Doris Lessing claimed that 'every writer has a myth country'. Well, how about a myth career?
Some of us dream of swapping office culture and the breath held chaos of urban living for our own self employed country ideal. Many entertain the myth, few act on the intention, while fewer still trade career and environment in a manner that looks seamless. Natalie Jones made the leap. She left London for a different reality as founder of Caro – a design brand for home and life - in Bruton, a creative enclave in the Somerset countryside.
Seamless doesn’t mean easy. The journey to integrate Caro into the landscape of Bruton and to find acceptance within the local community, exists within a deeper narrative on the tension between heritage and modernity, local and other. Jones brought 15 years of design experience to Caro and her story unfolds elegantly over multiple sites – as B&B, design store and events space. Caro’s store lives within a listed building on the high street that feels like it’s been around forever. Inside are carefully chosen objects that evoke a feeling of time and place, creating a merry dialogue on contemporary design in the countryside. After three years of building her business, Jones is ready to call Bruton home.
Wilma: Perhaps we can start on the first day you opened the doors to Caro.
Natalie Jones: One memory really comes to mind. There was an old fireplace in the middle of the shop, and from the other room I suddenly heard this loud flapping movement. I went in to find a blackbird had come down the chimney and was completely disorientated, thrashing around the room and shitting everywhere. There I was with a hessian sack trying to catch it! Apparently, if a blackbird graces you with its presence it’s a sign of good luck. I suppose it was a stressful but symbolic way to launch Caro.
W: Was it an easy transition relocating to Bruton?
NJ: The majority of people were very supportive and lovely. But in the early days there were some hairy moments. I was called a ‘cunt’ on Twitter by a local resident; and some people poked fun at the reference to Caro as a ‘lifestyle store’ on the website – I guess they thought it was pretentious. I mention this as it’s important to establish a level of honesty when moving to a place. You toe the line between respecting the life that already exists, and acknowledging it’s not an easy transition to make, especially if opening a business.
W: So, not quite the romantic countryside idyll that’s often touted in the media.
NJ: I moved from London, where your neighbour isn’t so deeply involved in your personal and professional life. I did have to win over the community, because Bruton wasn’t always like it is today with The Chapel and Hauser & Wirth, and all the changes they brought to the town.
This topic of moving out of London – or any big city – to a rural location, you do have to be mindful of the existing community. I was a bit naive, not knowing anyone who had been through a similar experience I could compare it to.
You toe the line between respecting the life that already exists, and acknowledging it’s not an easy transition to make
W: Bruton must be a special place to make it the centre of your home and work life?
NJ: It is special, and so rewarding. You could be at a dinner party and every person at the table will be so different to you, which I think is healthy. I’ve learned so much from other people since moving here. There’s generally a mutual respect and interest in other peoples’ stories. In London you tend to orbit around your own kind of people, existing in an echo chamber.
W: What prompted the move?
NJ: My husband is a teacher near Bruton but we met in London on half-term holidays. He made it clear that he never wanted to move to London, though initially I didn’t listen. After six years I realised he was serious, so I considered moving to Somerset! The move is out of love, really and not because I necessarily desired to leave London.
There have been surprising benefits to moving – and not just in the ability to start my own business. For two years before moving, I had chronic anxiety. I tried everything to improve it: hypnotherapy, change in diet, books, counselling – you name it, nothing worked. It might have started as post-traumatic stress from witnessing a terrible accident on the train line. I carried this constant stress with me, yet within a week of moving to Somerset it was gone. I felt I could breathe deeply again. Looking back, I wonder if it was trauma or a generalised anxiety compressed from living in London.
W: There is something instantly uplifting about spending time in nature and open spaces.
NJ: Absolutely. Often when we go on holiday, we’re escaping to beautiful places for nourishment. But whilst cities offer different enriching benefits, how often do you return from a city break feeling relaxed in the way you do when you spend time in nature?
W: There’s a sense of calming continuity between your home, event and store spaces. What qualities do you think creates a memorable room?
NJ: Isla Crawford describes design as ‘a tool to enhance our humanity’. Now I wouldn’t go around saying I do that, but when I heard this, it really struck a chord. It’s so true in that you look at a space in terms of how it makes you feel. My house has big windows so you can bring nature in. You can see someone’s taste and personality through the objects they choose. It can be very minimal or even look like a jumble sale, but a sense of personality in a room is always appealing.
W: Do you think the way you curate Caro says something about your relationship to objects?
NJ: The things I buy for Caro; I’m drawn to because I have an associated memory. For example, at home I have a very simple jug I love because it reminds me of long lunches in Italy. Using it bring me a sense of everyday happiness and wellbeing. I take that same rationale for how I curate Caro. I might try to go round the store one day and see if I can pin a story to every single object!
EK: I imagine Caro pushes the envelope when it comes to modernity in Bruton.
NJ: For some people who live in Bruton, Caro can be seen as very modern. But that’s not how I view it. I’ve visited retail spaces that feature three things in a room as its concept. I’m also not someone who’s striving to be über cool or at the forefront of the zeitgeist. I hope I’m an accessible person with an inspiring, but accessible brand. I’m also realistic, because Caro isn’t a passion project. I do have to make money. I would would love to bring different objects and art to experiment in the space but my audience isn’t always here. I have an ongoing conversation with myself to understand “who is my audience for Caro; who and what do I really want to talk about?”.
EK: You experiment within the lines of Caro as your livelihood, then.
NJ: I recently introduced a wonderful womenswear brand called Sideline to Caro. But with fashion, you have to buy in bulk and so far in advance, with a huge outlay upfront. I could easily spend £10k on one collection but what small business owner has that? It’s frustrating because I know I could sell so much more, but the infrastructure isn’t there to support independent businesses in this way.
When it comes to events, I have greater freedom to experiment. We recently held an exhibition for Forest and Found – a creative duo with roots in Bruton and whose work I find stunning. Max Bainbridge works in wood – large bowls and vessels that you can use practically, but they are created as sculptures. And Abigail Booth works with natural dyes and textiles to produce serene abstract textiles.
In summer I’m running a conceptual Nordic supper club event. The theme is a windswept walk from the forest to the beach; and every element from floral installation to the tableware and ingredients will tell that story. I’m excited to see if there is space for conceptual experiences like that in Bruton. You’re always judged on your last work and I often wonder what is it that defines success, anyway. Is it how much money you make and how many people come to your events – or is it about learning, enriching your community and new collaborations that counts as success?
It's so true in that you look at a space in terms of how it makes you feel
EK: Now you have Arlo to factor into the mix. How has parenthood changed the way you run Caro?
NJ: Having Arlo has changed me in many ways. I’m now so appreciative and aware of time. I’m also aware of how important it is for me to be on my own journey, one that isn’t just about being a mother. I’m raising a boy and I want him to grow up seeing women in strong, independent roles. That they work and have ideas, alongside being home and present in their everyday.
With Caro, I now have a platform I’ve built over the last few years and can run projects and have conversations that matter to me. When you’re driven by money and numbers you so often lose the core and the values of what you started a business for in the first place. Although I want Caro to be successful, money – though maybe I’m lucky to say this – is not my main focus. Besides the branding and the building renovation, I built Caro from scratch. It has always been about the quality of what I’m doing that drives me on.
A Nordic scene
Take a Nordic journey in Somerset, when Caro hosts its first supper club.
Place: Caro, Bruton
Date: 16 June