Grand designs for timeless homes – why less is more for older houses’ bigger spaces
Many of us live in old houses. They can be demanding buildings: delicate, dusty, and designed for the needs of another century.
Sometimes their owners are tempted to rip out the interior and start from scratch. Hence the fashion, among those who can afford it, for retaining the façade of an old house while rebuilding the interior with entirely new spaces.
This has some advantages — a new interior can comply with sustainability ratings in way that an old one can’t — but a great deal is lost in the process.
AW21 collection from Habitat
The exterior and the interior of buildings are designed to work in tandem and part of the pleasure of living in an older home is that its rooms have been inhabited for centuries. “I would never come along and rip things out,” says Collette Ward, interior designer. “I’d always respect the heritage of a building and the elements within it.”
A period home, as she defines it, is one that has been architecturally designed and built in style of a particular era. That could be a Georgian mansion or a Victorian terrace, but it could also be a 1930s corporation cottage.
A period property does not have to be grand. The history of a house is what makes it interesting, but trying to replicate a period interior rarely works outside of a museum.
Interior by by Collette Ward
“The main mistake that people make with period homes is being too rigid in their choice of style,” Ward says.
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“They think that if they have one piece of mahogany furniture, then everything has to be mahogany. The pieces have to sit quietly and connect with each other, but they don’t have to be the same.
“The houses that we love in magazines are a layering of things of interest and beauty.”
Respecting the heritage of a building can be as simple as retaining the original floor tiles, even if they’re a little worn.
“If something has been around for a hundred years it doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead of replacing them, bring them to life with a wallpaper that picks up their particular colour.” Dark tones offer a more flattering context than bright white walls.
Portobello Parade green wallpaper by Divine Savages
In a little Victorian terraced house, for example, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything has to be small. “Then it all gets a bit like granny’s parlour — precious, dainty and not particularly welcoming. You need bigger furniture and less of it,” Ward explains.
“Take a starting point: a big piece of furniture, or a painting, or a feature of the house. Be brave in your inspiration.”
A recent project took its lead from a big bay window with a sea view.
Rather than the traditional damask curtains, she went for an extravagant turquoise velvet (Mikado from Osborne & Little, €85 per metre) with a pair of bright yellow armchairs of her own design (from €950 plus fabric).
“The curtaining was real eye-popper!” she says. “It makes the room.”
Interior by Collette Ward
Ward has just finished the renovation of a Georgian terraced house in Dublin, which had retained much of its decorative detailing. “It was like a grand old lady who needed to have her furs and diamonds taken out of storage and given a new lease of life.”
Like any older lady, the house needed a bit of colour and Ward painted the entrance hall in Sanderson Cadet Blue, combined with a silk effect wallpaper, Designers Guild Chinon (€127 per roll) which happily came in the same blue.
“There was a lovely connect between the matt finish of the paint and the shimmer of the faux silk effect,” says Ward, who was lucky with her client.
“Sometimes clients need a bit of a nudge to get them out of their comfort zone and bring a house to life, but one was brave with colour. That’s rare, frankly.”
The house, being Georgian, had very large rooms. “They took a lot of filling. It was a family home, so it needed to be comfortable rather than showcase.” New sofas were designed and made to fit the room.
Then, there’s the heirloom conundrum. Old houses often come with inherited pieces of furniture, which can be a problem or an opportunity (sometimes both at the same time).
“I’d often come into a house and get excited about something that nobody likes. It might not be what they would have bought themselves, but it also has a strong emotional connect. Then you put it somewhere else in the house and everyone loves it again.
“Being able to reimagine a piece of furniture in another room is where a professional comes in handy,” says Ward.
Edwardian style washbasin from Retrobad
“I’ve frequently taken a table that is of precious little use to anyone and cut the legs back to turn it into a coffee table.”
Nothing pulls a room together like a lovely lamp. To this end, Ward often collaborates with Sarah O’Dea of Shady & the Lamp, a specialist lampshade-maker based in Dublin.
O’Dea creates bespoke work to commission but also has an off-the-peg range which combines traditional forms with contemporary fabrics.
Her lampshades are by no means cheap — expect to pay €165 for a 20 cm scalloped bell table lampshade in strawberry pink silk — but they punch above their weight in terms of their contribution to the room. Think of them as the interiors equivalent of fancy silk underwear.
For furniture that works in old houses, consider a trip to Joy Thorpe Decorative Antiques & Interiors in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny.
It’s a curated selection of furniture, accessories and art, but where
Thorpe excels is in her styling. With a background in visual merchandising, she has a rare talent for putting pieces together. That might be a 17th century chest (€790), a Victorian rosewood hall chair with a tapestry seat (€350), and a contemporary chinoiserie painting by Irish artist Jane Willoughby (€950).
Furniture, accessories and styling from Joy Thorpe Antiques
Or it might be a hand-beaten vintage water carrier, reimagined as a planter, on top of an Ambergs patent letter cabinet (that’s a nineteenth century filing system). Originally from Ballyragget, Thorpe fell in love with the premises in the middle of lockdown.
Furniture, accessories and styling from Joy Thorpe Antiques photo by Storybord.jpg
“It has a beautiful old shop front with two big windows,” she says. “I opened in September 2020 and quickly closed down again.” Rinse and repeat.
Undaunted, she put her head down and kept working on Instagram, which is where she still does a lot of her business. “That’s the way the world is now. But I prefer people coming in to the shop.”
The furniture that she sells is displayed in vignettes, arranged in a way to help people imagine how they might look in their own home.
“Sometimes people will buy the whole ensemble,” she says. “Then they have a corner of the house sorted.”
See collettewardinteriors.ie, shadyandthelamp.ie, joythorpeantiques.com and storyboard.ie