A pit stop in a pub doesn’t usually involve locating the bar behind a painting, pulling out a secret set of steps then clambering into a compact space that could accommodate four punters and a barman, at a push. This was the case, however, when I stumbled across The Admiral Benbow in St Leonards-on-Sea, a former public house ingeniously re-envisaged by designer Philip Oakley.
Today, the 1833 building is part workshop, part living space (where the tiny bar is to be found), part shop and all spectacle: a showcase of Oakley’s “out of the ordinary lighting”, from Hollywood-esque illuminated mirrors (from £900) to his signature metal-edged anchors, letters, hearts and stars (from £850). These retro-tinged creations may be familiar to those who frequent Richard James on Savile Row and Start in Shoreditch, both of which were designed by Oakley. “I also recently did a neon portrait of the Queen for the jubilee at Richard James, and I’ve done about 20 years’ worth of Christmas windows for them,” he says.
Yet, despite the seasonal appeal of brightly coloured lights – and Oakley even has a stint at the famous Blackpool Illuminations under his belt – the festive spirit came to St Leonards early this year: at an open-house event in September, Father Christmas could be found doing a spot of welding in the workshop. “That’s because he lives next door,” explains Oakley. “He’s a visual merchandiser, generally, but also a professional Santa Claus.”
Taking part in such events is new to Oakley, who only opened up shop earlier this year. “The majority of my work is still London-based, but it’s amazing who shows up in St Leonards. We get visitors from all over. We’ve had a chandelier-maker from Venice come in, and someone from Levi’s in Holland.” And in turn, they can never be sure what will appear at The Admiral Benbow, as the ground-floor, grotto-like store also houses Oakley’s vintage collection: pieces “pulled out of old funfairs or once strapped to a lamp-post on the seafront. They are quite affordable things, starting at about £150.”
His favourite design at the moment, though, is of a more personal nature. A giant neon heart formed from words spoken by the priest at his mother’s funeral, it is both beautiful and arresting. And, as with the metal letters, neon works can be made to order (£1,000-£10,000). “People tend to think very carefully about these commissions,” says Oakley, who has also devised a more impulsive purchase. “Our entry-level illumination is the Fun of the Fair Light [£49.50]; a single fairground bulb with a braided cable.” Surely, a bright addition to any stocking.