From flock wallpaper to swags and tassels, we like to sneak a bit of British upper-class sophistication into our homes. The secret is doing it in style
Grand houses dominate our television screens and our consciousness; from Downton Abbey to the BBC’s The Queen’s Palaces via Country House Rescue, we love to debate the merits of their decor and architecture and incorporate them in our homes. And as we bounce from the royal wedding to the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, our taste for pomp and gold leaf will become stronger.
“We’re in the middle of Anglomania,” says TV style guru Laurence Llewelyn- Bowen. “Our love affair with all things royal is cyclical – sometimes we think it’s very chic and other times we run screaming from it. The royal wedding ignited our ardour. We have an energetic young couple who will do a good job and we’re trying to reflect that glory in our homes.”
Rhoda Parry, editor of Country Homes & Interiors, reckons it’s more entrenched than that; a recent reader survey in the magazine voted the English country house style as top, trouncing cottage, Scandinavian, vintage, New England and French styles.
“Today, this look is about casual, elegant country homes where children and dogs can flop on sofas and where cutting-edge technology sits alongside inherited furniture,” says Parry.
Our love affair with all things royal is cyclical – sometimes we think it’s very chic and other times we run screaming from it
John Goodall, architectural editor at Country Life, says today’s style is eclectic.
“Those who inherit a stately home tend to soften the historic environment and nod to travel and modern tastes by adding a few ethnic pieces,” he says.
He adds that even in the grandest homes kitchens are increasingly used as living spaces rather than being just functional, and once-draughty and uninviting bathrooms tend now to be clean, modernist, minimalist and well-lit “with polished stone, mirrors, space and lots of towels”.
So if the gentry aren’t standing still, why should we?
“When [architect] Robert Adam was around [in the 1700s] he was cutting-edge, so you have to be careful not to stagnate,” says TV property expert Sarah Beeny, who refurbished Georgian gem Rise Hall in Channel 4’s Beeny’s Restoration Nightmare.
“What’s exciting nowadays is to have a classic design with a modern twist.”
The good news, therefore, is that for those of us devoid of a stately pile, there’s plenty of scope for playfulness. Llewelyn-Bowen advises us to be tasteful, but enjoy it – to flirt with ornate picture frames and relish the fact that must-have furniture now has gold twiddly bits and garish cut velvet.
It’s easy to follow up this inspiration with royal warrant holders who may supply furnishings and fittings fit for the Queen, but whose products are accessible to everyone.
Yorkshire-based Hainsworth, for example, is known for its ceremonial cloth and textiles –including curtains for Windsor Castle – but it also has a range of hand-finished John Atkinson blankets, which it claims have adorned royal beds across Europe, available through stores such as John Lewis.
“Having a royal warrant sets you apart. You can’t buy the sort of cachet that royalty has…and they like the best stuff,” says commercial director Adam Hainsworth, the seventh generation of the family firm.
And at All About Baths in Edinburgh – which owner David Gallacher reckons serves everyone from the council to Balmoral – original roll-top baths are sold and refurbished. The family company banishes chips and rust and offers re-polishing service.
“You hear horror stories of re-enamelling peeling off,” says Gallacher. “We use the original surface so it doesn’t.”
Not only is this more cost-effective, it meets demand from the public for quality baths restored to their former glory, rather than cheap reproductions.
“A royal warrant tends to be a guarantee of quality and people are excited to think there is a royal connection,” says Gallacher.
Top tips on how to get the country house look
- Mix old and new. Don’t be frightened to mix inherited furniture with contemporary pieces and have some fun – some say silvering is the new gilding.
- Look for modern heritage pieces that are quality buys today and are the heirlooms of the future.
- Leather occasional chairs and sofas are country house classics, but look for lighter shades such as bone. For fabric upholstery, royal warrant holder Robert Kime also has a range of traditionally made chairs in fresh colours.
- Display decorative pieces from today’s silversmiths and artisans as well as inherited traditional pieces – Halcyon Days and Thomas Goode, for example, offer classic and heritage designs.
- Wallpaper and fabric can offers a modern take on the country house look. Dorset, for example, a best selling heritage-style design from Cole & Son, was brought back from the archives due to its popularity.
- Heritage paint shades stand the test of time, acting as backgrounds on which you can layer fabric, furniture and accessories to create a modern country house look. Warrant holder Papers and Paints says its best-sellers to the public are the traditional stone shades, although its expertise is in tailoring colours to historic homes.
- A few years ago, classic damasks were predominantly seen on heavy silks. The latest fabric collections showcase them on linens and cottons – not only are they more affordable but they’re more relaxed and suited to today’s love of living in light-filled rooms.