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Meet the Vintage Furniture Curator Who Started Her Shop During the Pandemic

Meet the Vintage Furniture Curator Who Started Her Shop During the Pandemic
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Photo: Courtesy of Frank Lebon

Jenna Fletcher is sitting on what seems to be a Giancarlo Piretti folding chair. She inspects the hinges; the metal legs are scratched and the flat rounded seat, upholstered in a brown terry cloth fabric, is fixed on a downward slant. Pre-coronavirus, the owners of the chair explain, it was subjected to a party game called Tree Stump during which friends competed to push one another into a stumble. As two semi-finalists grasped forearms in a small South London apartment, the loser’s knees bent and they fell back, accidentally landing on the chair with considerable force.

After brief inspection, Fletcher lightheartedly notes that the broken folding chair is a fake. And as London goes up a tier in COVID safety measures, the thought of friends playing a casual game of Tree Stump is like a story from a past life. From Fletcher’s perspective, this non-designer chair (while it won’t be for sale in her shop) has value in its ability to trigger recollection—in this case, of a playful evening among adults. Oswalde Shop, named after Fletcher’s family name on her mother’s side, specializes in sourcing furniture that is functional, transportable, and durable enough to serve as the foundation for memories.

Growing up in London, Fletcher’s mom used to take her out of school for impromptu trips to Barbados, where the family would stay with her grandparents and spend time in the sun. Taking cues from some elements of Bajan living, and later the work of architect Paul Revere Williams, which she observed in Los Angeles, Fletcher has an appreciation for spaces that integrate the outdoors and feature furniture that embraces an actively used environment.

Oswalde carries pieces that are timeless, and mixed-purpose. “I sell lots of items that stack and fold—things that are specially pragmatic,” she explains. “Many Italian plastic pieces from the ’60s and ’70s that will literally never not be cool. Lots of Joe Colombo boby trolleys in different sizes and colors; they’re incredibly versatile.” Fletcher also recently opened an apartment hotel in Essex, igniting the first rendition of Oswalde Stay, which doubles as a showroom for her furniture collection. In the future, she plans to create her own furniture in hopes of incubating more Black talent; later, she hopes to design Oswalde homes.

Fletcher has observed and collected furniture for as long as she can remember. When her aunt emigrated to New Zealand, she gifted a teenage Fletcher a Kartell Componibili collection. She fantasized about how the storage units would suit her future adult home. Since then, her friends and family have counted on her as their source for the perfect shelf, sofa, lamp, or mirror for their spaces.

In the early stages of lockdown, Fletcher pushed herself to launch Oswalde, gaining clientele quickly as people in London, New York and Los Angeles reached out to her with requests for specific pieces and advice. Another motivation came from her job at Dover Street Market, where sitting in a Donald Judd chair instigated a desire to own one, and her personal uniform was decided. As she puts it: “I learned that you can wear full Comme for literally any and all situations in life.”

Offering elevated taste levels, accessible language, and the odd Instagram giveaway, Oswalde is bringing pieces to people who are likely to have been raised on furniture that was not necessarily built to last. “Aesthetics are important but they shouldn’t cost the earth—literally and figuratively,” Fletcher says. We are a generation raised on flatpack furniture, but there are so many amazing pieces out there already, just waiting for homes. It’s important for me that Oswalde helps give them another chance at life.”

Where were you born, where were you raised, and where do you live now?

I was born in North West London and grew up there. I spent summers and all school holidays in Barbados because my mum thought it was important that me and my siblings had a strong connection to where she was from. I live in East London, currently.

What kind of furniture were you exposed to as a kid? Are your parents into design?

We had this hooded butler chair at home—we all have photos of us as newborns being welcomed home in it. We really loved and protected it, it was a prominent feature wherever we lived. I think my mum has it now in her front room.

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Photo: Courtesy of Frank Lebon

When did you start collecting your own furniture?

My parents were always building and developing houses and had a very practical relationship to design. We would always speak about materials and projects they were working on, and I grew up thinking a lot about houses and spaces and the use of space. I think I was more conscious of structures than what went within them—that was something I discovered by myself.

I’ve been cataloguing pieces in my head for years, buying and selling on the side, and I’ve always been the go-to if someone needed advice or references for their place. The idea of starting Oswalde was something I played with for a while, but it took being at home over lockdown—in my very curated space—to realize that the time was right to do this thing that I’d been thinking about for so long.

What sparked the start of Oswalde?

I’ve made my way through at least 15 flats in the last ten years, so any furniture I collected along the way was always easily transportable out of necessity. I once left a huge Scarpa-style sofa in a rented flat under the care of the landlord, who got rid of it—I felt like I’d lost a friend, and realized then that I had really formed emotional relationships with the furniture I lived with. Since then, I’ve tried to only surround myself with pieces that make me feel the same way.

How have Corona times helped Oswalde get off the ground?

People are way more aware of their home set-ups, their furniture, and their surroundings. I think a lot of people were spending more time in their houses than ever before, and so realized that making their space beautiful actually can have a real effect on their mindset. When the world outside is crazy and unrecognizable, you can at least control the world inside your walls. That’s something I’ve always believed in—I’m the kind of person with extremely organized drawers—and it’s a mentality I think people have been adopting more and more.

How do you envision Oswalde expanding in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?

One year: launch our first Oswalde product. Five years: we’ll be a studio incubating Black design talent. Ten years: developing Oswalde homes.

How do you hope furniture or objects you source will improve someone’s day to day lifestyle?

Furniture informs the way the space around you works and can enhance your life. Although lots of my pieces are functional, I think it’s important to make space for beauty—there has to be a duality of function and beauty in the pieces I buy.

I always think about how something will make you pause in a space. I think furniture should always feel harmonious within a room and speak to the warmth of that room, or the usage of that room.

Do your clients usually come to you with what they want in mind, or are you guiding their choices a bit?

I have always had a good sense of where tastes are, and where they are heading. So with Oswalde, that naturally informs what I have available in stock. I work with clients on finding particular pieces or bringing pieces to them that they might like. Certain pieces might be extremely popular for whatever reason, but I don’t suggest things I wouldn’t want to have in my collection.

Do you have any pet hates when it comes to the designs of homes or spaces?

Pet hates: spotlights in ceilings. This whole grey everything, thing. Everyday design that has been designed exclusively to the size of an average male adult, i.e. everything.

Can you describe your ideal atmosphere? What does it feel like, look like, smell like?

It smells like my grandmother frying fish cakes on the stove in her house in Barbados, and it feels like smooth weathered concrete. It looks like the soft light you get first thing in the morning, when the sun is coming up. And it looks like everything’s meant to be where it is.

Who are the artists, architects, etc, who inspire you?

Paul Revere Williams, because as a Black architect in segregated America, he existed in an industry and a world that was entirely unwelcoming to him. Cynthia from Cactus Plant Flea Market, because I respect how low-key yet prolific she is. I think sometimes the most influential people are the “invisible” ones. Gae Aulenti and Anna Castelli Ferrieri, who also existed in a boy’s club and made incredible work.

What would you say to anyone considering running with their ‘fuck it, life’s too short’ moment?

I would say fuck it, life is too short. This year proves that. Get an accountant.

Source: vogue.com