Sophie Howarth is full of energy and long, hurried, thoughtful sentences when I talk to her. She’s excited about the launch of the Department Store for the Mind. She’s also nervous. She’s remortgaged her house to fund the project and has been up working ’til 5am.
But, with a background featuring the Tate and co-founding The School of Life at the age of 30, I wonder how much there is to be nervous about. Howarth is an impressive, intriguing figure. Much like the name of her new project. What actually *is* the Department Store for the Mind, I ask her.
“Department stores are used for practical needs,” she tells me, “like buying a washing machine. But what if there was a store that attends to your emotional and psychological needs? How could a plate you use for breakfast set you up in a certain state of mind for the rest of the day?”
And this was her starting point for trying to redefine the relationship between wellness and shopping. “Things for the mind and the self tend to be yucky quotes on stock images and bad design,” she says, “whereas I love design and beautiful communication.” This interest in where beautiful, useful design and wellbeing meet has resulted in her online store. And, for Howarth, beautiful design can be one of the most beneficial things to us: “I have suffered from mental-health problems in the past and have found beautiful things the most nourishing.”
Could you get that feeling of knowing where you belong and being recognised from a retail environment?
Howarth’s objects aren’t just beautiful, though – they are useful, everyday objects that will make you and others essentially feel better: a small red balloon to life the spirits; a candle for a moment of hope; a pair of scissors for shaping the future; a magnifying glass to help see the world afresh; a monthly delivery of inspiring mottos printed on cardboard with red ribbon or, as Howarth calls them, Words To Hang On To. Essentially, Howarth has materialised expressions of kindness and hope and focus, and woven them in the routine of everyday, with the help of excellent craftsmanship and gorgeous illustration.
But is this all just more stuff in our already cluttered lives? What about the trend for the Danish-/Japanese-inspired less is more? Howarth believes there’s been a backlash to stuff because of the ethics of mass-produced, fast-turnaround goods. “But long before that has been a culture of human craft – making and holding things,” she says.
So, yes, for Howarth, retail can be therapy, because beautifully designed, well-crafted objects can give us back some thought and meaning. “Retail therapy is a finding place,” she tells me. “Jeanette Winterson talks about poetry as a finding place and I thought, what if you could have a store that was a finding place and, by the process of browsing the store, you came to know more about yourself? Could you get that feeling of knowing where you belong and being recognised from a retail environment?"
Judge for yourself: visit the just-opened Department Store for the Mind now.