Big Interview with Michael Baxendale and Lizzie Sladen

Gallery Direct’s Michael Baxendale, Design Director, and Lizzie Sladen, Product Director, share their respective insights in a double interview that highlights trends, future plans and what needs changing.

Let’s start with you. Can you share a bit about yourself and your background?

Michael Baxendale: “I’ve always been interested in art and design, from as early as I can remember up to where I am now. I’d studied all creative fields available at school, before going to university where I studied Graphic Design. It doesn’t feel like it, but I’ve been with Gallery for over 10 years now as part of the Design team, which was my first job out of uni, and have experienced more than I thought I would, through areas of the business other than just Design.”

Lizzie Sladen: “I have been in the retail industry for nearly 15 years which makes me feel very old. It has flown by, working at four different companies with the longest stretch at John Lewis for 10 years. I joined on their Buying Graduate scheme so have been lucky to experience a wide range of Buying offices and products – from the more glamourous Fragrance and Make up to Blinds, Tracks and Poles! As a Textiles Design graduate, my favourite departments have firmly remained as Textiles and Upholstery & Furniture and I have spent most of my career buying for these departments. My role now covers all these departments alongside Home Accessories too so it’s great to be able to review products that I love day in day out.”

What is your current job role and key responsibilities?

Michael Baxendale: “My new role is Design Director, which I started in December. Before that I had been Head of Design for a number of years, where I’d helped shaped the look of the company to where it is now. As a Design team, in basic terms, we put together everything that makes us look the way we look. Initial Design Direction, product development and photography play massive parts in our overall projects each year, as well as support for all areas of the business throughout the year. I have more responsibilities now, but still love getting involved wherever I can.”

Lizzie Sladen: “My role is Product Director, so I work closely with our Product teams to drive the future range development – working both analytically and creatively to review the next big opportunities for our future ranges. I started this when returning from Maternity leave in December last year. I am the middle cog in the Gallery machine – working with stakeholders from all round the business as most things come back to products somehow! Alongside sourcing, I work on improvement projects or help resolve any challenges – this can be from warehousing and delivery, to customer services or quality teams.”

What do you love about your job?

Michael Baxendale: “The variety. Every day is different and has been for the last 10+ years. The good thing about being in a creative field is the freedom to constantly push yourself and what you produce, and to try something different (although not everyone is a fan when it’s too different!). While some of the tasks may be the same, we’re never content with just churning out the same thing. It keeps everyone wanting to better themselves and doesn’t create any boring days.”

Lizzie Sladen: “The variety, no day is the same. I think in Buying you have to expect the unexpected, and quickly get used to being flexible – what you thought was your plan for the day is always changing at the last minute.”

What time is your alarm clock set for?

Michael Baxendale: “I set my alarm for 6.15, knowing I’ll snooze it, before getting ready and coming to work. I’m lucky to work so close to home, so I don’t have to prepare myself for travel or anything like that!”

Lizzie Sladen: “My alarm clock is a little noisy 9-month-old, who can go off anywhere between 6 and 7am! We are still getting used to our new routine to co-ordinate us both getting ready and nursey drop offs. It feels a very long time ago since my previous early morning hike before work with a leisurely coffee whilst getting ready!”

Why did you choose to work in the furnishing industry?

Michael Baxendale: “If I’m honest, I didn’t actively pursue it. I was out of university and wanting to continue in Graphic Design, when a Creative Designer role opened at Gallery. I actually featured work from school including some 3D and Product Design, rather than Uni work, to help me get the role, and I’ve never looked back. I can’t see myself in any other industry right now, but you never know. Gallery has provided a platform that has allowed me to reach out to so many different areas of Design, and my interest in Interiors has developed so much that it would be difficult to find another area that would interest me as much.”

Lizzie Sladen: “I have always had a love for Textile design and manufacture. My Mum and Grandpa were creative and since a young age I have always drawn, sewn and painted with them. I went on to study Art and Textiles at both A Level and at Loughborough University. I was lucky to be placed in the Home Category in some of my first roles at John Lewis, which grew my passion further and allowed me to put my expertise in fabric to best use. I still do lots of making when I can – our house is filled with my cushions and paintings.”

Who do you most admire in the industry and why?

Michael Baxendale: “Quite a difficult question when I’ve only worked for Gallery, but there have been so many people that have been supportive and helped me along the way. The team at Gallery are amazing, and difficult to see past to be honest. I know I’m biased, but there’s a reason I’ve been here for as long as I have and one of the main reasons is the people that are here and have been over my career.”

Lizzie Sladen: “There are too many people to mention in person but for me it’s been many (and current) bosses that have supported me and empowered me to grow and develop in my roles. Those who have trusted me and given me opportunities to make decisions, (or make mistakes!!) Those who are totally themselves, no matter what the situation, and treat everyone the same no matter what level, value work life balance and create a positive culture. I have always tried to embody this and bring the same mentality in any leadership position I have been in – for me team always comes first.”

Have there been any special moments during your career?

Michael Baxendale: “I feel extremely lucky to have experienced what I have in my career so far, and the progression that I have been on makes it difficult to pinpoint any in particular. Seeing one of my designs in a shop for the first time was quite a personal achievement, but as were each of my promotions or even just getting the job!”

Lizzie Sladen: “Each promotion or new job has always been a highlight. Some have come easier than others but always required a great deal of hard work and investment of time and energy. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had and have a lot of gratitude for all those who have supported me along the way. Particularly in the last year or so when I found myself in a difficult position following the closure of Made.com. It was overwhelming to receive the number of kind messages and offers of help from many contacts right across the Furniture industry.”

What is your favourite item of furniture you own and why?

Michael Baxendale: “Probably the first piece I bought when I moved into my own place, a chair that was part of one of our first furniture launches. Not only is it a favourite for sentimental reasons, but it’s also just a beautiful chair that sits perfectly wherever it’s put.”

Lizzie Sladen: “My solid oak dining table – it was the first real piece of furniture I brought after many years of living in furnished rental flats in London or making do with hand me down pieces.  It’s a very timeless shape, fully extends so we can host 12 people comfortably. Hopefully it will stay with us for many years to come, even if we change the décor around it, and have lots more fun dinner parties!”

What do you think is trending within the industry at present?

Michael Baxendale: “Organic shapes, bold, indulgent colours are really starting to have their presence shown. The curved shapes in upholstery and interesting finishes in wood are creating focal points in rooms, mixed with bold accessories and indulgent fabrics. There’s also warmth in those finishes, creating cosier spaces which show the diverse style of some of these pieces.”

Lizzie Sladen: “I still see continuation of organic shapes and soft textures. I think the world still feels like a scary place and creating a warm cocoon and retreat-like home is still very important to people, to feel cosy and safe. Our Gallery ranges have picked up this trend and we are looking to expand this further in 2025 new developments. I love some of the curved sofas and warm neutral tones coming through. I am not sure customers will be ready for the peach colour of the year but versions of it with lovely terracotta tones are looking really strong on Textiles and accessories in particular.”

What would you change in the industry?

Michael Baxendale: “As an industry I think it’s incredibly inclusive, fun, challenging and rewarding, so there isn’t much I would change to be honest. Creative industries like interiors encourage change, so from a design side, I think it’s pretty great!”

Lizzie Sladen: “For me the FR regulations around upholstery fabrics are something I find myself battling with. Whilst we would always adhere to rules (and I am sure they are there for a reason), it always makes me a little frustrated when you work hard to source sustainable materials only to have to coat them with FR finishes, which makes it hard to recycle and often loses the soft or delicate handles. I really admire those in the industry researching and innovating in inherent and greener processes.”

Can you share an insight into your future plans?

Michael Baxendale: “To continue what we’re doing! The teams are always working on ways to develop year on year, and this year won’t be any different. I’m looking forward to pushing on in my new role and seeing where the teams can take us in the future.”

Lizzie Sladen: “This year will be the first far east travel for me in a little while so I am excited to get back out to some factories and be hands on with product development. We are working hard on our new design styles and putting new development in place for 2025.”

What do you enjoy most outside of work / free time?

Michael Baxendale: “Mainly spending time with loved ones. I’m lucky enough to have a good network of family and friends, so we’re constantly visiting or catching up over the weekends. I’m also getting married soon, so the planning for that has been keeping us busy!”

Lizzie Sladen: “I’m an outdoor and sports girl through and through. I crave being outside all day whilst sat at my desk! Most weekends are taken up with Gym classes and hiking in the countryside. We are very lucky to have green space on our doorstep so try to embrace it as often as possible.”

What might someone not know about you?

Michael Baxendale: “I was a bike mechanic for just over 5 years, both servicing and repairing bikes, and was asked to join a tour just before I joined Gallery!”

Lizzie Sladen: “I started my Buying Career in ladies fashion, sourcing knitwear! The office space was always covered in samples and was extremely very hot and stuffy.”

If you had a different career, what would it be?

Michael Baxendale: “I had quite a keen interest in maths at school, so would have probably pursued that, maybe a career in banking or finance! I also love motor racing, so I would have loved to have tried to make a name for myself in that!”

Lizzie Sladen: “I would have loved to be a professional sports woman as a dream career, but when I was younger there were little opportunities to do this if you aren’t tall enough for tennis or rowing! I competed at international level but not in a sport that had professional opportunities. If I changed career now, I’d love to be a florist! I love plants and flowers – I did all our own flowers for our wedding which people think is crazy, but I absolutely loved it and it was one of my favourite parts of the wedding prep.”

Finally, if you were an item of furniture, what would it be and why?

Michael Baxendale: “Probably one of our occasional chairs – they’re happy to sit anywhere and support a room, and hopefully elevate it sometimes!”

Lizzie Sladen: “I have always said a sofa bed to this question when asked! I try to be flexible, and support others in whatever their need is. I’m happy to sit back and empower others or to come forward to take the lead, just like a sofa bed will fold away or be the main piece.”

More about Gallery Direct on the Big Furniture Show

Five Fun qs:

1) If you could hack into any one computer, whose computer would you choose and why?

Michael Baxendale: “Elon Musk! The projects and companies he’s involved in are doing some pretty out there things, so that could be fun to see.”

Lizzie Sladen: “Tim Peak – I would love to see what he is up to and how you could possibly top going into space. Hopefully there would be some simulators on there too so I could have a go in a rocket and try my hand at some tasks in the space station!”

2) What fact amazes you every time you think of it?

Michael Baxendale: “The infinite size of space. It’s one of those things that we won’t ever fully understand which is both sad and amazing at the same time.”

Lizzie Sladen: “How deep the ocean is. Mount Everest can fit and still have room!”

3) What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

Michael Baxendale: “Probably proposing a couple of years ago while skiing on our last run of the day, mainly because nobody ever thought I would actually ever do it!”

Lizzie Sladen: “Flew to Nepal and walked to Everest base camp. I had the flights booked and went within a couple of weeks, which now seems incredibly brave and slightly bonkers.”

4) What is the most important object you own and why?

Michael Baxendale: “I love my first car, a classic mini which is just a year younger than me, which I am proud to say I still own. It’s been on a journey, but I still own it and it is currently sat on our drive, halfway through a restoration project. No matter how many headaches it gives me, I can’t bear to part ways with it and probably never will. It’s one of those items that I can remember nearly every interaction with it, even after 15 years.”

Lizzie Sladen: “Furniture-wise it would have to be two vintage ercol dining chairs. We found them in my Grandparents loft when they sadly had passed away. It’s incredible how they still look on trend and co-ordinate so well with contemporary pieces, as well as giving us a lovely daily reminder of them.”

5) What did you think was cool when you were young but isn’t cool now?

Michael Baxendale: “Too many things to count!”

Lizzie Sladen: “I am a 90’s child so everything is just coming back in fashion from my childhood now! Most of the clothes and the music seem to be coming back round. Sadly, I no longer have my baggy cargo trousers!”

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