Country Life editor and resident interior expert Giles Kime shares the lessons he learned from the experience of dragging an estate of homes into the 21st century.
In 2021 we purchased our fourth home in just over two decades. Each of them presented their own set of challenges. The first was a tired south London terrace, the second an equally tired townhouse, the third an arts and crafts house on a river untouched for 50 years and now we’re deep in drag a 17th century cottage, with later additions, in the 21st century.
All four provided a learning curve, the steep trajectory of which was removed by a combination of experience and growing confidence in our own beliefs.
It was probably easier a generation ago when there were far fewer choices: terracotta or cork? Sanderson or GP & J. Baker? Dulux or Crown? Stripped pine or paint?
There was no internet or social media either, just a handful of magazines and the brilliant Terence Conran The house book to hold our hand.
We’ve found that experience teaches you what lasts, what falls apart and why. Because creating a busy house full of people and pets is quite different from creating a pretty picture for Instagram.
1. Ignore your friends
Isn’t it amazing how friends reveal hidden depths of expertise when you show them around a project? Like magic, they all transform into Kevin McCloud, Kirsty Allsopp, and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, all rolled into one, dispensing advice on every aspect of any project you’re embarking on.
Most of these pearls of wisdom are framed in rhetorical questions. Should the staircase be there? Have you thought about removing this wall? Have you seen this new paint color on Instagram? Have you thought about demolishing the house and doing a new construction? Of course, everything is offered with the best of intentions. Well, most anyway. Ignore it all: trust your architect, your builder and your instincts.
2. Remember you don’t live in a museum
The best interiors are those that cater to the needs of the occupant (a quality known in the trade as people-centric) rather than providing a showcase for your own extensive collections, unless they are both comfortable , aesthetic and that you do not. trip over it when trying to find the remote.
The master of the art of using antiques and textiles in a disciplined way was my namesake Robert Kime, who passed away recently. Another was David Hicks, who managed to use antiques in a way that gave them a refreshingly modern feel. The advantages of restraint in interior design are not only practical, but also aesthetic.
3. Invest in equipped joinery
In the order of priorities, good carpentry comes just after effective sanitation and just before central heating. In most cases, it can also be more expensive, but the transformative impact on an interior provides the opportunity to make a home your own (and hide your clobber out of sight). The only possible exception is if you’ve purchased a sizable stack with huge rooms that can accommodate the kind of vast cabinets that often go for a song at auction houses (but then there will be plenty of other calls to your silver).
For the rest of us, cramming the impedimenta of our lives into period homes built for people whose material possessions cost no more than a milking stool, a butter churn and a smock or two requires a feat of logistics and aesthetics.
In addition to focusing on the obvious places like laundry rooms, look for storage options in every nook and cranny that provide spaces for everything from books to walking shoes.
However, along with throwing money at the problem, also throw stuff away or hide it in a garage or lock it up; fewer things require less storage.
4. Don’t kill the spirit of a house
It’s easy (and fun) to tear down walls, smash in bay windows, add extensions and hotel-style bathrooms, but the hardest part is doing it while preserving the intrinsic character of a house. It is a balancing act; sure, you want comfort, light and space, but consider whether that should mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Thoughtful and experienced architects will suggest subtle interventions that make the most of interior space and find opportunities to bring light into an interior without extinguishing a home’s period charm. There’s plenty to do with antiques and materials to add texture, but sometimes that just won’t be enough to save an interior that’s been stripped down or improperly extended.
5. Paint small rooms in dark colors
There was a period in the 1990s when “light” and “airy” were the two most repeated buzzwords in the design world. This precipitated a ubiquitous new look that involved painting everything white; walls, floors and furniture and even the family dog if he stood still long enough. It’s a great vibe on a Greek island, but can be quite dark on a chilly northern hemisphere afternoon.
Nowhere is it darker than small, white, north-facing bedrooms that look so much better in a rich, cozy hue that creates a feeling of womb-like beauty on a cold winter evening. Also note: there is a common misconception that pale colors make rooms appear larger, but this has yet to be scientifically proven.
6. Decorate in haste, repent at leisure
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Credit card in one hand, a second overflowing glass of wine in the other, we settle in for a quiet evening with our laptop to do some sourcing (also known as googling furniture and materials). It’s a journey of discovery, the deeper you go into your search for a new couch/comforter/bathroom tile, the more your head is swimming with images you come across on Pinterest and Instagram. Then you take the bad denial of an aesthetic rabbit hole that leads to an option you would never consider in the real world.
Over there, with your Chablis glasses, this “ironic” sofa covered with a patchwork of cheerful fabrics or ‘fake zebra’ seems like such a ‘fun’ choice…until it arrives a few weeks later. In the cold light of day it’s not so “fun” and you spend the evening not on Pinterest but googling “what can I do with a brand new couch that I can’t stand? “, like Dr. Crippen planning what to do with a victim’s body. Do your research in the morning with a cup of tea in hand – and your smarts about you.
7. Love your builder
Your builder – or at least a good builder – should be your guide. Companies such as those listed in Country Life’s Top 100 have spent years on the edge of the cliff, learning what works and what doesn’t, and history tends to say they’re usually right. Sure, it’s tempting to question the possible motives behind any advice they might give (money and their convenience being the main causes for concern), but, if they’re professional, have worked with you before – and want to do it again – they’ll share your desire for the best possible outcome.
8. Seriously question the need for overhead lighting
Few things invade your retinas or drain your skin as effectively as massive rows of low voltage dots. It’s hard to know exactly why some electricians overspecify them; afraid to under-specify them? Lack of knowledge? A revenue opportunity? The thing is, you’ll probably need a lot less than the number suggested by an overzealous spark.
Chances are you don’t need it at all; in most cases, your money will be better spent on lots of low-level light in the form of table lamps and floor lamps which are significantly more pleasing to the eye and create a pleasant atmosphere. A few strategically placed spots can no doubt serve a purpose, but, a year after the start of our fourth project, we haven’t specified one.
9. Avoid anything fashionable, even remotely
Believe me – and I speak from bitter experience – you will regret it. The idea of interiors being fashionable was a plot dreamed up in the 1990s by retail and public relations at their wit’s end, aided and abetted by journalists who should have known (myself included). The goal was to move more goods/find more things to write about and ultimately it only contributed to the landfill.
Trend peddling is unfair business and most fashions have a habit of dying before you’ve paid off your latest splurge with a credit card.
Finally, remember that projects should be fun. If you spend too much time with your head immersed in Pinterest, your head will be full of other people’s ideas and none of your own. While imagery can be helpful in formulating ideas, remember that you are creating a home for yourself, your loved ones, and your pets, not some pale imitation of some creepy stylist’s over-thought-out home. usually in a converted warehouse or beachfront villa in some part of the world where light and lifestyle are far removed from yours.
The two are very different; your own home is very real, while those on Pinterest are a heavily edited fantasy. And remember: there are few things more boring than perfection.
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