Furnishing Futures X PTTG

We’re on a mission to paint a world where more people feel at home.

It’s a long journey ahead, but there are people in our industry paving the way for others. 

Emily Wheeler, CEO of Furnishing Futures - an innovative charity that partners with the interior design industry to create professionally designed, healing homes for women and children who have escaped domestic abuse, is one of them.

Having worked with Emily on ‘Project Duffy’ – a refuge transformation project where our team of three female decorators (plus Phil), transformed three tired and cluttered living spaces into calming sanctuaries, we knew we had to speak with Emily further.

Miranda –What motivated you to start Furnishing Futures?

Emily –I have always had a love for interior design, but after training initially as a journalist, in 2002 I started working as a social worker in frontline child protection.

I was very aware of how poor housing and living conditions impacted people's life chances, and I knew I wanted to do something about it.

During a career break to have children, I retrained as an interior designer. For five years I worked full time in styling and wrote for interiors magazines. When my youngest was a baby, I went back to social work and that’s when austerity really kicked in. 

During this time I worked with a number of women who were supported to leave life threatening, domestic abuse situations only to be placed in empty social housing.  After they’d left everything behind, they were expected to move straight in and live there with her children without necessities such as flooring, cookers, or beds to sleep on. I was seeing women return home to their abusers because it was impossible to look after their children in that situation.

I just felt deeply upset by what I was seeing and realised that there wasn't any provision for this.  That sort of planted the seed in my mind, because I'd seen how much waste there was in the industry and how much excess there was.  I'd worked on the interiors desk at magazines and there would be cupboards bursting with stuff which people would be trying to give to their staff and their friends. It's the same in every brand and retailer, and it just didn’t sit right with me when there are people who don’t even have basic things to be able to put their kids to bed at night.

Initially, I started driving around in my car, finding things for free on Facebook and furnishing homes through my connections in the local authority and it grew from there.

I started to talk about what I was doing and people from the design industry started to get in touch. They’d say, ‘Oh, my client is getting rid of this’ or, ‘I'd like to send you that.’

For about three or four years, I had everything in my spare room and my kitchen. It took me a long time to grow it into a charity. But that is how it started.


M –Thank you so much for sharing that, Emily. It's incredible, and yet surprising to think nothing existed previously.

E- It’s not that there were never any furniture projects. Most high streets would have had a furniture project 20 years ago, but because of the high commercial rents in London, they've pretty much all closed. A lot of them ran on a model where people could go in and buy low-cost furniture. You might buy a three piece suite for fifty quid or something. But the families who I was working with, they can't even afford to buy food. So how are they going to spend fifty quid on a second-hand sofa? The model just wasn't working for the people who needed it.

M-What does a typical day look like for you working with Furnishing Futures?

E - Every day we have donations arriving to our warehouse in East London. Our volunteers check, sort, and organise everything onto an inventory system so that we know what we have in stock.

Most days, I have a meeting with the team, and we review which new referrals we've got coming in so that we can make sure we're responding to the greatest need the most quickly.

We'll always respond first if we find that someone has got children sleeping on the floor, for example, or someone's not able to cook a meal. We’ll organise for them to have a cooker or a fridge or for a bed to be sent out.

Then we're usually reviewing the projects that we are working on. In the past, I designed the homes myself, but now we have an interior designer on the team. We'll go through the progress of each project and make sure that we've got everything that each family needs. We might be booking decorators or floor fitters. Fundraising is a big responsibility of mine as CEO, as well as the logistics to keep the charity going so we can continue to do the work.

M - How do you go about sourcing the furniture for those in need?

E - As we've grown, we source less ourselves. Generally, the furniture comes to us. We have a process where brands and designers can get in touch and offer us furniture and we have a constant flow of it coming through now. We ask for people who want to donate to email us photographs and dimensions, and then we let them know whether it's suitable, or we if need it at the time because we've got really limited space. Then they deliver it to us. In that sense, everything is already approved before it gets here.

M – Is there anything you are always looking for? 

E- We're only looking for residential items. They must be new or in ‘as new’ condition. They must be fire regulation compliant and suitable for small homes with children.

If we are missing things, then sometimes we will reach out to companies who we've worked with already and they'll very kindly send us stuff, or we use wish lists to fill in gaps. But that tends to be for specific things that families have asked for, such as appliances or vacuum cleaners, mops, buckets, clothes horse etc.

M- Last month our team of decorators worked with you on ‘Project Duffy,’ supported by the Mayor of London. Could you talk to us a little more about how this came to be?   

E- It’s been a groundbreaking and innovative project to work on because this is the first time that any funding has been released by the Mayor's office to create trauma-informed, biophilic spaces in women's refuges.

We were honoured to win a significant amount of the funding for Furnishing Futures’ projects, and it is really exciting to see the importance and impact of trauma informed design and safe, comfortable living spaces recognised as integral to people's recovery. Your decorating team were such a godsend. They did everything so beautifully. I was absolutely blown away by them, and how lovely you all are and how much you helped us.

M – The project was designed by Interior Designer Clare Gaskin. How did you decide which studio to choose?

E - Clare and I trained together at KLC, we were in the same class. We had previously worked together to design a room for Design Havens For Heroes during the pandemic, so I knew that Clare would do an amazing job. It was a no brainer to ask her to do this. I knew she would listen and produce amazing spaces for the women and children.

M  - On Project Duffy, the refuges were designed with trauma informed design principles. Could you elaborate on what this means?

E- With trauma informed design you're working in a bespoke way to make sure that you don't trigger a trauma response in someone. You're asking that individual person, ‘what makes you feel safe?’ ‘What do you want your home to feel like?’ And, ‘what don't you want in your home?’ An example could be things like, ‘when I felt unsafe, in my previous home, we had a blue sofa. I don't want a blue sofa at home. That reminds me that this thing happened. And if I see blue sofas, I get really stressed.’

That's a simplistic way of putting it but you can understand you’re asking questions in a gentle way like you would with any design. In this scenario you’re looking for how we can minimise the flight or fight response in this person, and how can we soothe their nervous system through the environment that we're creating to make sure they feel safe in the space that they're in.

M - And is this different to Biophilic design?

E- There are overlaps, but Biophilic design is a set of design principles. It's a way of working where you understand the power of nature to support people's well-being and to essentially replicate a safe and abundant natural environment within the lived environment.

Biophilia is bringing in as many supportive natural references as possible to reassure the human brain that you're in a safe space. So that could be things like maximising natural light, making sure that you've got plants around. Perhaps it's about the motifs that you use, because there are certain patterns that the brain recognises as being in a safe environment. So, for example, fractal patterns like ferns, where the pattern is repeated in the family throughout the plant. But if you look at the fern leaf, the pattern is then repeated across each leaf into that tiny, tiny detail. The brain recognises that as being an abundant verdant landscape.

Prehistorically, we would have looked for a verdant place to create our home that maybe was near water where there was vegetation, but also where we could hide away privately whilst still being able to see predators on the horizon. So, you're thinking, where can I have a private space to be with my loved ones, but also have I got good sightlines so that I don't feel like someone could be lurking around the corner? And in that sense, it mirrors a lot of trauma informed design, but trauma informed design goes deeper than that, and has a slightly different slant. 

 M - Do you specifically work with interior designers who work with trauma informed design

 E- I haven't come across any design studios that that work in that way, or even usually know what it is. So, we take the lead on supporting anybody that we collaborate with to make sure that they understand what that means and will provide guidance and advice and information.

 For example, most of the furnishings that went into Project Duffy were things that we had at our warehouse.  Clare (the interior designer on the project), came in, and we went through each item together and decided together whether it would be suitable, and so on. We work very closely with any design studio that works with us.

 M – So it’s much more than just decoration?   

 E - We do a lot more than just the decoration. I'm still a registered social worker. Safeguarding and holistic support is absolutely at the centre of what we do. We take that really seriously and we also have a specialist support worker on our team who came to us from a women's refuge service.

 We also do risk assessments and safety planning, and provide advocacy and advice for the women that we work with, providing holistic wraparound support for as long as they need it afterwards. Most of the women we've worked with are still in touch with us up to two years afterwards. We also run weekly specialist support groups for survivors with another local charity. We do a lot of other work to support outside of just putting in furniture.

 All our staff are trained in safeguarding and trauma informed practice. So, we do joint training with our partner agencies, and all our staff are trained in how to work in a trauma-informed way.

You have to be careful to make sure that you don't do anything that could compromise people's safety, reveal who or where they are, or re-traumatise them through meaning well, but not really knowing what you're doing.


 M - In terms of the future of Furnishing Futures, what would you love to happen next? Is there anything on the horizon?

 E - We've just love to grow to support more families. We’d love to scale up. We would love to be able to raise more money to be able to do that. And we'd like to know that we had secure funding to be able to continue to do the work that we do because it's always a precarious position as a young charity. We'd like to be across London within three years.

 M - Is there anything individuals or companies can do to support Furnishing Futures?

 E - We always need suitable furniture, and we're always open to fundraising ideas. We can take corporate volunteers twice a year around sale points and we're looking for corporate partners who may want to donate product, but also to support us financially through CSR programmes. We're always looking for volunteers who are local to us in Leyton who might want to come in on a weekly basis and help in the warehouse.

 M – Thank you so much for your time, Emily.  

 E- Thank you to all your team for being so brilliant and doing such an amazing job. We're really proud of those rooms and we've had amazing feedback from Solace Women's Aid, who are the refuge providers. They're absolutely over the moon with it.



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Photography - Kirsty Noble 


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