Profile: Annie Sloan, creator of that paint..you know, the chalk one
Profile: Annie Sloan, creator of that paint..you know, the chalk one
Fervour, passion, zeal.... all are adjectives that describe how Annie Sloan's customers feel about her paint. Many a competitor company would kill to know just what it is about it that inspires such devotion. Its creator isn't entirely sure either, except that it's damn good stuff
The million dollar question is why? Why is it that people who under normal circumstances would groan at the prospect of having to paint something become terribly excited and eager to get going when given a pot of Annie Sloan Chalk Paint?
No other household paint elicits such fervour and passion among its users, and it's this legend in its own lifetime aura around Annie Sloan Chalk Paint that intrigues even its creator. 'It's very gratifying, and all I can say is that it's the blogging world that has built up our reputation, because we've hardly advertised it.'
Sloan is somewhat amused to note that while she's hardly a digital native, she does owe a great deal to the Internet. 'I LOVE social media, it's wonderful to be able to communicate so easily with our customers and our stockists.'
To this nectar of paints, which Sloan created in the early '90s: Well, there is calcium carbonate in the mix, says Sloan, who adds she didn't call it 'Chalk Paint' because it has chalk in it, rather it was to refer to the chalky feel of it when dry.
And she pointedly does not call it an eco paint, even though she's entirely confident it is environmentally-friendly (it's water-based and solvent-free with only a tiny amount of ammonia to prevent freezing).
'Look, all modern paints, mine included, are the result of chemistry and chemicals. So I'm sceptical about the term 'natural paint' because that would suggest a paint is made from milk, yoghurt or egg with a bit of plant extract for colour..and you won't paint a house successfully with that!
'Obviously I'm not giving anyone the recipe for my paint. But I will tell you that I developed it with Daisy, an under-chemist at a paint company I went to because I needed a paint for a project that was responsive, that could absorb wax and had a chalky finish - I wanted something a bit like a casein paint, not a strong acrylic that dries to a hard finish.
'So it came about through a lot of trial and error, and making up small batches for testing. And then we started selling it locally and other people found they liked it.. and over the years we've added to the colour palette. I'm very interested in pigments and mixing colours that have a lot of integrity.'
Is it different to other paints?
' Yes it is!' asserts Sloan. And it's those differences which go on impressing users: dilute it for a more watery look, or leave the pot with the lid off and the paint will thicken; it's breathable and absorbent, and looks great waxed. You can use it on wood, on plaster and on metal. And you don't need prepare your surface - which is a crucial advantage, the complete liberation from sandpaper, primer and undercoat.
'This paint does a lot of different things, and I am all about making things easy for people,' says Sloan.
Artist will paint anything
Sloan, whose husband and three sons are very much involved in the business, moved to the UK from Australia when she was 10.
She went to art school in London in the '70s where she trained as a fine artist. However, she says she's a strongly practical person and found she was less interested in conceptual art and more interested in exploring the history of painting. That led to her looking into the history of painting and decorating and she became fascinated to learn that the painters who worked on the great stately homes, for example, would mix their own pigments, that they could draw, stencil, do calligraphy, and gild.
After art school 'I did a spell of teaching art in a London comprehensive, which taught me I was not a teacher,' and so after leaving that job, and needing work, she put at ad in Time Out magazine saying something to the effect of 'artist will paint anything'.
'And I got a lot of responses and got to work in quite grand places... houses in Eaton Square..and I would be asked to do things such as 'paint a row of flowers on this wall'.. it was a lot fun.' And it was for one of these interior decorating projects that she needed a type of paint not yet on the market, so she set out to create it herself.
Anyone who remembers the mania in the late '80s/early '90s for decorative paint techniques such as rag-rolling, marbling and stippling should prick up their ears, because Annie Sloan was one of the two women who wrote books that got the nation hooked on doing creative things to its walls and kitchen units - the other being Jocasta Innes.
Having learned so much about colours, paints, pigments and historic painting techniques, and having mastered the latter herself, Sloan, with Kate Gwynn, wrote The Complete Book of Decorative Paint Techniques, a step-by-step guide which proved a best-seller. That was the start of her authoring career and Sloan has gone on to write 24 books, and has sold a staggering two million copies.
The non-corporate businesswoman
For what has become by accident if not design an international business, Annie Sloan says resolutely that she is not corporate. She doesn't wear tailored suits and have a Blackberry permanently to her ear, nor does she talk of bottom lines and profits, and the nerve centre of the operation remains her homely and slightly chaotic little shop in Oxford, close to her own house.
'I am a businesswoman, but that wasn't my initial drive - I'm not a Martha Stewart. The business is a family business and it's evolved, it's grown organically and it has become very successful - which as I've said is in quite a large part down to our customers who blog.'
But Sloan and her husband David do keep the Annie Sloan brand close, for example, it's not become a franchise operation, and they personally select the shops which stock the paint. 'Lots of people ask to stock our paint but it's got to be someone who says they've used it for years and they understand it and love it. We look for independent retailers that show some quirkiness, that have an individuality and creative flair and in interest in style and interiors. You'll never find my paint in a trade warehouse...'
Making it big in the US
Google 'Annie Sloan' and you soon realise she is very popular in the US. 'But that wasn't always the case... Early on we found a manufacturer in Kansas, a small factory, to make the paints, but it took two years to find a distributor. I made a lot of visits to the States and eventually we found a few people to take the paints.. they tended to be family businesses too.. a mother/daugther or husband/wife venture. And when the Internet came along.. .. they would blog and then more people would hear about our paint.
'Americans are big on family and I think they like the fact that we are a family business. I also think the recession has helped us, because people love junk fairs in the US, they have that make do and mend mentality, so to paint a piece of old wooden furniture to make it look good again is something they're prepared to do.' Which it is in the UK too, which has seen a surge of interest in upcycling since the financial crash of 2008.
Annie Sloan now has around 400 stockists across the US, some 300 on the continent and she has recently made trips to Australia and New Zealand and South Africa to finalise details with retail outlets that will be selling the paint in those countries.
So it doesn't sound as if grandmotherhood is seeing her put her feet up. 'Gosh, no, I'm still working and painting...'
Be proud to be a home-maker
Sloan says she hopes she's done something to change attitudes towards home-making. 'It's very underrated, but actually we all want to have a nice home, to look at where we live and feel proud.'