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 tear up the interior and start from scratch. Hence the fashion, among those who can afford it, to keep the facade of an old house while rebuilding the interior with entirely new spaces.
This has some advantages – a new interior can meet sustainability ratings the same way an old one cannot – but much of it is lost in the process.
The exterior and interior of buildings are designed to work in tandem, and part of the fun of living in an old house is that its rooms have been inhabited for centuries. âI would never come and tear things up,â explains Interior Designer Collette Ward. âI would always respect the heritage of a building and the elements that make it up.
A period house, as she defines it, is a house whose architecture has been designed and built in the style of a particular period. It could be a Georgian mansion or a Victorian terrace, but it could also be a 1930s corporate chalet.
A period property doesn’t have to be grand. The story of a house is what makes it interesting, but trying to replicate a period interior rarely works outside of a museum.
âThe biggest mistake people make with period homes is being too rigid in their choice of style,â says Ward.
âThey think if they have mahogany furniture then everything has to be mahogany. The rooms should sit quietly and connect to each other, but they don’t have to be the same.
“The homes we love in magazines are a layering of things of interest and beauty.”
Respecting a building’s heritage can be as easy as keeping the original slabs, even if they are a little worn.
âIf something has been around for a hundred years, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead of replacing them, bring them to life with wallpaper that returns to their particular color. Dark tones provide a more flattering backdrop than glossy white walls.
In a small Victorian terraced house, for example, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything has to be small. âThen everything becomes a bit like grandma’s living room – precious, delicate and not particularly welcoming. You need more and less furniture, âsays Ward.
âTake a starting point: a large piece of furniture, or a painting, or a part of the house. Be courageous in your inspiration.
A recent project originated in a large bay window overlooking the sea.
Rather than the traditional damask curtains, she opted for extravagant turquoise velvet (Mikado from Osborne & Little, â¬ 85 per meter) with a pair of bright yellow armchairs of her own design (from â¬ 950 plus fabric).
“The curtain was a real eye-popper!” she says. “It makes the room.”
Ward has just completed the renovation of a Georgian terraced house in Dublin, which had retained much of its decorative detail. “It was like a great old lady who needed to remove her furs and diamonds from storage and give them new life.”
Like any older lady, the house needed a bit of color and Ward painted the entrance hall in Sanderson Cadet Blue, paired with a silk effect wallpaper, Designers Guild Chinon (â¬ 127 a roll) which is luckily came in the same blue.
âThere was a nice connection between the matte finish of the paint and the shimmer of the faux silk effect,â says Ward, who got lucky with his client.
âSometimes clients need a little push to get them out of their comfort zone and bring a home to life, but we were brave with color. It’s rare, frankly.
The house, being Georgian, had very large rooms. âThey took a lot of filling. It was a family home, so it had to be cozy rather than a showcase. New sofas have been designed and manufactured to fit the room.
Then there is the conundrum of inheritance. Older homes often come with legacy furniture, which can be a problem or an opportunity (sometimes both at the same time).
âI would walk into a house a lot and get excited about something that no one likes. It might not be what they would have bought themselves, but it also has a strong emotional connection. Then you put it somewhere else in the house and everyone loves it again.
âBeing able to reinvent a piece of furniture in another room is where a professional comes in handy,â says Ward.
“I have often taken a table that is of no use to anyone and cut off the legs to make a coffee table.”
Nothing brings a room together like a beautiful lamp. To this end, Ward often collaborates with Sarah O’Dea of ââShady & the Lamp, a specialty lampshade maker based in Dublin.
O’Dea creates bespoke works to order, but also offers a ready-to-use range that combines traditional shapes with contemporary fabrics.
Its shades aren’t cheap by any means – expect to pay $ 165 for an 8 ” scalloped bell table lamp shade in strawberry pink silk – but they exceed their weight in terms of room contribution. Think of them as the interior equivalent of fancy silk underwear.
For furniture that works in older homes, 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 in his style. With a background in visual merchandising, she has a rare talent for putting parts together. This could be a 17th century chest (â¬ 790), a Victorian rosewood entrance chair with a tapestry seat (â¬ 350), and a contemporary chinoiserie painting by Irish artist Jane Willoughby (â¬ 950).
Or it could be a vintage hand-beaten water carrier, reimagined as a planter, above a patented Ambergs letter cabinet (it’s a 19th century filing system). Originally from Ballyragget, Thorpe fell in love with the place in full confinement.
âIt has a beautiful old facade with two large windows,â she says. “I opened in September 2020 and quickly closed again.” Rinse and repeat.
Intrepid, she put her head down and continued to work on Instagram, where she still does a lot of her business. âThis is how the world is now. But I prefer people to come to the store.
The furniture she sells is presented in vignettes, arranged in a way that helps people imagine what they might look like in their own home.
âSometimes people buy the full set,â she says. âThen they sorted a corner of the house. “
See collettewardinteriors.ie, shadyandthelamp.ie, joythorpeantiques.com and storyboard.ie