“Proustian moments” are those involuntary floods of childhood memories that come to mind as a result of a taste or smell, made famous by a madeleine dipped in tea, a metaphor for nostalgia in the French novelist’s epic In Search of Lost Time. You may not readily find the shell-like sponge cake in Cornwall, but wave a Cornish pasty and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps under the nose of Orlebar Brown founder Adam Brown and he becomes misty-eyed with memories.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a small child,” says the handsome, long-limbed fashion entrepreneur. Sitting on the white sand dunes of Constantine Bay, he is wearing faded blue shorts and a light short-sleeved cotton shirt set off by a golden Cornish tan. His look embodies the tailored vision he first conceived for his casual apparel brand when he was refused entry to a restaurant in India in his swimming shorts. “I realised I didn’t want a swim-short, I needed a short I could swim in,” he says of the idea that launched his business, in 2007, and which was acquired by Chanel in 2018. The terms of the transaction were not disclosed, but Brown has continued to lead the business as the brand’s creative director.
Brown was born in Malaysia to expatriate parents. His first-ever plane journey was, as a seven-year-old, travelling to England to go to prep school. His life was subsequently quite disconnected from his parents, and so he would spend every childhood holiday in Cornwall, overlooking this very bay, with his beloved grandmother. “She was a wonderfully witty woman called Penelope Beaumont, who would bring my sister and I here every Easter and summer holiday,” he recalls. “She was wealthy but believed in simplicity to the point of eccentricity. At first, she rented a caravan until we graduated to a cottage. There was no TV or showers, but we loved it. We played canasta and Scrabble. We slept in sleeping bags with no sheets – she hated extravagance – and ate fried bread and Marmite, beans on toast, and mince and rice, which she’d put in a Thermos and take to the beach.”
It was Brown’s grandmother who taught him to surf and, he says, instilled within him the value of sitting on a rug and staring at the sea. “It was her way of grounding us. It’s a funny thing because the swimwear brand is so all-encompassing: people might imagine that, as the founder of that company, I would be spending my summers in The Hamptons or on Mykonos. But I came here. Trevose Headland is a point I have been looking at my entire life. I believe everyone holds a place within them that has a meaning, and here I have an understanding of where I am earthed in the world.”
Brown and his husband – the gregarious Tom Konig, a founder-member and owner of luxury-brand consultancy The Communications Store, who “retired’’ four years ago and now focuses on investing in emerging young businesses – continued to rent that same childhood cottage for 25 years. It wasn’t until two years ago, when the brand was sold, that the couple could look for their own house to buy. Their new home, a modern wood-clad property with four ground-floor bedrooms and a large beamed living space upstairs, is only a hundred yards from the wide sandy dunes. And from the huge floor-to-ceiling windows of their sitting room, they can look out onto the old cottage perched on the promontory on the far side of the bay.
“Cornwall represents a way of life we both grew up with,” says Konig as he lays their wooden table for lunch. He’s the first to admit that he and Brown are not the best of cooks. “I shop most days from the local Padstow farm shop. Twenty years ago, you had to scour the county to find a fresh herb; now I can find wonderful bread, fresh salads, homemade food and really excellent local cheeses. I love having my daily chat with the girls in the shop, who keep me updated on all the local gossip!”
Konig’s organic leanings are written in his DNA. He grew up in Ireland on a biodynamic farm. His grandfather, a famous doctor in Vienna who was a follower of the philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, fled the Nazis at the outbreak of war before going on to found the Camphill Communities, a global charity where people with special needs could live and work together. Farming, craft and cooking were a huge part of that life. “My parents ran one of the communities in Ireland, so I was brought up to value the meaning of community, to respect what comes from the soil, the importance of good food, and the beauty and contemplation that go into as well as come from great artisanal craft,” he says. “All of those childhood influences I find in Cornwall.”
The couple found their house located on a quiet road leading to the beach, and turned to designer Jonathan Reed to help bring the space to life. “We worked with Jonathan on our house in London. He is a friend of 34 years, and has stayed here with us for many of them – he gets this kind of life,” Brown explains. “We wanted a big space and lots of light. When we found this house it was a big, ugly rental, but we liked that the sitting room was upstairs and we knew that the frame for something lovely was here.”
Reed opened up the upstairs room, which is bright with expansive views of the sky, beach and dunes. “In three months, we turned it into a unique and individual home that reflects the boys’ personalities, their warmth and their relaxed attitudes,” says Reed. He timbered the ceilings and panelled the walls – both inside and out – and the floors were scrubbed to add texture. The beams were painted red and the walls a dusty green, inspired by what he calls “lifeboat-station colours”. The chimney well is clad in beaten metal. The result is graphic, industrial and comfortable – not unlike an airy boat shed.
The thinking behind every detail in this home is practical, as it has to survive wet shorts and three dogs. In front of the fireplace sits a large custom-made Planar sofa by The Conran Shop, strewn with squishy knitted Cairngorm wool cushions from knitwear brand The Good Shepherd. Next to it, an ottoman designed by Reed is upholstered in a textured Sinclair Till flatweave. “We play games on it like backgammon and Scrabble,” says Konig. “But this is also where we love lolling about and watching telly.” The room has been divided into three spaces: at one end is the kitchen and dining table, in the centre a communal sitting and TV area, and at the far end is a quiet work space with a pair of steel-framed sofas by Stephen Kenn, which look out to the sea. A large desk sits in front of wrought-iron bookshelves, both designed by Studio Reed.
Reed shares the couple’s love of craftsmanship and has used locally made elements wherever possible: the lamp bases were commissioned from the potter Chris Prindl and the huge willow log baskets are by Penzance basket-weaver Lin Lovekin. On the wooden shelves in the kitchen, earthy speckled pottery and wooden bowls that Konig inherited from his mother’s Irish kitchen sit alongside the ceramic dinner plates found at The Leach Pottery in St Ives. “It’s a regular pit stop when we go to The Gurnard’s Head pub for lunch in Zennor.” On the kitchen table, a wood-fired salt-glazed pot by John Webb is filled with huge white hydrangeas.
Downstairs in the spacious open-plan bedroom, olive-green and dark-orange felt curtains conceal the wardrobe space. Above the bed is a painting by friend and artist Graeme Black, its abstract olive greens, yellows and dirty oranges reflected in the luxurious Rose Uniacke cashmere Khumbu blankets on the bed. Next to this, doors lead out to a garden of grasses that weave and rustle in the sea breeze. It was conceived by Truro-based designer and landscaper Ben Rigby, whose skilful adaptation of the natural environment also lends the impression of bringing the beach path straight from the dunes to the front door.
Having a base in Cornwall has allowed the men the time to immerse themselves in the wider countryside. Both are keen walkers, and Konig recently had his very own Proustian moment when, thanks to his discovery of an app called I Walk Cornwall, they found a whole new world in the south: the bucolic hills near Fowey that lead down vertiginous pathways to smuggler’s coves, the verdant wood walks in the extraordinary Luxulyan Valley, and the famously magical Ethy Woods that run along the banks of the River Fowey from which, it is claimed, Kenneth Grahame took inspiration for The Wind in the Willows. “All that lush greenery took me right back to my own childhood when we walked for miles in the Mourne Mountains in County Down,” he says.
For Brown too, “life is all about exploring” – though not as one might expect. “I have always travelled but I think we all need to question how we do this, as I’m increasingly aware that with every holiday, you contribute to environmental damage. My company is looking at how to holiday better,” he says. “But then I realise that what I have on my own doorstep is everything I need. I don’t have to fly anywhere – I just have to walk to the waves.”