TOAST Magazine

TOAST Portraits | Susan Hay

STYLE & STORIES

For the series TOAST Portraits, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces – some archive, some new –  have stood the test of time. First up was Katy Brett, then Genevieve DuttonDawn Worsley, Kat Bazeley and Meg Brooks, now we meet Susan Hay.

There are some people, says Susan Hay, whose calling is clear. Take her husband, Alistair: “Practicing or not, he will always be an architect.” But, for Susan, it’s a little different.

At the end of a day spent together in her hometown of Bath, I remark on how she has swung from one vocation to the next over the course of her life to date, each time with the full-hearted urgency of a child on monkey bars. “Yes, Al thinks I change my mind all the time,” she says, resting a sandwich on the side of her plate. “But I’m a Gemini. I’m okay with changing course. Life changes – and if I get interested in something, I drill down into it.”

Susan has, variously, worked as an architect’s project manager, run a network of nurseries, founded and run a cancer charity, written for architecture journals, been a florist, owned a community arts space, completed an MA in gallery architecture and consulted for museums. Still, far from veering rudderlessly between interests, her work has always constellated around the design of spaces, how they are used, and their impact on the people that use them.

Walking into the Hays’ flat reveals a space as carefully-considered as you would expect from someone with Susan’s background and her architect spouse. I instantly covet their green velvet sofa; there’s a Tolomeo wall lamp, a large long white table overlooking some hills topped with Bath stone houses, and a dimly-lit kitchen where the image of a young boy hangs next to a naïf crayon drawing of the sea and the sky. I later learn this is a picture of Cornwall by their youngest son, Adam. 

The Hays moved here from the Cornish Camel Valley 18 months ago, when Alistair’s medical needs – he has Parkinson’s – demanded closer proximity to Bristol hospital’s neurology department. They’d been in Cornwall for over 10 years, having turned a barn next to their house into Hay Studio, a creative hub for the community (hosting music recitals, supper clubs, exhibitions and film screenings) and (to make it pay) a photography location. Moving to Bath has been a process of swapping the bucolic for the urban, the kinship of village life for a quieter existence, but – true to form – Susan has embraced the change. They sold all their furniture, keeping only their most treasured belongings, and started over.  

Her clothes are no exception. An in-built bedroom wardrobe contains a neat edit of pieces including an abundance of TOAST’s white shirts, from various seasons. None of them are the same – some have a front placket, others have no collar, others still a collar detail; some are crisp and some are soft – but all of them are long, and all of them go with many of the other things Susan wears – tailored trousers, jeans, the odd skirt. “I know what I like, and I know what fits me,” she says. “The clothes I buy don’t tend to be so fitted that they lose their shape – I’ve never thought about shaping myself, I just want to be able to move freely.” Though she knew of TOAST when the family was still living in London, it wasn’t until they moved to Cornwall that the “workman-like sturdiness” of the clothes really came into their own.

She goes on, “I’m very much a neutral colours person – people comment on that.” And she is right: the row of hanging clothes is a sea of neutrality – black, white, cream, grey, ecru – and midweight fabrics. Like the cropped, wide-leg beige trousers she is wearing today with a soft tie-collar shirt, an ensemble she spotted in the Bath TOAST shop window and liked because it had “something safari about it”. Feeling herself in her clothes is important to Susan, whatever the occasion. She wore a TOAST piece to her daughter Holly’s wedding two winters ago, a sleeveless velvet cocktail dress that was “neutral enough but with a golden sheen”, determined that it would not only be something she’d wear more than once, but representative of her everyday style: “I didn’t want to look different just because it was my daughter’s wedding. I wanted people to recognize me, to be my true self.”

Susan left school wanting to study history of art and Italian, but for one reason or another felt shoe-horned into an economics degree. Though this didn’t feel like – to use Susan’s words – her true self, she has always managed to find a ways to fulfil her creative interests. After university, she started working at Alistair’s practice and when they had their first child, Neil, she turned her attention to nurseries – not just a nursery for Neil himself, but a nursery system to make returning to work easier for mothers, with spaces that felt tailored to children. To this end, she set up Nursery Works, a company that designed nurseries “from the floor”, with an emphasis on how little people experience the world – such as low-down heating and viewing panels in doors, consistent surfaces and flooring without thresholds, plenty of natural light and open plan rooms so that children of all ages mix and learn from one another. Nursery Works was supported by businesses who employed the very people that needed their services, funding that enabled the high level of care that Susan wanted for her own children, and subsidising the fees for working mothers.

I ask if they followed a nursery model – Montessori or Steiner, perhaps – and Susan tells me, “We created our own curriculum, but drew on other people’s doctrines. Reggio Emilia was the one I most liked – it’s a concept that thinks of children and adults as co-protagonists on a project, posing questions like ‘Who’s doing the learning and who the teaching?’” Reading up later, I fall upon a quote by the philosophy’s originator, Loris Malaguzzi: “Creativity seems to emerge from multiple experiences, coupled with a well-supported development of personal resources, including a sense of freedom to venture beyond the known.” Though the original meaning of this sentence relates to children, it makes me think of Susan, and to how a multiplicity of pursuits has helped her to access her unique creativity.

Nursery Works was eventually sold to an equivalent American company, Bright Horizons, in 2000, though Susan stayed on as Managing Director for a few years, becoming heavily involved with the public policy surrounding childcare and working women. Around this time, her younger son, Adam, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer affecting the nerve cells that follow the line of a child’s spinal cord. He died, aged 12. I think back to the photograph of the boy on the kitchen wall. Susan talks with gentle matter-of-factness about Adam’s death now, explaining how the bereavement changed her course, “I suppose I transferred the ‘every child matters’ principle that grew up with Nursery Works to healthcare after he died. We set up the Adam Hay Fund, which each year gives a nursery nurse some budget to bring to life a project of the children’s conception. It always has to be something that Adam would’ve loved.” The Cornish seascape picture, next to his photo, betrays an artistic boy.

The south-west beckoned soon after. There were the Cornwall years, and now Bath, where Susan has split her time between a masters degree, Alistair’s medical appointments and, now, an advisory role at the Holbourne Museum, home to a collection of 18th and 19th century paintings, which she hopes to help diversify its audience. Susan is right about herself, she dives deep into whatever she does single-mindedly, even if that is not one, but many, things. Her interests have served important and particular purposes for her at different times – of floristry she says, "it was nice to do something manual, tactile, at that time in my life, just after Adam died" – but there is a steely determination to (true to her name) make hay – whether or not the sun shines.

Words by Mina Holland. Photography by Elena Heatherwick.

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