Just before the pandemic started, Sonya Mallett left her job at shoe manufacturer, Start-Rite, to set up her own business as a home stylist.

At first, it didn’t feel like the best timing, but it allowed her a chance to do things slowly, to test out what worked. And as the pandemic rolled on, there was a surge in the number of people wanting to do up their homes.

Naturally, enforced lockdowns meant that more people spent more time at home. Suddenly they decided that they didn’t like their spaces as much as they thought they did, or that it was no longer fit for purpose.

Their homes suddenly had to do everything; to be a school class room, a home office and the gym, as well as a place to rest and relax. Whole rooms had to be reconfigured, layouts changed, and it soon became a prime time for those, like Sonya, who could offer a helping hand.

Eastern Daily Press: Sonya Mallett launched her new home styling business just before the pandemicSonya Mallett launched her new home styling business just before the pandemic (Image: Sonya Mallett)

“I think suddenly people realised the importance of their home and that kind of security,” she says. “We spent, on and off, 18 months literally in our four walls, didn’t we? So I think people wanted to make it more personal and reflect their own personality.”

As the pandemic unfolded, greater willingness to use technology also helped, she says, as it allowed her to branch out more widely, more quickly. “Initially I just promoted myself as a Suffolk home stylist, just centring around Suffolk,” she explains. “Obviously with the pandemic you couldn’t visit anybody, so everything was done through Zoom.”

In fact, she believes that the pandemic has changed people’s whole perception of technology, making them more accepting and more willing to try new things.

Even now, out of lockdown, Sonya’s consultations – which usually involve meeting clients face-to-face, walking through a property, understanding what people enjoy doing, and for whom and how the space will be used – have taken place remotely, completed via Zoom on a laptop, tablet or phone and followed up with inspiration from Pinterest.

It’s allowed her to work across Norfolk, Suffolk and further afield. “It’s perfect,” she says. “I always offer a 60-minute consultation with people to start with, which is just good to do through Zoom to find out what it is they want.”

Sonya offers a range of services, from home styling and home staging – so far the most popular – to personal shopping and a home moving service. But a large part of her job, she says, is challenging the perception – and sometimes even the stigma – around interior design.

Eastern Daily Press: Sonya likes neutral and earthy tonesSonya likes neutral and earthy tones (Image: Sonya Mallett)

She wants to make interior design as accessible as it can be, even down to her business’ name, which positions her as a home stylist, not an interior designer. “I think sometimes there’s a perception an ‘interior designer’ is out of reach of people,” she says. “Home stylist just felt a little bit more connected with people, a little more accessible.

“I know so many people who say ‘oh, I can’t afford your services’, so I say ‘let’s have a look at what it is you want’”, she says. “Then I can arrange a quote, because I tend to do a package price, and everybody knows where they are. And they go ‘oh, it wasn’t quite as expensive as I thought it was going to be!’

“That’s the thing – everyone suddenly thinks you’ve got to have a four-figure budget and it’s not like that at all. A lot of the time people are just wanting advice on what colour scheme to go with.”

Talking to Sonya (over Zoom, of course), it’s clear to see how passionate she is, not just about her business but about her love of design.

Eastern Daily Press: Sonya likes to work with earthy tones and natural materials in her own spaceSonya likes to work with earthy tones and natural materials in her own space (Image: Sonya Mallett)

She grew up in Ipswich, studied textiles at Bolton Institute and then lived in Manchester for over a decade, where she worked in the sports industry for brands such as Reebok and New Balance. After that, she returned to Suffolk and worked at the children’s footwear company, Start-Rite, before deciding to move away from the “corporate rat race”.

She believes her background in the sports industry helps, even now – particularly when it comes to responding to a client’s brief. “My natural style is that I am very much about the earthy tones,” she says. “Neutral, more minimalist. I’m not about all bright colours.

“However, when I used to work with designers, and used to create footwear, I was able to see what was commercial, what’s right for the consumer. Ultimately it’s the client that is most important.”

Part of Sonya’s role, she says, is to include a couple of ideas that the client may not have thought about. “The way I look at it is that they are contacting me because they’re in a little bit of a muddle,” she says. “It’s kind of for me to say ‘this is what you say you want, this is what you could have, and this is just going out at the boundaries’”.

Eastern Daily Press: Throughout the pandemic, Sonya says she's used technology to complete work for clientsThroughout the pandemic, Sonya says she's used technology to complete work for clients (Image: Sonya Mallett)

Offering three options simply gives more scope – and suddenly the client who said they hated green is pleasantly surprised by suggestions of a new sage-green sofa.

Interior design is trend-driven, a lot like the fashion industry, Sonya says, although it’s something she tries to steer away from. “I’m not really one just to find the trends for the sake of trends,” she admits. “I’m very much sort of a timeless style, and I think it’s far better.

“Obviously you’ve got the whole sustainability thing and over-consumerism, but I’d much prefer to spend money on one or two really good-quality pieces that are timeless, that are going to look fantastic in five or 10 years’ time, rather than jumping on to the next.”

In fact, Sonya believes that sustainability, now, is less of a trend and more of an expectation – much like the approach seen in the fashion industry.

Eastern Daily Press: The living space in Sonya's homeThe living space in Sonya's home (Image: Sonya Mallett)

“People’s viewpoint has changed,” she says. “It started a lot within the fashion industry – fast fashion suddenly is actually no longer that on trend – and, for me, you should use your home almost the same way that you use your wardrobe. Good quality pieces are going to last far longer than, you know, something you pick up in H&M or Primark or wherever it may be.

“I think people are just a little bit more aware, and I think especially at the moment, everyone’s so worried about the cost of living, inflation and, you know, spending money on things that might just look dated in six months’ time. People just don’t want that anymore. They want something that’s going to have that longevity.”

Of course, it’s still possible to enjoy both. Sonya predicts that earthy tones and textures will continue to dominate as people opt for things like wood panelling and textured tiles, and she predicts that more organic shapes, like curved furniture, will continue to do well.

“It’s more of a high-end trend at the minute,” she says, “but I can see it’s going to end up filtering down. There are some really amazing sofas and chairs out there, but it’s quite premium, top designer stuff. Again, it’s the same as fashion – it’s only a matter of time before you see it in the high street.”

No job seems too big or too small for Sonya, whether it’s choosing a new colour scheme, arranging removal services, working with estate agents to stage a home or helping someone to declutter and organise.

But what, I ask, would be her dream project? “A complete renovation,” she says, reflexively. “A chance to style every room. That would be amazing.”

To find out how Sonya could help you freshen up your space, find her on Instagram at @sonya_the_home_stylist or visit her website at sonyathehomestylist.co.uk

Got a story? Get in touch with me at rebecca.macnaughton@archant.co.uk