It was 1994 and Willa Story, a freelance theatre designer who moved to London from the North East, was standing at an outdoor craft market in Merton Abbey, near Wimbledon, selling a variety of theatre masks and props she had made. She had come to the market to make some money between jobs designing sets and costumes for productions in London’s vibrant theatre scene, expecting simply to have enough money to tide her over. Instead, she was bowled over by her success.
Most of her stock sold out in the first week of the market, and she was panicked: ‘I needed stock,’ she explains. Near the market was a glazer working out of a shop; in front of the property he had a skip laden with mirrors. ‘He said I could take anything out of the skip,’ Willa says. So she grabbed some mirrors and took them home to her Wimbledon flat.
Glass was a new medium for Willa, who started to experiment by cutting it, then slowly incorporating that into the designs she was making for the outdoor market. They too sold well, so she bought stained glass, and incorporated that into her work. What made the pieces sell, she reckons, was her lack of training. ‘Because I was a theatre designer, I didn’t have any idea how to do traditional stuff so I made my own techniques up. Fortunately, it worked.’
Willa’s calling card became using stained glass in a mosaic style; the sales at the outdoor market grew and grew. Soon, she began to be able to cut glass better than she could draw. Initially, she had a studio, but it was too far to travel from her home on a regular basis and London property prices were too expensive, so she made a decision: her flat would become her workshop. ‘I must sound like a crazy lady,’ she jokes, ‘but I kept all the glass in the flat.’ Multicoloured sheets were stacked on every surface, in the hallway, in the lounge and in every nook and cranny. ‘I was able to do that then,’ she explains: ‘I was younger.’
Willa’s success continued when she moved back up to her native North East in 2001 to look after her parents’ farmhouse in Bardon Mill while they travelled. Again, she took over residential space for her work, transforming an outbuilding into a workshop. ‘At the time I was sending things to London as well as selling them up here,’ she says. But she preferred the local connection. When sending work down south, she didn’t know who was buying her items, and the shops and studios selling it doubled the price when it arrived.
‘I enjoy the interaction,’ Willa says. ‘It’s that collaboration with the customer, doing something special for their home, that I enjoy.’ It’s a similar experience to her previous career in the theatre, where she would work with directors to realise their design on stage. She takes rough ideas and makes them a reality for customers – a nervewracking experience. ‘They know roughly what they’re getting,’ she says, ‘but you don’t know until you unveil it if they’re going to go: “Wow”.’
It’s a privilege, she says: ‘You feel you’ve left your mark on their home. That’s what I like: it’s more of a permanent thing. You can forget you actually had an effect on their living.’
Not all her work is commission-based, however: Willa designs other items including lamps, furniture and fire screens. Her gallery, The Old Transformer Shed in Hexham, is host to many of her designs, and is open to the public. All the work emanates from her workshops, which have expanded from her parents’ outbuilding in Bardon Mill to her own home.
The countryside surroundings to which Willa returned in 2001 provide plenty of inspiration for her work. ‘When I was in London, my style was completely different,’ she explains. ‘But since coming home I’m noticing the colours and the seasons all the time, and that influences what I’m doing.’
More than 20 years on from her first work in glass, salvaged from a south west London skip, Willa shows no sign of stopping. ‘I get excited about trying new products,’ she explains. ‘I’m always experimenting. That’s what keeps my interest.’
Unique in Glass
The Old Transformer Shed, Eastgate, Hexham NE46 1BH