The first time kitchen designers Paul O’Leary, 59, and Helen Parker, 58, were recognised in New York, it felt surreal.
Accosted in a bar in Manhattan by an American fan and asked if they would mind posing for a selfie, the couple from the East Midlands said a polite but very bemused, yes.
Nowadays, it’s totally normal for them to be mobbed on their frequent trips to New York — while in the UK almost nobody knows who they are.
Their sudden fame is thanks to O’Leary and Parker’s appearance on the Emmy-nominated reality show For The Love Of Kitchens, originally broadcast on U.S. DIY channel Magnolia Network but since picked up by HBO and Discovery+ (where you can now watch it in the UK).
Since it first aired in August 2021, the couple at the helm of deVOL Kitchens — based in less-than-starry Loughborough, Leicestershire — have become huge celebrities in America, where everyone wants one of their bespoke, handmade refits.
Paul O’Leary, 59, and Helen Parker, 58, the couple at the helm of deVOL Kitchens — based in less-than-starry Loughborough, Leicestershire — have become huge celebrities in America
Revered for its nostalgic design style, the company is spearheading a trend for kitchens with pared-back Georgian cabinetry, aged taps and tall, double-door larders which hark back to the grand, below-stairs cooking spaces in sprawling country estates.
Such is the power of reality TV in the U.S. that turnover has more than doubled since the show first aired: from £16 million in 2020, to a predicted £35 million this year. DeVOL now boasts the biggest following for a furniture maker on Instagram, with 720,000 followers.
‘Loads of Americans come to our London showroom as a special part of their trip,’ says deVOL creative director Parker.
‘While back in sleepy Loughborough nobody recognises us and most of our friends haven’t even bothered to watch the show.
‘My sister and her husband found it hilarious when I was recognised in a restaurant in Belsize Park, North London, and couldn’t stop laughing about it.’
It all started when they opened a showroom in Manhattan, New York in April 2019, which very quickly attracted Americans who wanted an ‘English kitchen’.
There is something rather Downton Abbey about deVOL’s open shelves, muted colours, turned legs on tables and islands, and vintage- inspired kitchenware.
Company founder O’Leary, however, points out that it’s an aesthetic the Americans have long loved. ‘We are just making kitchens like they made 150 years ago, like the Shaker kitchen in New England.
DeVOL Kitchens is leading a trend for kitchens with pared-back Georgian cabinetry, aged taps and tall, double-door larders which hark back to the grand, below-stairs cooking spaces in sprawling country estates
Paul is inspired by the belief that everyone loves kitchens that remind them of their own childhood
‘I wish everyone would stop trying to redesign kitchens and make them more modern,’ he adds, ‘because it’s quite clear what everyone loves. They love kitchens that remind them of their childhood.’
The Manhattan showroom was a huge financial commitment for what was then a very small outfit. To refurb the space cost around £1 million — about four times what they had originally thought — and took a gruelling seven months.
‘It was scary — foolhardy even,’ says O’Leary. ‘Once we’d signed a 15-year lease, we had to be confident that it would pay off.’
The night before the grand opening, they received an unexpected request for a private tour.
Two people called Chip and Joanna Gaines apparently wanted a personal preview.
‘We had no idea who they were and wanted to conserve our energy for the opening,’ says Parker. ‘But then we found out they had ten million followers on Instagram and thought we’d better do it!’
It turned out that Chip and Joanna, from Waco, Texas, were DIY TV VIPs, having built up a fan base and an empire worth more than £40 million, on the back of their popular American TV programme Fixer Upper.
‘They rocked up in a big black sedan, wearing cowboy hats and boots, with a baby and an entourage in tow,’ says Helen. ‘But they were very down to earth. By the end of the tour, they’d asked Paul if he’d do a ten-minute slot on telly.’
There is something rather Downton Abbey about deVOL’s open shelves, muted colours, turned legs on tables and islands, and vintage- inspired kitchenware
So successful was it, a series soon followed.
For The Love Of Kitchens, starring Paul, Helen and their creative team, is now in its second season. The show follows the design duo as they magic up unique kitchens for their stylish customers in the UK, who sometimes pay eye-watering sums.
The average price of a deVOL kitchen is £20,000 but some projects involving several rooms — clients might want a boot room or even a ‘present-wrapping room’ — can reach six figures.
As well as unpicking the design process, the show follows the personable designers on ‘finding’ trips to antique markets and inspirational visits to country houses.
It’s Britain scrubbed up and wearing its Sunday best, with the same nostalgic attraction as a period costume drama or a show such as The Great British Bake Off, which has proved catnip for Americans.
A couple for 14 years now, each with two children from first marriages, Parker and O’Leary swear they haven’t been changed by their new-found celebrity status.
In fact, O’Leary is positively bullish about his unkempt look, which is something of a trademark. ‘I have a phobia about hairdressers,’ he laughs. ‘I’m a designer, not a celeb!’
He’s quick to point out that he comes from lowly beginnings. After graduating in product design from Loughborough University, he says he ‘failed at lots of things’, including restoring classic cars, before eventually paint-stripping doors for cash.
Paul and Helen have been a couple for 14 years now, each with two children from first marriages. They swear they haven’t been changed by their new-found celebrity status
Helen was recruited by O’Leary 19 years ago when she was working in a deli in Loughborough, where he used to get his lunch
It took three years for him and business partner Phillip DeVries to save up enough money to buy a second-hand circular saw to start making and restoring furniture.
In 1989 they set up deVOL (a combination of their two names which happens to spell LOVED backwards).
‘People were into free-standing kitchens in the 1990s and we’d find old furniture and remake it to hold sinks and cupboards,’ he says.
The factory complex in Loughborough, where all deVOL products are handmade, houses a carpentry workshop, metal foundry, ceramics studio and antiques repository, employing more than 350 people and 100 design graduates.
‘Paul’s great talent is spotting good people and persuading them to work with him,’ says Helen. She was herself recruited by O’Leary 19 years ago when she was working in a deli in Loughborough, where he used to get his lunch.
‘I was about to hit 40 and a single mother of two. Paul jumped in my car and asked me if I’d come and work for him selling kitchens. I thought he was crazy.’
A few years later, the pair had become a couple and by 2011, Helen was responsible for deVOL’s now much-imitated style. ‘If Paul hadn’t taken a chance on me, I could have had a completely different life,’ she says.
In a cost-of-living crisis, a deVOL refit might seem out of reach to most people. But Paul insists there are cheaper ways of doing it.
A big budget isn’t necessary to create the deVOL sentiment, according to Paul. He advises not buying everything from a kitchen company, just choosing some key pieces
The pair advise sourcing reclaimed furniture to complement statement pieces bought from a kitchen company
‘You don’t need a big budget to create the deVOL sentiment. Don’t buy everything from a kitchen company. Just go for some key pieces — and don’t go for cheap imitations.’
Helen’s kitchen is a perfect example, he says: ‘She has a run of four cupboards made by deVOL housing a sink, dishwasher and double bin.
‘All the other furniture in the kitchen is reclaimed, including an antique pine cupboard used as a pantry, a glass-fronted cupboard for crockery and a painted prep table. They were all picked up for a few grand at antiques fairs.’
The rules for sourcing reclaimed furniture are simple, says Helen. ‘Just check whether the furniture is solid, functional and the right size and style for your space.’
So what’s next for the design duo? ‘We’ve been renovating an old Airstream caravan and would like to travel around the Mediterranean searching for the ultimate kitchen,’ says O’Leary.
‘For us the perfect kitchen is not about new cabinets, it’s a lifestyle. We love the idea of extended family, gathered round into the early hours with the doors flung open on to the outdoors.’ No wonder the Americans are buying in.
- For The Love Of Kitchens is available on Discovery+. The DeVOL Kitchen, Ebury Press, £50.