The art of living
Jonny Ensall spends at night at ex-fashion designer Wallace Shaw’s very special Leith B&B
W edged into a single floor of a beautiful Edinburgh classical revival block, Wallace’s Arthouse is a unique B&B with charm in spades. The two-bedroom home from home has been open since 2009, when Shaw – a veteran of B&B ownership from a four-year term in Spoleto, Italy – decided he would return to his home country. After, he says, ‘looking and looking and looking’ he found the right place.
‘I had a very nice B&B that had been part of a bishop’s palace in Spoleto – a 15th century building – so I wanted something that would have the same sort of drama within it.’ He hit upon Leith’s 19th century Assembly Rooms, once a grand hub of activity for the area’s wealthy merchant classes, now taken over for residential and commercial purposes. Inside Shaw’s flat there are two large guest bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, and Shaw’s own quarters, containing a stashed baby grand piano for backroom concerts. Paintings, drawings and quirky antiques line the walls, shelves and floors reflecting the worldwide span of Shaw’s interest in culture.
The real intrigue within this set- up is not the art, however, but the collector. Shaw, though he mocks the term, has lived what most would describe as an exotic life, as a top fashion designer for various companies including Donna Karan. ‘I was with Pringle of Scotland when I left art school,’ he explains, ‘and I was there long enough to become their design director. Then I moved to America to be design director of Dawson International’s American arm, and started travelling Hong Kong. After that to
PAINTINGS, DRAWINGS AND QUIRKY ANTIQUES LINE THE WALLS, SHELVES AND FLOORS
I got headhunted by Donna Karan to be a specialist in cashmere. And then I became design director for sweaters for her new men’s division.’ As he talks about his past lifestyle on New York’s Upper East Side anecdotes concerning Donna Karan’s more eccentric behaviour it’s evident there’s a wealth of stories stacked behind Shaw’s perfect host- demeanour and (surprisingly) run- of-the-mill tank top. and drops
When I arrive for a night’s stay he greets me with a glass of Prosecco and a brief tour, showing me the beautiful and bittersweet broken teapot collection that he still cherishes – ‘$400-500 each Chinese Yi-Shing teapots,’ he laments. ‘The builders pulled out the drawer they were in and down they came’ – and the Venus de Milo statuette covered in a brown paper smock that he bought from a Columba’s St
charity shop. The statue is clothed, he tells me, ‘because obviously the ladies were a bit embarrassed by her nakedness.’ Shaw has also made her a tiny cashmere sweater to keep out the chill. The rest of my stay is just as sweet, with Shaw making sure I have soft bacon rolls and coffee in the morning and an open invite to return at any time for a hearty night of drinking. Yet, throughout I can’t help wondering if Leith really does trump New York, Hong Kong or the Apennine foothills of Spoleto? ‘You know when I was working in the Borders I used to come up to Edinburgh a lot and I loved the quality of Leith,’ Shaw reminisces. ‘I loved the buildings and the character, so I always had it in the back of my mind that Leith was an
interesting place . . . Of course I love going back to New York to enjoy the stimulus of the life there, but there’s more than one way of living a life.’ Shaw sees his B&B as being another way of connecting with people – learning from and inputting into people’s lives. ‘Instead of obsessing, “god will long sleeves with rips in them be in”, I now obsess “god will these people like cornflakes or muesli”. It’s just another way of being involved.’
41/4 Constitution Street, Leith, 07941 343714. £85 double occupancy; £65 single occupancy (£95; £75 Jun–Sep). www.wallacesarthousescotland .com