Our Stories: Fiona Watkins

Written by Ruth Keeling. Posted in Our Stories.

FionaFor more than twenty years, the UK has been Fiona Watkins' home as well as the main source of inspiration for her high-end interior design studio in Cheshire. Fiona draws on quintessentially British influences to create calm and elegant modern spaces, which seamlessly integrate period elements with the local landscape and the existing building substance. Fiona’s love of Britain’s heritage is matched by her passion for European design culture and her down-to-earth Kiwi business acumen. Her warm, straightforward approach with clients cuts through any Old World stuffiness, although she doesn’t believe this is out of the ordinary for a Kiwi. “As a nation of people, we’re just dead-friendly and approachable,” she says. 

Originally from the Bay of Islands, Fiona went to high school in Auckland before starting her working life in hospitality She first came to the UK primarily to travel but when the campervan she bought with a friend kept breaking down, she found herself in need of employment. She started off in London, then retreated to Bournemouth  - where she met her husband - when she tired of the madness in the capital. Working in hotels developed her sense of how to combine functional elegance with luxury, but she soon realised she was drawn to the aesthetics and furnishings more than the everyday tourist bustle. Once her children were settled at school, she re-trained in interior design and began her career in the homeware design service of British institution Laura Ashley. Her experience at the furnishings-and-fashion giant became the launchpad for setting up her own independent home design studio 15 years ago. 

Fiona Watkins Design, which employs four others, is run from a spacious studio extension to Fiona’s seventeenth-century family cottage in Cheshire. Her close-knit team tailors complete home design projects, from country house conversions to contemporary new builds. Fiona’s residential designs are known for their deep attention to historical context and the careful highlighting of period features. In this, she is inspired by the fine decorative detailing of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Emphasis is also placed on building for longevity and using biophilic (natural) design elements. This can be done by ”bringing the outdoors in” with water features or planting, or just incorporating natural details and colouring from the landscape surrounding the property. “Our homes have the power to influence the way we feel and ultimately affect our well-being”, Fiona tells her clients. Despite its quiet countryside location, the pandemic boosted Fiona’s business, “as everyone in the UK started making their homes their lives and their work”.

One of several women-led businesses in her local village, Fiona’s studio invests locally wherever possible. Fiona turns to trusted craftspeople for bespoke furniture, textiles, joinery, metalwork and landscaping. She repurposes old construction elements innovatively, “reusing things where we can, and making sure that if we’re buying new, we’re buying sensibly, locally, from natural sources”. As a Director of the British Institute of Interior Design (BIID) and registered with the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Fiona is firmly committed to the highest professional standards and practices. Fiona advocates for national policy incentives on sustainability, so that “the sensible choices are also the affordable ones”. “Obviously these things currently cost more; a different sort of filling for a piece of furniture costs a lot more than just getting a piece of standard foam”, but that foam can’t be easily disposed of, and may bring volatile chemicals into your home. “There are also transport costs, you also don’t have insight into whether it’s been produced under fair working conditions, and so on. That’s why I support the economy I live and work in”, she says.

Fiona is strongly influenced by her environment and her connections to places. “We’ve got the Lake District, we’ve got the Peak District, we’ve got North Wales, we’ve got all these gorgeous places to enjoy”, she says of the Northwest of England and its surrounding areas. She’s also drawn to the accessibility of the continent and its art history: “I probably visit two European cities a year, just for cultural reasons”. Fiona lived in the Netherlands for several years when her children were young, and the Dutch approach to design, particularly textiles, continues to influence her work. Today, she spends much of the summer at her holiday home in Menorca, because “as a Kiwi, I just need a beach, quite frankly”. Fiona designs her daily work and life around her authentic connections to these places. And while her family and her design business are now deeply-rooted in the UK, New Zealand will always be home, “because when I go there, I feel like I breathe out".