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Substance over Style

Adhering to a pre-conceived, self-conscious style is the very antithesis of relaxing.
Sir Terence Conran


I wrote recently about the fact that I love quirky, characterful, old houses and it's true, I do. But I wouldn’t say that I am entirely faithful to them. I have also longed to build a house, one that is laid out on different levels thereby providing lots of interesting spaces to hide away and listen to music or read, and with lots of window seats. I love houses that surprise you at every turn.

I do, however, admit to being bound by location. Having been lucky that our first house overlooked the sea, we've never wanted to leave the coastline. We've compromised on the size of house and garden in order to have our preferred location and, in the absence of being able to find or afford the land for our dream house around this area, we've opted for age and character instead. But, in reality, some of the houses that have appealed most to me over the years are not houses I would necessarily choose to live in, and yet what their occupants have created has been rather special.

At the moment, I am watching a competition-style programme on our national TV channel during which people propose their homes for the title of “Home of the Year”. The competition runs for eight weeks and each week three different homes feature, of which one is chosen by a panel of three judges to go forward to the final of the competition. I’ve watched this programme every year since it first aired seven years ago and, for the large part, I am underwhelmed by the homes that feature. It’s not that they aren’t all impressive in their own right but what strikes me is that, with some notable exceptions, so many are desperately trying to conform to a style – large, cavernous, white-walled rooms with little or no personality and the ubiquitous design statements, an Eames chair positioned in a corner for example, a mid-century sideboard, a few carefully curated shelves with books in muted colours that someone thought would give the room a sense of purpose, a piece of bold, modern art. Nope, not for me.

I breathe an audible sigh of relief when, in a rare break from this design ennui, a home with personality makes an appearance and, I’m happy to say, these are generally, though not always, the homes that the judges choose to go forward to the final - the homes that reflect the personality of their occupants, the ones that have either brought imagination to an old house or character to a new one or those that have been cleverly designed to work around either budgetary or planning constraints to meet the owner’s specific requirements. Whether a vast country manor house, a tiny artisan cottage or a shiny, new build, the homes that stand head and shoulders above the rest make you want to get to know the owners. They are individual. They brim with passion and creativity.

One of my favourite homes on the show a number of years ago was a very modest 1980s bungalow in a seaside town, that a lady had transformed with exceptional aplomb using rich wallpapers and all sorts of interesting textures and techniques to define the different spaces. She had purchased the very ordinary house when her husband was ill and she had to downsize to pay for his care. It was a lesson in how an unremarkable house could be transformed into a very unique, unpredictable, special space, and one I really admired. I want to walk into a house and get a sense of the owner’s personality and, more than that, to find it so appealing and interesting that I want to meet the person to whom it belongs. But, sadly, in so many cases, my overriding impression is of bland, uninspired or contrived houses that, frankly, are trying too hard to be stylish and that have instead ended up being no more than show houses, devoid of any character.  

There have been times when I have gone into houses that I would not consider to be my style at all and been bowled over by them, because they reflect the owner’s warmth or individuality, and you can’t help but feel comfortable and welcomed in them. I have gone into others that have had no expense spared and felt nothing at all, which for me is actually worse than actively disliking the interior. Even if a house is not to my personal taste, I can usually still appreciate it and find it interesting. For me, the difference between a house and a home is that in the latter the owners have unleashed their personality in the style of furnishings, the artwork, the trinkets, the little idiosyncracies. However, I don’t wish to suggest that in order for a home to appeal to me it must be full of stuff or boast strong colours at every turn. I am as charmed and relaxed by a sparse palette and a few well-chosen objects and pictures as by a home filled with richness and variety. Restraint is not a bad thing. I think, for example, of homes with exceptional views, where the seascape or landscape or even cityscape almost beg restraint in the treatment of the décor. The only thing that leaves me feeling depressed is a lack of imagination, the sort of space where the owners are afraid to trust themselves and express themselves.

Of course, I have a few bugbears where décor is concerned and one of these also perfectly illustrates my general view of home style. I’m not a big fan of posed wedding photos or studio shots of my children. One of my regrets is that we didn’t have a roving photographer at our wedding capturing people, including my husband and myself, when we weren’t expecting it. And therefore, you won’t see any of our wedding photos on display in our home. I just don’t care for them. I still remember our wedding photographer calling us inside to get some photographs in a lounge in the hotel, because the autumnal, afternoon light was lovely there, and telling me what way to tilt my head, touch one of the flowers in my bouquet and look up demurely, Princess Diana-like, from under my mascara-laden lashes. Nonsense. What I wish he had captured was me, my husband and cousins laughing raucously at the straw donkey that someone with an excellent sense of humour gave us as part of our wedding present or me in my elegant heels sinking into the wet lawn of the hotel, my husband having to pull me out of the mud to get me to the spot that the photographer thought was the perfect place for a romantic photo. Or my brother and uncle racing back from the hotel golf course where they snuck in a round of golf between us arriving at the wedding venue and the beginning of dinner! If only I could turn back time! I want photographs that recall magical moments that make me chuckle or that bring a nostalgic tear to my eye, not those where my only memory is of trying to force my 2-year-old child to sit serenely on a little chair for the camera during an ill-advised studio session, or where it took what seemed like hours before the photographer finally got that one shot in which we all had our eyes open and were smiling, despite having had a monstrous row only moments earlier. All I see when I look at that particular photo now is my fake smile and my husband's uncomfortable grin. Generally, when something looks or feels forced, it loses its appeal for me and that applies to design just as it does to photography.

I suppose at the end of the day it all boils down to function and personality. What is the point of a home where people have to go around making everything look like a stage set to impress, well, who exactly? A home should be decorated for your pleasure and comfort not for anyone else’s. There are plenty of things about my own home that currently don’t make me happy, that don’t work the way I want them to work, and I intend to do something about those sooner rather than later. Generally, however, I believe that the majority of my home reflects either my or my husband’s personality, our likes, the colours that make us feel good, the objects that hold happy memories for us. It has evolved over the years, and is still evolving, but some things remain constant - specific pieces of furniture, paintings, pieces of glass, favourite books, random objects that have followed us from house to house - and they will always have a place in our home, regardless of where that may be. They are the essence of it, its soul, and a house simply isn’t a home without a soul.