Today The Chromologist spends some down-time with Lisa Sykes, editor of magazine The Simple Things, which has won a loyal readership by focusing on the really nourishing stuff of life – sharing good food with family and friends, enjoying the outdoors, learning new skills, spending wisely on your home and the satisfaction of a job well done. As Lisa says, the reader is hard to define, because it’s much more about attitude than age, but they also tend to be interested in a bit of nostalgia, wellbeing and ethical choices. “We don’t take it all too seriously,” insists Lisa. “Tea and cake and having fun are part of the mix!” We asked Lisa to tell us a bit more about the concept of a simpler life, and about how that translates into a ‘simple’ Christmas.
What does the idea of living more simply mean to you?
“That moments matter. You have to slow down and be more mindful to notice them or they are gone. It’s one of the reasons our magazine comes out in real time – who wants to read about Christmas in October or Easter baking recipes in February? We are fortunate in Britain to live in a country with very distinct seasons and events relating to them that punctuate the year – why rush ahead? Every issue we carry a chalkboard message on the back cover – the one last month said ‘It’s not about counting the days but making the days count’. Having a good day is surely everyone’s ‘simple thing’.”
Why do you think it’s a popular idea at the moment?
“There’s definitely something in the zeitgeist that is a backlash to information overload, longer working hours and a constant rushing through everything to tick it off your list. All we are doing is reminding people that it doesn’t have to be that way – you can make slow food rather than show food, and occasional downshifting is good for you.”
How do you like to spend your weekends?
“Pretty much doing what we talk about in The Simple Things; eating well with friends and family, being outside, working on a project or three. I’m learning to sew and curtains are proving an absorbing challenge… We have a rule in our house that rain never stops play, so we go out whatever the weather and you never regret it. Coming back to a cosy home feels even better when you have got cold, wet or both.”
Can you tell us a bit about your home – where you live, who with…
“Home is with my other half, David and three growing girls. It’s a double-fronted Victorian house with an unusual brick design as it was built by a family of builders who really knew their stuff. What’s nice is that my neighbour Barbara grew up here as a girl in the Fifties and Sixties so she’s told me a lot about its history and many people in the village know the house from their childhoods. It’s in Sussex and we can walk from the door in the woods down the road, which I love as my downtime is to escape occasionally with our dog Biscuit. We’ve also got a couple of hens who seem to think they are part of the family and keep trying to come into the kitchen.”
Do you have a home decorating style, and has it evolved over the years?
“The best thing about being in my 40s is that I know what I like now. My taste is very nostalgic in pretty much everything but colour. I can’t be doing with endless neutral rooms, I like the colour of a room to reflect what it is used for, what the light is like and sometimes what works with a particular feature or piece of furniture that I can’t bear to part with. We’ve just painted the hall and landing a bold blue that has transformed the house. Fortunately our house still has the original doors and smaller rooms – they are much easier to keep warm and you can find more me-time in them than an open plan house. But it is definitely a work in progress as we spent all our money replacing the windows with beautiful new double-glazed sashes. Several rooms have paint samples on the walls waiting for decorating to restart!”
Where in your home do you most enjoy spending time?
“My favourite indoor spot is the thing that really sold the house to us. Our landing runs from the back to the front and is lined with built-in shelves overflowing with books. At the front of the house, facing west, is a big window where I have put an old chair that I came home with one day from the Red Cross. I like to sit here and read when the sun comes round in the late afternoon. It overlooks a field and when I look up I can often see deer, rabbits, a fox or a bird of prey. Despite being in a corridor it is somehow the most restful part of the house; my thinking space.”
Can you tell us a bit about Christmas in your home… and what preparations you’ll be making.
“First is Stir Up Sunday – I always make a Christmas Cake and the girls make a wish (ideally one not involving presents). We go and choose a tree from the sawmill in the woods near us as they grow them there. I worked at Country Living for a long time and over the years I built up a big collection of scandi style tree decorations but now I have inherited yellowing cardboard boxes of shiny vintage baubles from my Nan and I need to figure out a way to make it all work together. The kids have a small tree on the sideboard in the kitchen, which is always topped by the slightly worse for wear shuttlecock fairy that one of them made at nursery. They get carte blanche to decorate it how they like… which leaves me free to do the big one in the living room.”
Again, do have you any tips or typical things you do to decorate for Christmas?
“I’m better with words than I am with my hands but that doesn’t stop me having a go at a making a wreath every year – I forage for holly, ivy, pine cones, yew and any other evergreens that look like they will last then I spread it all out on the kitchen table and attempt to assemble it. If it stays in one piece until the New Year it has done well but for me anything that says ‘proudly homemade’ is pretty special.”
Can you name anything – new skills, hobbies or just ways of thinking – that you’ve picked up from the magazine itself?
“Every month! We run a section called Learn Something New: a 60-second insight into a new personal challenge and at the end of the piece I always think I’d like to do that. Someone wrote about how Flamenco dancing is really good for stomping out a bad day and another talked about how researching your family history can bring you closer together. We also make a point of printing more challenging ideas that encourage us to look at something – charity, colour, holidays, for example – in a different way. On a more practical level I pick up design tips from the people’s homes we feature and our Home Style section takes a forgotten or unfashionable homeware, such as a nest of tables or the carpet sweeper, and remembers just why they are useful and finds modern updates that work.”
What’s on your to-do list for 2015 – both for the magazine, and for yourself?
“Where to start – it’s such a long list! We definitely want to take The Simple Things on the road, so we will be going to some festivals and shows next year, which will be a lot of fun. At home my living room will be decorated before next winter, I will find the perfect old brass doorbell ringer and plant the edible fruit hedge I’ve been promising myself. Personally it’s all about taking time to live well. Switching off to switch on to what matters. Easier than it sounds most of the time but very much worth it.”