Image: Caroline Lomax, founder of Armadillo Sun, sat on one of the garden sofas she makes in Kent, UK.
The joy of running a small business is that I have the opportunity to get to know the people who choose my furniture.
I see the name on each order and, often, will have had a chat beforehand about the best colours and patterns for a particular spot, or how many cushions one really needs on a garden sofa. When we exhibit at the RHS Flower Shows, I get to put faces to some of the names and catch-up in person - it’s genuinely one of the best bits of this job.
So, I thought that it was about time that I shared a little about my story and how Armadillo Sun began.
It feels odd - and definitely uncomfortable - to write about yourself, so a friend has kindly agreed to interview me on your behalf.
Q&A with Caroline, the founder of luxury outdoor furniture brand Armadillo Sun
Where did the journey start? What's your background?
I’ve always been creative and learned to sew at school. When Paul and I got married and moved - with lots of excitement - into our first home together the reality of furnishing an empty house soon hit. The windows were bare and I hated it. So I made my own curtains.
Thus started my journey into interior design.
I studied with City & Guilds and opened a workroom making bespoke soft furnishings. I needed a job that would fit around caring for my children – especially as I have four.
Over 25 years, I have worked with local and award-winning interior designers, as well as private clients. I've even helped out architects with tips on using soft furnishings in their buildings.
Then, in 2018, I launched Armadillo Sun!
What inspired you to start up Armadillo Sun?
My interior design clients didn’t want the vision for their home to end at the back door. They wanted fabulous – but practical – outdoor furniture that reflected their style, was ultra comfortable, and could stay out in the ever-present British rain.
Their outdoor spaces were an extension of their homes, so they needed luxury – something you’d be happy to see in your living room, but that wasn’t going to turn green and slimy outdoors!
At the time I was stuck because it was a struggle to find decent premium outdoor fabrics in this country. I needed lovely colours and fantastic patterns to give my clients the choice they wanted, but it just wasn’t available.
The brainwave came when we were on holiday in Arizona in the United States. I spotted gorgeous fabric outdoor furniture around pools and in backyards. Arizona has a pretty harsh climate so I couldn’t believe the brightness of the colours – there wasn’t the fading and bleaching I would have expected.
The reason was an amazing material: solution-dyed acrylic.
It might sound like an awful Chemistry experiment, but the fabric you can make from it is soft and appealing, in beautiful colours and designs. Yet it’s approved by the marine industry for hardiness against the elements – incredible!
I loved it and was on a mission to source it in the UK.
Why bean bags?
It comes back to another holiday (Paul and I love to travel!). I adore mezze and the Mediterranean way of coming together to share food and good company. I wanted to be able to recreate that laidback atmosphere; offer comfort and a sense of luxury, but without the stiffness.
Bean bags insist you relax.
From a purely practical perspective, I also hate anything fussy and high-maintenance. I want furniture that people can sink into after a hard day at work, without worrying about whether they have remembered to treat it with a weather preserver; or if it’s about to rain; or if their chair is going to leave a hole in their lawn.
The filling used in bean bags doesn’t hold water, so you don’t have the same worries about rot and mould. They're also really light, so you can use bean bag furniture on the lawn, or a gravel patio, and move it around without hurting your back.
Image: The Armadillo Sun garden bean bags in patterned fabric and bright colours are inspired by the Mediterranean to bring people together to share conversation and good food.
What’s been your greatest challenge in setting up Armadillo Sun?
Let’s not talk about learning the intricacies of social media algorithms, or understanding pallet sizes and logistics companies! Focusing on the furniture itself, it was probably getting the shape, size and filling of the bean bag loungers just right.
The lounger has the supportive teardrop shape of our bean bag chair, so you can sit in it, and get out of it, easily and comfortably. However, we wanted it to be multipurpose – the Swiss army knife of bean bags – so our customers could push back and lie flat on it for an afternoon of sunbathing.
We tried many, many, many different variations of design, and tweaked the volume of bean-filling multiple times until we were happy.
It was worth it though.
What is your favourite piece of Armadillo Sun furniture?
That’s a tough one – it’s like choosing a favourite child!
I am really proud of our modular garden sofa though. I designed it using everything I’d learned creating the bean bags (it’s based on the same principle of laidback comfort), but upscaling it to make a versatile, flexible alternative to the traditional wooden or rattan outdoor sofa.
It can be moved around and rearranged incredibly easily – you can lift each section single-handedly. One of my key goals in starting Armadillo Sun was to create furniture that gave people choice and offered value for money. I want my customers to be able to change their aesthetic outdoors – switching from a family BBQ, to an elegant alfresco garden party, to a date-night under the stars – without spending horrendous amounts of money.
Outdoor furniture is so expensive, and usually heavy, awkward, and static. Our modular garden sofa comes in sections, clipped together – or unclipped if you prefer individual seats dotted in corners of the garden – so, with one investment, you can meet a multitude of demands from your outdoor space.
I must also mention our Luxury Cushioned Sun Lounger. Customers had been asking for something decadent for by the pool or on the patio – a cross between a chaise longue and a sun lounger that that would deliver 5* resort-level luxury at home. This is just so comfortable – and you can still leave it outdoors all year!
What’s been one of the greatest highs of running Armadillo Sun?
A small business is a rollercoaster, but I’m so lucky to have had as many highs as lows. A super high came this year when we were awarded 4-stars for our stand at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
My husband Paul makes the whole stand from scratch so we were chuffed to have been recognised.
I love RHS Chelsea, and events like it – it’s where I get to meet the people who choose and use our furniture.
Nowadays there’s pressure to spend more time promoting your business on social media, but it’s word-of-mouth from our wonderful customers that really makes the difference to us. Talking to people is what I enjoy, and it’s their comments and feedback that challenge us to create new products.
Image: The Armadillo Stand at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (2023) when it was awarded 4-stars.
What’s surprised you as you’ve developed Armadillo Sun?
The different ways our bean bag furniture has solved a tricky furnishing problem. Our customers have used our sofas - which are much lighter than traditional ones - on terrace conversions with weight restrictions and in attic rooms with awkward staircase access. They’ve squeezed them in the corner of a conservatory, where nothing else would fit, and even used a bean pillow as a comfy float in the pool.
Bean bags have proved particularly useful on boats because they float, should they fall overboard; can be attached to the boat with their handle; and don’t rot when splashed with seawater. I sew a couple of pennyweights in the bottom for my customers too, to keep them from blowing away.
Which other small businesses inspire you on your journey?
There are lots, but to name just a few…
At the East London Parasol Company. Lucy Ferguson works with artisans in India to create the most amazing fabric parasols. I love them so much that we hold photo shoots together.
My lovely friend Louise at The Woodee makes beautiful handmade fire pits.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Lizzie from The Rose Press Garden and following her journey to make gardening modern and fun.
What are your favourite colours for creating a beautiful outdoor seating area?
I’ve always really enjoyed blues with greys - and pumpkin colours for a pop. I’m also putting lots of blue and green together. If you pair them in textured fabrics, it looks really luxurious.
Our new outdoor cushions are soft woven patterns – very homely – and I love how they pull a look together. They don’t shout out themselves, but make everything else work better.
What’s an ongoing challenge as you move your business forward?
As for everyone, supply costs are sky-rocketing… but, more unique to our product, is how we can bust the myth of the 70s bean bag online!
When someone comes to see us on our RHS stand and sits down, it’s very rare that they don’t buy. They may go away to have a think, but they’ll come back later. The bean bags are incredibly comfortable and supportive.
It’s tricky to show that online – bean bags come with baggage and an outdated image of something saggy and blancmange-like. We’re often asked whether people, of a certain age, can get up out of them – I assure you that they can! They’re not designed like the bean bags we grew up with.
What advice would you give to people wanting to start their own business?
Listen to the people who have done it before; then follow your gut and go for it!