Well, you can do rock climbing in the mountains, but generally when you go to the mountains, it’s more… It’s not as technical as rock. You can climb up a mountain, depending on the mountain, but it’s not so technical that you need loads and loads of equipment like you do with rock climbing. With mountains you don’t necessarily need a harness, whereas he’ll be in a harness…”
It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting to have in a fabric and upholstery shop, but then again “And we don’t know what happened, but he ended up in the back of an articulated lorry” isn’t a sentence I expected to write when transcribing the interview tape.
The Whistler is with Denise Robins, wife of Adrian Robins, they of the fabric and upholstery shop of the same name in Guildford Road. We’re surrounded by rolls of beautiful fabrics and textiles and just lovely stuff you just want to touch and cover yourself with.
Adrian’s not here – “Adrian’s off rock climbing in Scotland at the moment” – and Denise is only here because she’s done something unnecessary to her knee. “I won’t climb this year. I think… maybe the winter, late winter. But I think it’s a good six months.”
It’s a nice contrast, isn’t it? The delicacy of the fabric world and the out and about mountaineering and all that.
“We’re passionate about the outdoors, which is quite funny because everybody expects us to be passionate about our home, and you know, we’ve got a nice home, don’t get me wrong, we’ve got a nice home. But it’s just a nice home. I wouldn’t say we were passionate about our home and about everything being just so, that’s not really who we are.
As much as they love fabrics, it’s the white knuckle stuff that’s in their blood. “We did loads of that. We still do. We were away every weekend in various clubs. We met in the Brighton Explorers Club, we were in the Sussex Mountaineering Federation, we were in Hastings Rock Club, the Brighton Excelsior Club. We were doing all that, all the time working, that’s what we did. Yeah. And then when I was 27, I had our first child. So I kind of stopped all the mountaineering and stuff then because I just did stuff with the kids. Adrian carried on I just thought I was way too valuable to hurt myself!”
Do you still cycle and..
“Yeah, yeah, mountain bike. Adrian had a very bad cycle accident 15 years ago and he was told he would never work again.”
Wow, what happened?
“He’s like the bionic man. He was training, he was doing triathlons at the time, and we don’t know what happened, but he ended up in the back of an articulated lorry. He broke his back, very badly punctured his lung, broke lots of ribs, sustained a head injury because his helmet split into and was in intensive care. He had to have surgery on his back, so had bone taken from his hip, put into his back and he’s got big metal rods in his back holding his back together. And slowly, being Adrian and because he’s so fit, he got back to swimming and, and then wanted to work again. So he only actually ended up having less than a year off. And then he was back at work.” And now he’s off rock climbing in Scotland. Crampons and ropes and all that.
Denise is Brighton through and through. “Yeah my lot go back to the 16th century. My great, I think it’s great great great grandfather, was the last map person off the chain pier, the last person off the chain pier before it collapsed. He was head of maintenance or locked it all up or something. But it’s mentioned in a few books, because my maiden name is Fogden in which is an old Sussex name – and “Adrian Robins” the shop has been on Guildford Road since 1983.
“No, no, we didn’t have this one. Adrian rented the shop next door for two years. He’d finished an apprenticeship in town in upholstery, and then he set up on his own, and by time we’d got together this came up for sale, and he desperately wanted his own shop. So we sold my flat and bought this. When we bought it, it had been rented out to students as individual bedsits each room for about 10 years. It was utterly hideous. hideous, you know, it was it was so funny because we, you know, we were so young and people would come along and I just, I’d look at it and they just didn’t know what to say everybody thought we were completely mad. Because we had no money. And we bought this wreck. And, and they just say the word that was said all the time was potential.
1983. That’s a fair while ago. The area must have changed hugely since then. “There were lots of shops which have gone. We always fought to keep the shops because once they’re gone, they’re gone. They never come back”
Do you remember what other shops they were on this stretch?
“There was a restorer. That was a few doors down. There was a TV shop. Right on the corner. There was a basket making. That was a basket making shops and guys sat in there making cat baskets all day, and then at the top on the corner was like a wholesale butchers. Actually, this had been a butcher at some stage before because it had all butchers hooks in the ceiling.”
Or maybe that was just for the students.
Denise, it should be said, is a great interviewee in that she likes talking. And she’s a terrible interviewee – because she likes talking.
“Do you want to know about the shop?”
OK, let’s talk about fabrics. Do you design your own fabrics? “We used to do a lot of that years ago, but I like to advise rather than design. I like to tap into people’s personal taste, and then help them look good.
“There are certain things that we don’t do much, for instance and I don’t have many glitzy books here. They don’t sell in Brighton, I think there’s an understated look they want, people want things to look really nice, but not in a flashy way.
“If I was going to say what’s the best seller, it would be probably plain and natural weaves. Very natural. So cotton linen blends walls, things like that. But sadly, plain, actually.”
And what’s your favourite?
“I love William Morris. I really like William Morris. I like prints. I like bold prints. So yeah, I mean, it’s you know, it’s funny when we were redoing our sofa Adrian said ‘Why don’t we just have plain velvet’ and I was like ‘No. No way’, you know because… we just shouldn’t.”
Do you often find yourself talking to customers and they’ll pick something out and you think to yourself ‘Are you sure about that?’
“Yes, and I would say that because I really want people to be happy with what we’ve done. I’d be mortified if we did some work and then people didn’t like it, they felt that they’ve made a mistake, because it’s a lot of money. I mean, I’ll say to people, it’s not like a dress you bought that you can hide in the wardrobe and pretend you didn’t buy it. It’s a sofa, it’s a bay full of curtains. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.
“If you came in here, I would look at how you’re dressed and it would give me an idea of what to pull out. Some people don’t think they’ve got any idea, some people don’t even think they’ve got any taste, but everybody has. I find that quite fascinating.”
Have you noticed over the years, how tastes have changed? “People are far more conscious, environmentally conscious. I’m being asked for things that are natural, all natural fibres. I’ve got some (fabric) books that are made from recycled fabrics and things like that. Also I think the air miles of fabrics, people are more conscious of that, where things are made.”
It’s time to go. You don’t want to take up too much of people’s time so a bit of small talk while I pack up…
Good luck with the physio and I hope you get out and about sooner rather than later.
“It’s OK. I’m not going to get back into it till the end of the year, and until then I’ll do all my water sports.”
I thought you were resting up?
“I’ve bought a paddleboard. And I’m a sea swimmer and try to do lots of sea swimming.”
Clearly we have different ideas about resting up.
“Yeah, I bought a dinghy and I’ve started sailing, so I’m a member of the Brighton Sailing Club as well. And I like to do some surfing if I can kneel OK.”
So there’s mountaineering, cycling, surfing, the dinghy…. Anything boxes not ticked?
“I’ve always been a bit of a thrill seeker. So… I’ve never done any diving and then somebody mentioned to me that where I’m going on holiday there’s a dive school… “
Adrian Robins Interiors
16 Guildford Rd
Brighton BN1 3LU