Alex MacArthur: a magical interiors emporium in East Sussex

A former Augustinian friary in Rye hides some giant secrets – with decorative lighting and furniture sourced by an antique dealer to make a grand statement

Alex MacArthur in her eponymous store set in a 14th-century former Augustinian friary
Alex MacArthur in her eponymous store set in a 14th-century former Augustinian friary | Image: Sophia Spring

I love big pieces, both in terms of scale and impact, and there are no limits here,” says antique dealer Alex MacArthur of her eponymous store set in a 14th-century former Augustinian friary. It might be in an under-the-radar location in the town of Rye on the East Sussex coast, but it’s one giant secret: a 650sq m building that she discovered, derelict and dusty, in 2014.

MacArthur ran a store in Brighton until 2012, then opened her Regency townhouse home there to clients, but her choice of stock was always limited by what she could fit through a standard front door. Now, with huge 2.1m x 1.5m wooden chapel doors at “The Monastery”, she can indulge her passion for grand, oversized architectural pieces from the 17th century through to the 1980s. Visits are by appointment only to ensure that MacArthur – who lives in a renovated Georgian cottage attached to the building – can give each client a personal tour, often accompanied by her three faithful dogs.

One of MacArthur’s specialities is customising 1960s Parisian Holophane streetlights (£1,500 each) for domestic use
One of MacArthur’s specialities is customising 1960s Parisian Holophane streetlights (£1,500 each) for domestic use | Image: Sophia Spring

On entry, the sound of strings, the waft of incense and the flicker of candles create a multisensory experience, blurring any sense of period or place. The building’s main hall downstairs hosts MacArthur’s enormous statement pieces, averaging over 2m in height, such as an Edwardian pond yacht (£1,950) and a pair of huge art deco lanterns (£7,950) with etched glass and bronze frames.

Devoted clients – a mix of hoteliers, interior designers and private customers – come seeking decorative statement pieces, such as an imposing 3.5m-long bronze bull that she shipped over from Turin and that stood at her store before a client snapped it up for their sculpture garden. Lighting is a trademark and one of her specialities is customising 1960s Parisian Holophane streetlights (£1,500 each) for domestic use, often by adding brass detailing. She says many clients use them in stairwells: at The Monastery they are hung either pendant-style from the vaulted ceiling of the upper hall or clustered together in an arresting group. 

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The varied spaces in the building – painted in deep, dark colours – allow her to satisfy her love of putting interiors vignettes together. In one corner of the upstairs hall sit midcentury Spanish wrought-iron occasional tables (from £295) with a six-tier Murano-glass chandelier (£7,500) overhead. Meanwhile, a small chamber off the upper hall offers a cosy scene: an orange Gae Aulenti leather Sgarsul rocking chair (£2,250), a baroque wood and gilt screen (£3,600) and a rare 19th-century zebra head (£4,950) by British taxidermist Rowland Ward.

“I am drawn to strong pieces with clean lines that make a big impact,” says MacArthur, but there are smaller pleasures dotted here and there too, such as glass cake stands (from £25), 1960s Murano-glass vases (from £295) and oak-framed 19th-century pressed flowers (£225).

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