Petra Palumbo is a sustainable homeware designer, renowned for her hand-painted glassware.
Words Natasha Radmehr
Petra Palumbo, 32, grew up surrounded by beautiful things.
Her mother, Lady Hayat Palumbo, owns Tapisserie, a London shop specialising in intricate, hand-painted needlework. Her father, Baron Peter Palumbo, is an art collector and architecture connoisseur who served as chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain in the early 1990s.
She recalls a happy childhood spent between the bustle of London and the picture-postcard Berkshire countryside. The family travelled widely, returning often to a holiday home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania, and to see relatives in Lebanon. The kids – Petra Palumbo is one of five siblings – were encouraged to appreciate and absorb art wherever they went.
“Everyone in my family has that creative gene in them,” she says. “My dad would always quote Goethe: ‘Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music’.
It helped me understand the interdependence of all art forms, from mathematics to painting to cooking.”
JOURNEY TO DISCOVERY
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that she would land in the world of design. She studied jewellery design at the London College of Fashion and interned in Paris and New York for Christian Dior and Oscar de la Renta, but quickly realised her heart lay – quite literally – closer to home.
“Fashion just wasn’t really doing it for me,” she recalls. “I had always loved being at home and was always in pursuit of creating the perfect home. It seemed a natural fit for me to explore that.”
A master’s degree in sustainable textiles at Chelsea College of Art confirmed she’d made the right choice.
After graduating, Palumbo designed a collection of printed tableware, but it didn’t really sell.
“I realised I had to rethink what I was making, so I did a glass-painting course and started painting floral designs inspired by folk art onto carafes and tumblers,” she remembers.
“I was asked to do some styling for Christie’s auction house, so I showcased my glassware at the event and they sold out there and then. I put them online, and they kept selling out – I couldn’t paint them fast enough.
They became a signature piece of my brand, and it all developed from there.”
In 2018, Palumbo’s eponymous brand was officially born.
Her whimsical glassware remains a bestseller, but now sits within a wider, chic-and-cheerful range that incorporates tiles and colourful textiles.
Nearly everything is made in the UK, and sustainability is a key focus; the business strives to be as plastic-free as possible, and uses recycled paper in its packaging.
And though it began as an online venture, customers can now browse the products in a bricks-and-mortar store, which opened last November in the charming village of Beauly.
The flagship shop is in a beautiful former bank with tall arched windows and Palumbo has set it up as an extension of her own home: William Morris’s Honeysuckle wallpaper covers the walls, her own tiles surround the fireplace, antique pieces lend a storied, homely feel.
Several items are exclusively available to buy in the shop, such as wicker baskets handwoven on the Isle of Eigg and Fair Isle blankets knitted by her husband’s aunt.
It was her husband, Simon Fraser, who brought her to Scotland in the first place.
He grew up in Inverness-shire and now the couple are raising their three-year-old daughter, Vaila, in a former fishing lodge near Beauly, decorated to the designer’s eclectic tastes.
“There’s lots of brown furniture, modern art, rich fabrics and tapestries,” she says. “People always say they feel they’ve left the world behind when they enter it.”
That feeling of being cooried indoors is conducive to Palumbo’s working style.
“The rhythm and tempo of Highland life really suits my brain. I need calm and quiet in order to focus, and London is just too chaotic,” she explains.
Being in the Highlands has reaffirmed her love of the autumnal palette (“I love seeing bright yellow broom next to green moss and dirty terracotta-like mud,” she says).
A GREATER HAPPINESS
Palumbo notes cultural similarities between Scotland and Lebanon, which may explain why she feels so comfortable here.
“They love the home, they love food, they love entertaining. Nothing is ever too much trouble,” she says.
“That kind of generosity of spirit… I don’t know whether I do carry it, but I really hope I do.”
Between looking after a toddler and running a business, free time is a rarity for the designer.
“Since becoming a mum, my ambitions have changed,” she reflects.
“I had all these plans to become globally successful, but now I just want to make beautiful products, enjoy this shop and make the most of family life. There’s really no rush.
Time is precious.”