Darlington artists Anna and Sebastian Carter, of Envy Interiors, love to repurpose old furniture into something truly unique, writes Jenny Needham

A DATE night for Anna and Sebastian Carter is more likely to involve a piece of old furniture and a tin of paint than a romantic dinner for two. When their paramedical tattooing business came to a halt because of Covid, the Darlington art-lovers put their passion into rescuing and renovating tables, chairs and chests of drawers.

At first they sold solely online, but when the Government announced that health restrictions were being relaxed, they decided to take a leap of faith and open a high street store. Envy Interiors, on Post House Wynd, Darlington, is a riot of colour, a veritable Aladdin's Cave of bespoke and unique furniture and art. Most has been created by Anna and Sebastian, but the shop is also home to works by other local artists.

As well as their signature reimagined pieces of furniture, there's a large palm tree, furniture applique, wacky cushions, plaster busts, lamps and lampshades, and framed inspirational messages. Anna has her own mantra. "I believe there is no such thing as failure, just learning curves," she says.

Envy a new shop opened on Post House Wynd, Darlington Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Envy a new shop opened on Post House Wynd, Darlington Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

She and Sebastian have always been creative, and as well as reinventing pieces of furniture, they have radically reinvented their own careers. They've known each other since the Nineties, when they were both teenagers, and have been married for almost seven years. Sebastian started out repairing live powerlines and installations throughout the country; Anna was originally an accountant.

"We wanted something more rewarding and came across paramedical tattooing, which helps people who have mastectomies," says Anna. "I would do work on them after surgery to give the client confidence again, while Sebastian worked with people suffering from alopecia and hair loss. He would tattoo the scalp, which gives the perception of a full head of hair."

As lockdown hit, the couple took their artistic skills and eye for detail in a different direction and started painting furniture. "My creative skills and precision helped in previous roles, and I simply transferred them to this," says Anna. "I love taking unwanted and older pieces of furniture that are heading for landfill and adding my touch to give them a new lease of life, fashioning a one-of-a-kind piece that will be truly unique and complement any home or business."

Envy a new shop opened on Post House Wynd, Darlington Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Envy a new shop opened on Post House Wynd, Darlington Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

The real skill comes in seeing beyond a damaged piece of furniture and imagining their own design on that piece, she adds. "I truly love letting my imagination run wild and the feedback so far has been amazing. It's especially exciting when a client commissions a piece and says we have free rein in the design."

The core of the business at Envy is sustainability – reusing, repurposing, recycling. To create one of their unique pieces normally takes Anna and Sebastian around four to five weeks from preparation to the final hand-painted product people see on the shop floor, which includes beautiful applique and mouldings which the pair make in store and apply to the furniture to give it the wow factor. "We had to train ourselves from scratch, but were inspired by an exceptional US company called McKenzie Childs."

They are now hoping to pass on their skills in a range of workshops starting this month on everything from furniture preparation and decoupage to repairing damages and finding the best paints for your project. And finding furniture in the first place, of course.

"When we first started, I purchased a piece of furniture from Facebook Marketplace," says Anna. "The owner believed it was beyond repair, but we knew with some TLC we could repair and re-purpose it to create a one-off piece. As we were prepping it, we discovered it was really old and wanted to research it."

The couple contacted antique auctions and artists around the world and New York artist and restorer Sultan Chic explained it was an original Louis XIV piece. "He had only known of two others in his career which he then sold for £6,000 and £11,000. After we restored it and put our spin on the item, everyone loved it. We were actually contacted by a member of the White House asking if it was for sale, but we had to refuse. It was our signature piece, the one which, more than any other, has led us to where we are now."

The couple love trading in Darlington, and have nothing but praise for the Darlington Council business team, who have given them help and advice, and neighbouring businesses, who have been so welcoming. "Darlington has so much to offer and it's getting better by the day," says Anna. She's hoping shoppers who haven't already popped in will do so over the festive period to pick up some unique gifts.

"We have little stocking fillers like Soup Socks (not edible!), fabric hand-made roses, wreaths, gift sets, and we also have local artists bringing new products to us daily. When people come into Envy, the first comments are usually, wow, this shop is so different... exactly what Darlington needs."

Anna and Sebastian do take some of their work home with them – literally – favourite pieces that complement their Victorian property in the town. "Our furniture is all used furniture which we have upcycled and hand-painted to our own favourite designs and patterns." Not surprisingly, the overall look is maximalist– bold colours and patterns, bright and beautiful and daring. "Family and friends are very complimentary," says Anna. "We have antique pieces from around the world, pieces we have upcycled from Ikea, and modern pieces we have transformed with applique and patterns to create something truly unique."

  • Envy Interiors, 23 Post House Wynd, Darlington