Notes on English interior design

As I’ve mentioned previously, my study of interior design has been narrowed to the Brits.

There is much I admire about their homes, which I hope to enumerate here (especially in contrast to some of the more popular American ways of setting up interiors).

I feel justified in this focus for four reasons:

  1. I discovered, to my mild disappointment, that I am ethnically 75% English (and 25% Dutch). My admiration for English design perhaps has some genetic roots. (Disappointing because I was hoping for something more exciting. Even being mostly Irish is more exciting.)
  2. We live in Charlottesville, Virginia, which boasts some of the most English-looking countryside in the U.S. The landed gentry who settled here clearly agreed and fashioned for themselves estates much in the English manner of estate-making.
  3. My admiration bloomed after visiting rambling English homes during the time that we lived in London and I was able to see the homes in the wild, in their natural contexts.
  4. I am devoted to several very English pursuits—namely, gardens, tea, long walks, and dogs—and so it seems fitting that my home should also be very English.

When we first bought our home, eight years ago, I thought I would make a modern Scandinavian home, as I mentioned before, which is much in vogue among my generation. This was entirely wrong for many reasons, foremost of which was that our house was neither modern nor Scandinavian. But we also didn’t live like austere Scandinavians. I can’t have white floors or white furniture. They are utterly incompatible with dogs or small children, and they make me nervous. I also don’t really like the look of very modern rooms. My favorite pieces in our home are antiques, mostly from Guion’s maternal grandparents, who had splendid Southern taste.

Beata Heuman's 5 Stylish Tips For Updating Your Living Room Now | British  Vogue
A room by Beata Heuman. (c) British Vogue.

This realization, among others, has led me to study English rooms, through books, magazines, and websites, and I feel ready to make a few generalizations.

English design:

  • Prioritizes coziness and hospitality over minimalism and cleanliness
  • Celebrates a riot of colors and patterns
  • Emphasizes upholstery and a variety of textiles in every room
  • Insists on vintage furniture and rugs in every room; rejects the shiny and mass-produced
  • Veers toward gold, bronze, and unlacquered brass, with select uses of polished chrome
  • Invests in window treatments
  • Features art, framed prints, and mirrors on nearly every wall
  • Always picks the frilly lampshade over the plain white one

There is a boldness and playfulness to English design that seems difficult to get right. This is why I find myself studying it so closely. And it’s perhaps why I thought I was a Swedish minimalist at first; that looked easier to accomplish. English rooms, however, demand an eye for composition that I’m not sure I have.

Inside a Design Guru's Enviable London Home | Eclectic living room, Home,  Living room with fireplace
Living room by Rita Konig. (c) NY Magazine.

I also sense that English design stands in contrast to a good deal of modern American interior design, as I understand it, which is heavily influenced by Joanna Gaines: “farmhouse” style for homes that are definitely not farmhouses; cutesy signage; a faux vintage/excessively curated atmosphere; gray or white walls everywhere. I was amused to read an interview with a British designer who said that American designers were “perfectionists” — a characterization that makes sense to me. In most of the rooms by celebrated HGTV designers, there is a fussy attention to detail within a pristine environment that strikes me as unrealistic and fake.

An Interior Design Masterclass with Nicola Harding - Mad About The House
A bedroom by Nicola Harding. (c) Mad About the House

In any event, it is comforting for me to articulate English design principles here, in the hopes that I can replicate them, in some way, in our refreshed midcentury American cottage.

Ben's London house - Ben Pentreath Ltd
Ben Pentreath’s kitchen. (c) Ben Pentreath

U.K. designers I’m taking notes on

Wish me luck.

Can I acquire good taste if I study hard enough?

This is the question that has been haunting me as I continue my year-long study of English interior design.

I am not an artist or a designer. I identify as a scholar. I approach aesthetic pursuits with this detached dichotomy firmly planted in my brain. I love artists and yet their instincts mystify me entirely. I am instead comfortable in the realm of cold, hard facts and logical decision-making patterns. I cannot SEE that this chintz will contrast marvelously with that stripe, even though I appreciate the final result. Aesthetes, to me, are as mysterious as prophets.

So I turn to books instead. Or study fashionable friends’ homes with a voyeur’s eye. Or listen to my mother, who is a native-born interior designer, even though she never pursued the profession officially. The hope is that if I study enough naturally gifted designers, my analysis of their good choices will translate into good choices of my own.

The problem is that I’m not convinced that this is the case. Can design instincts be taught? Will assessing the 500th home tour from House & Garden actually result in better choices for our home renovation? Will my feverish pinning of all relevant English design inspiration result in a refreshed and beautiful home?

I think the answer is maybe. Will I ever have an EYE for interior design like many of my gifted friends and colleagues? Probably not. But can I be taught to make better selections? To fight against some of my initial (bad) instincts? I suspect so.

Pinpointing and naming my design aesthetic has at least been helpful. I am solidly enamored with English homes, despite some of my initial desires, and I plan to say more about this, in a notebook-y sort of way, soon.

Every Room Should Sing' Signed Book – Beata Heuman

In the meantime, you can find me nervously taking notes on all the interior design advice I can get my hands on. I’ve been particularly guided by Beata Heuman’s beautiful, thoughtful book, Every Room Should Sing. While I don’t think I’ll ever be gutsy enough to mimic her wild rooms, I am inspired by her counsel. More in this vein soon.

Moving on out (a chance to reset)

In January, we move into a two-bedroom apartment for the forseeable future.

We’ve been told our renovation project may take 6 to 8 months. I’ve been told by every home owner to add several months to that estimate, so I am telling myself we may be out for a year, so that I don’t freak out when it actually takes that long. Or longer.

The stress of the season is getting to me, leaving aside the fact that we’re both working full time, have two tiny children, are putting our dog down soon, and need to pack up our entire house and move out immediately after the winter holidays. I have a hard time falling asleep at night because my mind won’t stop racing (and because the 4-month sleep regression is really taking sweet Felix for a spin).

Deep breath. Leaving all that aside, I am looking for pockets of gratitude.

As I take down the artwork on our walls and pack up toys and kitchen gadgets, I feel like we have been given this amazing gift to reset. We’re reviving our house, for sure, in some significant ways, but we also have the chance to rethink old ways of doing things. In Marie-Kondo parlance, I feel like I get to assess the whole house, as a holistic unit, and ask what really sparks joy.

I get to have a do-over!

There are many design choices I made eight years ago that I still like, but there are also many that I want to reconsider. For example, I thought I could have a cool Scandinavian-modern house if I painted all the walls white. I did not consider the fact that these rooms look so cool because the architecture is so cool. I do not live in a cool Scandinavian-modern house. I live in a very plain midcentury cottage, churned out by the thousands to suit the needs of ordinary working Americans. Painting all the walls white just makes my plain house look even plainer. This is something to reconsider in a big way.

Most recently, I have become enamored with eclectic English cottage design, which I may reflect on in a separate post. This style seems to be in vogue lately among my set and is often called the “grand-millennial” look, which I vaguely object to. But I am increasingly very interested in antiques, patterned textiles, upholstery, wallpaper, and frilly lampshades. Who knew? It’s a far cry from what I admired a decade ago, which was all stark white floors and gray textures. Turns out that’s not how we live or decorate, given our penchant for owning too many books, heavy curtains, and acquiring silly art. I suspect our family tastes are much more in line with the ramshackle English aesthetic.

Meanwhile, please enjoy this photo, in which I take Guion and Felix by surprise while Felix was getting a baby manicure.