From cabin crew to Changing Rooms and the “Celebrity Jungle”, Linda Barker has enjoyed an illustrious and varied career both on and off our screens. Hot off TV with her latest home improvement series, The Home Game, she has her talented fingers in many pies.
The UK’s favourite interior designer talks to Angela Sara West about why you’ll now find her mostly in the kitchen.
Yorkshire-born Linda’s working life actually started up in the air. “I was cabin crew for Britannia Airways for four years, which was great fun!” she explains. But having studied Fine Arts at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design, a career in creativity beckoned. “Working on the airlines was responsible, and paid for my first flat and car, but I always knew it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I was art-trained and creative and did interior design on the side. That took over and I thought, ‘now’s the time to really go for it’.”
Her pivotal moment was quitting her airline job and allowing herself some freedom. “For around six months, I wasn’t earning much, but it enabled me to work out what I wanted to do. I wrote interior features for a few house titles as homes was my passion, but I wasn’t sure which path to take in design until I got my first flat and started decorating. Interior design really resonated with me.”
Linda’s flat became the subject of a House Beautiful spread and with her eye for colour and her impeccable taste, along with her ability to create amazing interior spaces on tight budgets, the commissions came rolling in. She started designing retail outlets and celebrities’ houses and in the 90s, her work took her into television, with small stints on programmes including Good Morning with Anne and Nick.
Then, along came the landmark BBC show, Changing Rooms, which changed everything. Linda was chosen to co-present alongside fellow designers including Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and boom… Britain got bitten by the home improvement bug!
“Changing Rooms kicked off a lot of interior design programmes and it was fantastic to be able to work on a lot of them! I love working in television now, but I clearly remember my first Changing Rooms… I was literally sick the morning before; it was mindbogglingly terrifying! I wasn’t a natural in front of the camera in those early days because it was all so new. I’d always been happy in the background. But I learned to love it, it was exciting and I loved the challenges.”
Linda and her co-stars became international sensations practically overnight and she went on to star in a string of BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 TV shows, including House Invaders and 60 Minute Makeover. “What put me there was the hard work I put in. I loved being busy and wanted to be successful at things that made me happy, which was being creative and creating a beautiful home. That’s what drove me and it was just phenomenal that I ended up working on a programme that turned me into a household name, but it was not on my agenda at all.”
The leading TV presenter still enjoys the odd appearance on This Morning and, always up for a challenge, she has also taken part in a number of reality TV shows, including I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, Celebrity Masterchef and Come Dine With Me and has even taken the plunge alongside Tom Daley in Splash!
Her insights into modern interior design mean she’s a popular speaker on the corporate and design seminar circuit and she has also written a number of design books and worked as a newspaper columnist. She’s also been a design consultant for Thomson Holidays. “I redesigned the First Class cabins for their TUI’s ship ‘Spirit’ and created a new look for the children’s areas, along with a children’s playground in a Caribbean resort. I’ve also designed luxury lodges for The Dream Lodge Group.”
Really Linda Barker
Linda also consults on interior brands and private property developments and, 15 years ago, she and her husband, Chris Short, a former TV exec who now runs Alfresco Floors, selling tiles and decking to interior designers and architects, entered a very different kind of business arena, setting up their online retail business, the Really Linda Barker homeware store. “After ten years on air, I had a sense that Changing Rooms was coming to a conclusion and I was hungry to do something I was really happy doing. We jumped on the idea of a mail order catalogue, committed to the stock in the warehouse and established it. It evolved into an online platform as technology caught up with it and as people became more familiar and comfortable with paying online. It meant I could visit trade shows wearing a different kind of business hat, looking at accessories etc. to source for it.”
“I’ve always followed my heart and done what I’ve really wanted to do. I’ve had the right opportunities and been able to realise my dreams.”
“It launched at a time when the whole mail order industry was changing. It was based on filling massive warehouses with stock and spending vast amounts of money doing the catalogue, but sometimes nothing happened. It was a real case of feast or famine cashflow. We also had to set it all up really quickly, from a position of no previous experience. I was just about to go into the ‘jungle’ and, having seen press attention the first series attracted, we knew there would be a massive profile projection off the back of it. So, we were keen to get the business up-and-running by the time I came back from Australia, where, of course, I was completely incommunicado, with no mobile ‘phone!”
The couple set about learning an enormous amount, really fast.. and pulled it off. “Along with finding clients and sourcing a warehouse, we had to work out other aspects such as the courier system and marketing. It was still in the early days of online but we had the website ready, although 99% of our business was coming through the catalogue, so we had to build that side simultaneously, too.”
The pair witnessed the migration of that business away from print to online, and so began another learning curve. “We had to work out how all the photography was done… layouts, copyright etc. Aspects we had no experience of. In those days, you couldn’t just dip your toes in like with eBay, you had to fill a warehouse with stock and let things grow organically.”
Linda says the business awarded her an amazing mix of challenges and benefits. “When we looked at the first online catalogue as it came literally off-the-press, our pride was tangible, it was incredibly rewarding. We mailed out 100,000 catalogues. It was scary but it’s fabulous to think we set that all up. We were quite entrepreneurial with it, doing something very new.”
Although Linda and Chris have put a temporary pause on trading, they hope to revive the business in the future: “There are lots of similar companies now that are successful, which is why we whittled it down and have put it to sleep for a while, to take stock. It’s a very different marketplace now. Designs have changed so much over the past ten years. Not everyone wants ten cushions… they want one perfect cushion, the perfect chair… it’s a much more considered purchase these days. Whether we find an investor or do something different with it and develop it to take to next level, we need to put ourselves on a different platform to resurrect it.”
The interiors expert says her strong work ethic has always driven her to achieve. “I’ve always had a solid business undercurrent. I love working and have never been one to stand still, which has stood me in good stead. It’s also about good timing; being in the right place at right time. I have the ability to work across lots of different disciplines; I love writing articles and books, I have a strong creative ability and can make things… I absolutely love being challenged and taken out of my comfort zone.”
“I’ve always loved the idea of business, doing things and making money, since childhood. I’d decorate, my mum taught me to sew and I would make clothes and soft toys to sell at school. I never thought it was unusual to do that. I’ve earned my own money from a very early age, around 14, and loved being completely independent.”
Linda and husband Chris have also made a mint from property. “It was very much that whole property ladder scenario where you buy a cheap wreck, do it up, sell, put your investment into another property and do the same. That was our progression, which, of course, is very difficult for people starting out to do now.” They also own investment properties in Cyprus and a stunning villa in the South of France which, naturally, she and Chris have renovated.
The secrets to her success? “I’ve always followed my heart and done what I’ve really wanted to do. I’ve had the right opportunities and been able to realise my dreams. That’s partly down to luck, but also through finding people who are good at what they do. I like surrounding myself with people who really know their business, letting them grow and not imposing myself on them, letting them find their own niche.”
Her business icons? “I’m mainly inspired by creative people, makers and artists, but also independent retailers really striving hard to carve out a niche business, I find that really exciting. I’m drawn to people realising their passion and people who aren’t afraid to be different. I look to designers like Tom Dixon and Abigail Ahern, chefs including Skye Gyngell of Spring restaurant and businesswomen like Liz Earle. I’ve met some amazing corporate heavyweights like DFS’s Lord Kirkham.”
From TV Queen to Kitchen Goddess
A familiar face on commercials for DFS and Currys, Linda also advises on interior brands and now spends much of her time in the kitchen as a consultant for Wren Kitchens, where she is heavily involved with training. “Wren is expanding massively and recruiting at the moment, so I talk to their new staff about design and how they approach building people’s kitchens. I really love teaching people about designing. It’s great!”
Everybody knows that the kitchen is the heart of the home. Linda spends much of her time working and crafting in hers and says it’s crucial to get it just right. “The best kitchen in the world is the one that works for that individual person, not a replica. Everything should be bespoke and individual, that’s key, whether you’re spending £3,000 or £50,000. It’s about creating an individual kitchen which will improve our lives. In times of uncertainty, our home is really important as it’s our sense of security and comfort. I try to encourage designers to think like that and get it right. Design has the capability to transform people’s lives.”
Linda has always been “hands-on” with her businesses. “That’s part of how I learn, what I love to do and what gives me the most satisfaction at the end of the day.” Her business tips? “It’s about which dream you follow, really. I’ve realised there’s no point in doing something I’m not passionate about. When your head’s in a great space, you can do anything!”
“I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to put my dreams into practice… I have so many ideas buzzing around in my brain and I think that’s my entrepreneurial spirit. It’s exciting to be able to realise those concepts.”
Wren Kitchens: www.wrenkitchens.com
Really Linda Barker homeware store: www.reallylindabarker.co.uk
Rental details for Linda’s French villa: www.villadelaverne.com/
Alfresco Floors Ltd: http://alfrescofloors.com
Although Linda embraces it when it comes her way, she’s doing less TV hese days. “Ten years ago, every day I’d get up and work on a TV programme. Whenever it’s offered to you, you do it and welcome it with open arms. I’m very grateful for it; it’s such a privilege to do. I’ve loved every minute but never believed it would be forever. After 20 years in the business, I’m eternally grateful.”
Ever the entrepreneur, she’s concentrating more on the interior design business side of things, with current projects including renovating a newly-acquired Georgian house in Yorkshire, with exciting potential business plans. “We aim to run design workshops there and also on cruise ships! 2017 has started on a good footing, and if that continues, that’s the best I can ask!
© Angela Sara West 2017 www.angelasarawest.com