Vanessa Dennett gives us a tour of her Scandi-inspired barn in rural North Somerset.
Vanessa Dennett, owner of Oak Tree Barn and founder of The Simpson Sisters, was born and raised in Somerset, but spent most of her adult life abroad. When she returned to the UK she got started on a business holding and hosting creative workshops, and was drawn back to the barn she’d loved since childhood.
She splits her time and workshops between the countryside property and her home in Bristol. We chatted to Vanessa over a cup of tea to find out how her business began and how she ended up at Oak Tree Barn.
Hi Vanessa! We’re curious, why did you call your business The Simpson Sisters?
I’m the only one running the business but I’m one of four Simpson sisters so it’s named after us. We all use our married names now but I thought The Simpson Sisters would be a nice way to continue the name. Working with my sisters hasn’t happened yet but it might in the future!
How did you find the barn and what’s its history?
I grew up in the village where the barn is located and my parents’ garden adjoined the barn’s plot. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t hanker after converting it to somewhere that I could live, but it always seemed impossible. It’s a long story, but my parents bought the barn 20 years ago and when they moved about five years ago I begged them to sell it to us.
How long did it take you to convert the barn and how did you decide what it would look like?
When we started the barn project we were still living abroad and the plan was to have somewhere to stay in the UK when visiting family. From our first discussions with architects to actually moving in took about three years. I must have drawn room layouts on a thousand scraps of paper over the years, but the barn is quite small and there are only so many options. I really enjoy open plan living, which shaped downstairs, and I guess its aesthetic is heavily influenced by the places I have lived. Looking around me I can see items from Germany, South Africa, Belgium and Sweden, as well as things we’ve had since we first got married.
The barn really embraces the slow living lifestyle, was that the plan?
If I had to give the barn’s style a name I would probably go for rustic Scandustrial chic! I don’t think I actively thought ‘hygge’ as the barn came together, it’s been more a case of choosing comfort and simplicity. I really wanted to have a fire though, as I think it really makes the place. However, the most important thing for me was to create somewhere that felt special to us as a family.
What does your average working day look like?
I actually have two workspaces. We never intended to have two houses, but at the moment we live in both places — in Bristol and in the barn — and my workspace is wherever my laptop is. I probably spend 90 per cent of my working time in one kitchen or other, which is extremely convenient for tea and coffee, but a bit too close to the biscuit tin! I haven’t quite managed to create an average working day yet. I love to write when I’m at the barn and find the peace there perfect for sitting down to plan workshops. The workshops usually happen on a Friday, which seems to work well, and I always spend the day before prepping. Photography is dictated by the weather to a large degree, so if the light is lovely I’ll try to make time to take some good pictures.
What are people’s reactions when they see Oak Tree Barn for the first time?
It’s really gratifying that people seem to love both my Bristol home and the barn. I think each space very much reflects me and my family, the places we have experienced and the way we live our lives. I hope that people feel genuinely welcomed and comfortable at both places.
Does being in the countryside inspire your work?
Undoubtedly. As I drive towards the barn there’s a moment when I have a wonderful view of the village nestling in the Mendip Hills and it makes my heart sing. Arriving at the barn immediately calms my mind. Pottering around in the garden and seeing to the chickens is excellent thinking time, and being outside away from a screen is hugely restorative.
How did you learn your crafting skills?
My mother and grandmother taught me sewing, knitting and baking. Since then I’ve picked up most of my skills from workshops. I’ve attended all sorts of different ones around the world and made some wonderful friends too. Mostly though, I am happy to have a go at anything. I think too much importance is placed upon having a talent for something, whereas in reality it’s often simply the process of doing things again and again that results in success and happiness with the end product.
Where do you find your workshop tutors?
The first few workshops I ran were from making connections at local craft fairs, and since then it’s been pretty organic. People who enjoy being creative are often open to trying something new, and I’ve met several tutors when they have attended one of my workshops. I’m also part of some local business networking groups and have met lots of amazing people this way too.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Workshop days are my absolute favourite because so many people have interesting stories that will lead me to seek further knowledge in one topic or another. I also think that having a little less stuff around us gives great scope for thinking creatively about how we use what we have. I find myself increasingly interested in simple and slow living and am actively trying to embrace this little by little.
What’s been your proudest make?
It would have to be the dressmaking I’ve done for Luna Lapin. I love sewing in miniature and, if I say so myself, her dresses and coats are rather lovely!
What does making mean to you?
For me making is just a part of life, I like to make things myself whenever I can. I really try to encourage anyone to just have a go and there is nothing better than seeing the satisfaction on someone’s face when they leave a workshop with something they genuinely didn’t believe they could make.
What are your top three tips for running a craft workshop?
1. Comfort and warmth are paramount. People need to feel relaxed and free of any expectations other than to enjoy the workshop. Ensuring everyone knows in advance where to come and details like where they can park, helps them feel at ease when they arrive too .
2. A friendly welcome. I always like to start workshops with tea or coffee and an opportunity for people to meet one another before sitting down and getting started. I try to make introductions so we all know one another’s names. Oh, and there must be cake, of course!
3. Encouragement and reassurance. Workshops are all about having a go, trying something new and experimenting. People often tell me that they don’t have a creative bone in their body, so helping them make something they love is one of the best parts.