Tom Helme is perhaps most recognised for his part in catapulting Farrow & Ball into a household name, along with his school-friend Martin Ephson. But it would be rude of me to start there. We have to go back to the 22-year-old Tom, who David Mlinaric had taken on.
John Fowler had recently died and Mlinaric was approached to take on Fowler's role as advisor to the National Trust. Mlinaric at the time was too busy to take on such an important and time-consuming role, but after John Cornforth nudged Mlinaric to take on Tom to train him for such a role, it would seem The National Trust had found their man.
At that time, the role of the National Trust was primarily focused on decoration rather than on restoration as it is now. Tom would spend his winters mixing paints in old houses, trying desperately to create a match with the pre-existing palettes. It was the idea of Gervase Jackson-Stops that the National Trust should have a 'super shop' which would sell all the pieces that go into decorating the houses - whilst this hasn't yet come to fruition, a seed was sown and a serendipitous introduction between Tom and Farrow & Ball led to working interest that led to mainstream revolution in the world of household paint.
At the time Farrow & Ball were a small, little-known operation making flat oil paint in different colours, which was unique in a market dominated by acrylic paints in limited palettes (hence Tom's previous winters mixing paint in dustbins). Unfortunately, they had hit unsteady times, but as Tom had formed the relationship between Farrow & Ball and The National Trust he felt somewhat responsible. He asked his school friend and corporate financier, Martin Ephson, to assess the situation. Martin went to the factory and verified it was bad, but suggested that he and Tom could do something about it. They had an idea that this could be one day a week: *' That was our first mistake, It was full time from the beginning'.
I don't know the ins and outs, but it feels as if they couldn't have made too many mistakes after that. By the time they sold Farrow & Ball in 2006, the factory had expanded from 6,000 sq ft to 60,000 sq ft and employed 300 people. After seventeen years of running the company though, they both felt a need to reset. Tom used his time for painting and Martin played a lot of polo. But as Tom said, '50 is too young to retire', and thank god for that. Otherwise, we might have missed out on Fermoie, which Tom & Martin formed in 2011. It is now in its tenth year and whilst I was speaking to Tom he was working out what would make the cut for the upcoming October collection (oh to be a fly on that wall). I am very thankful to Tom for agreeing to do this as I had an inkling it might well be the last thing he wanted, but hurray for being polite!
Favourite day is sign off day. Not only because it’s the completion of months of work and we all feel we have done our best, but because it’s time to hand over to the production and commercial teams. Nearing sign off of a new collection, boxes of trials arrive almost daily from the studio at our factory in Marlborough. Unpacked, I put them first in this order, then that and then they move around the house. At present we’re overrun by samples.
Favourite restaurant? Lisa and I really miss going out to eat, but we have found a way around the current restrictions. During the first lockdown we built a potting shed all from reclaimed materials. With wood burner installed, it is now our favourite restaurant, well actually Pizzeria, and we eat there without fail once a week.
Happy place? It has to be being at Carskiey, outside, near the house looking towards the sea.
Do you believe in Ghosts? I met three in my early twenties and I happily cohabit with one now. The first was a baby crying in the adjacent room at Croft Castle where I was working alone for weeks restoring some painted panelling. It was not upsetting to hear and only became spooky when the house manager, who gave me coffee and biscuits every morning, explained the donor family’s flat, where I was so clearly hearing the crying, had been empty for weeks. The bishop’s office was contacted and on my next visit, the baby ghost was no more.
Favourite tube stop line? I love the way the DLR drives itself and in a young boy way, I always hope the seats right at the front are free.
Dream car? Actually, something I am unlikely to dream about! But if I did, it would be my father’s car, the family car, from the 1960s, a Morris Oxford Traveller. Happy memories of long drives to Cornwall for summer holidays and us all on the front bench seat.
If you could be a fly on the wall where would you land? Mystery and beauty are closely related. Part of what makes something beautiful is not knowing how it has been created. It’s an idea we hold close at Fermoie, where what we try to do is a whole lot more than just printing. So, I would land on the top edge of the easel of that master of beauty and mystery, Velasquez as he painted one of his royal sitters. What better place to learn? For if I had been good enough, I would have loved to have been a portrait painter.
If you came back as a bird, which one would it be? The gannets are probably the most exhilarating to watch as they dive-bomb the offshore water. But somehow the whole excitement would be diminished if I was doing the diving. More to my style is the cormorant who you see in small groups with lazily outstretched wings having their feathers blow-dried without effort.
Most disagreeable human trait? On a daily basis, I think mine is not answering emails and everything else to do with a computer. I know it annoys the hell out of everyone… it’s not intentional, I promise!
What would your autobiography be called? I guess it would have a colour name somewhere in the title. How about Tickled Pink, one of my favourite Fermoie colour names?
Favourite smell? Gorse, or whin as it’s called here on the west coast, is loved for its bright yellow flower when there is little other colours about. On a not too windy day, you catch whaffs of its sweet scent, which is captured and intensified furthered when bottled for use as a syrup. Excellent in a cocktail.
What song can always make your foot tap? My favourite regular potting shed song at present is Wild is the Wind. Both versions by Nina Simone and David Bowie. One simply incredible voice, the other a work of art. For foot tapping: Bobby Womack’s version of Fly Me to the Moon.