Inside the doll’s house

  • Automata maker Lisa Slater has used her talents to turn a small under-dwelling into the perfect pint-sized home. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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The peculiar under and over-dwellings built into the steep hillsides of Hebden Bridge often cause confusion. Lisa Slater had to get an estate agent to explain the concept to a building society before she got a mortgage.

“They couldn’t understand that I was buying a house that had another house on top of it,” says Lisa, who fell in love with the town when she was studying 3D design at Manchester Metropolitan University. “We came on a residential drawing trip here and then I’d come over on the train for days out. I’ve always loved Hebden’s quirkiness and its acceptance of alternative lifestyles.”

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

She moved to the valley and stayed – even though it meant years of commuting to Skipton Girls’ High School, where she was head of the design department. Now, thanks to a radical mid-life decision, work is on the doorstep. She gave up her job and salary to become an automata maker and now has a workshop at Northlight Studios just down the hill from her home.

“I have never regretted it. I haven’t got as much money but I have realised you can be rich with time,” she says.

Her studio is a compact space crammed with a woodworking bench she found on eBay and tools to create her ingenious moving sculptures fashioned from wood.

“I did automata for my degree show. I love them because they aren’t just static. You can put humour into them, personalise them and give them more meaning. They were very popular in Victorian times,” says Lisa, whose work features in galleries and exhibitions all over Britain.

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

She likes to work in silver birch and sometimes teams it with old clock bases and other reclaimed items to making everything from “zonkies”, a cross 
between mules and zebras, to birds and people. She also creates bespoke pieces for clients.

One of her stand-out pieces is an automata of her favourite opera singer, Sarah Connolly, dressed as Lord Nelson singing Rule Britannia at the Proms. It has a singing action and is dressed courtesy of fabric from the Word of Mouth craft shop with a sword made by a jeweller and shoe buckles fashioned from a bath plug chain. A clip of it singing to Sarah’s soundtrack was a Twitter sensation.

The workshop is essential as working at home was never an option. Her one-bedroom under-dwelling is tiny, although it feels much bigger thanks to magnificent long-range views across the valley.

The interior is cosy, colourful and carefully arranged. Downstairs the kitchen area is at the back and since it is built into a hill, there is no natural light, just a window with a view of a shaft running the full length of the impossibly high building.

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

“It is below ground and the neighbours’ cellar is above my kitchen, so the walls have been tanked to prevent damp. There was a solid wall between the kitchen and sitting room before but the previous owner had it cut out to let light through,” says Lisa, who designed the units herself to create clever storage.

The table was bequeathed by the property’s previous owner and the most striking feature is a painting by one of her students, Rachel Mackley. It sits next to a wall painted in Farrow and Ball’s Chinese Blue, which complements the handmade crockery by Katch Skinner.

The focal point of the sitting room is the old stone fireplace, which was hidden behind plasterboard before Lisa uncovered it. Her handiwork is everywhere, from the egg rack she designed and made to the mahogany edge on her Thorens turntable and the footstool that she covered in Harris tweed.

Her love of quirky handmade objects shows everywhere and they include primitive 16th century penny dolls carved from wood, which live in an old key cupboard. The Castle Acoustic speakers remind her of taking students to the factory in Skipton, which hand-crafted the veneered cabinets.

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

One wall is devoted to paintings of birds and some antique taxidermy. Birds are a passion. She made feeders and tables to attract them to her garden.

“I am bird obsessed and I love birdsong, so I keep them well fed, which can get expensive,” she says.

Upstairs, the painting on the wall above her bed is from a degree show, while a chest of drawers is topped with mementoes, including a picture that she felted with the fur and whiskers of her cat, Stella, who died. The bathroom is a riot of colour with patterned tiles made by her friend, the ceramicist Lubna Chowdhary. It is her favourite place thanks to its fantastic acoustics.

“I can be in the bath for three hours listening to opera on Radio 3,” she says.

“I love living here and one of the benefits of having an over-dwelling above me is that I never feel alone.”

• Lisa Slater, automata maker, www.lisaslater.org.uk. Lisa’s work can be found at the Craft and Design Centre, Leeds, Mill Bridge Gallery in Skipton and Water Street Gallery, Todmorden.

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge

The home of Lisa Slater in Hebden Bridge