family home for themselves and their young family, we were absolutely delighted. It was a huge project. We were involved in everything from choosing the light switches right through to designing quirky art installations for the west hall and refurbishing the salon, which is said to be one of the most important rooms in Scotland. These two projects feel like an amazing finale to 35 years in the industry as I’m now trying to step back from the designing side. Jeff and I are gradually handing over the reins to our very talented staff. They will keep that Jeffreys Interior mantra of ‘never stand still’ alive – I’m certain of it!”