House and Garden
Country feel in the the city

A London apartment that feels like a country house in miniature

Decorator Chloe Willis’ own London house is not just a showcase of her skills, but a marvel in creating a comfortable country feel in the heart of the city

 

James McDonald

 

For Chloe Willis, childhood car journeys with her mother, a former interior designer, usually involved a sudden pit stop outside a market or roadside stall. Transfixed by some overlooked gem – a painted French chair in need of reinvention or a dusty kilim – her mother would leap out of the driver’s seat to bag her quarry. But an eye for a diamond in the rough doesn’t make a good designer. What Chloe, now a decorator at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, learnt while watching her mother at work were all those pragmatic, behind-the-scenes decisions – “the placement of a side table, the space around objects,”– which as she says, “make a room flow, and easy to live in.”

She had a chance to put those lessons to use in the apartment she shares with her husband, their young son and the gregarious Border Terrier, Poppy. Ranged over three floors of a Victorian conversion, the two-bedroom property feels more like a mini country house than a north London apartment, which is one of the reasons why they bought it. Two bedrooms are tucked under the eaves. Below, a sitting room leads to a dining room where sunlight falls in bars through tall sash windows. From the kitchen you look on to the long garden which leads to the old railway line. In summer, a canopy of trees shimmers like a ribbon of green silk. It is a magical spot.

Another stipulation for buying the place was that it had a wall big enough for a painting by US-born artist Tristan Barlow. “It’s the first and largest picture I’ve ever bought. We lived in the flat for five years doing very little while we saved up, and the painting was stored behind a door.” From time to time she would unroll the canvas and absorb the vivid palette. “I don’t like things to be matchy-matchy, but subconsciously I was finding or buying things that related to it,” says Chloe, who studied Art History at Edinburgh. The “marvellously wipeable” red lacquer of the Chinese coffee table or the lemony-teal walls of the dining room echo the painting which brings a blaze of colour to the sitting room.

Some of the original, 19th-century bones – the stair rail which twirls from top to bottom, the cornice and Gothic-style windows in the bedroom – had survived the conversion, but alterations were needed to enhance the flow. As she has learnt: “The building comes first, the fun stuff later.” At the 1930s-founded Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, where she works for influential decorator Wendy Nicholls, (designers at the firm are still referred to as ‘decorators’) there are precise ways of doing this. Not pedantic rules for rules’ sake, but small, almost imperceptible details – grounded in the proportions of classical architecture – which ensure that nothing jars or dominates.

Instead of an architrave, “which would have been clunky,” as she notes, Chloe used a subtle beading to frame the new opening between the living rooms. We inspect the skirtings. They are painted a deep bronze green in a nod to the Georgian fashion for darker woodwork. They work in a different way now, helping to anchor the room and providing a calming foil to brighter modern pigments.

Before joining the firm in 2015 Chloe worked for a London property developer. ‘The focus was on the spatial planning, but the decoration was underpinned by the budget-focused ‘get the look for less philosophy’. This training has served her well because a downside of working in the design industry is hankering after things you can’t afford: ‘So you learn to improvise.’ Thwarted by the cost of the understated stone fire surrounds favoured by that master of tactile minimalism, Belgian designer Axel Vervoodt, Chloe came up with her own version. A ply box frame, painted and filled with a rough mix of sand and plaster, is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

‘So much of what we do is thinking up ways to make a place feel interesting and practical, without spending a fortune. It’s not just about having the next best thing.’ This approach came in useful for the kitchen which also needed a rethink. Here, she kept the original carcasses, but added new, panelled doors (by Naked Kitchens) painted a dirty buttercup yellow to sing against white walls. An ungainly wall unit was removed to make room for the table and chairs, and these are positioned for views of the garden: a mass of roses and nodding tulips in high season. ‘The great thing is that there’s now a place for everything, even though it’s tiny.’

We stop to take in all the fun stuff – the holiday souvenirs and market steals – all with a personal, deep-rooted connection. Some pieces, like the lacquered black hat or handmade paper shade in the dining room, recall her early years in Japan, where her father was posted for work. “I was very young, but I remember weekends running around the flea markets in the parks. Our mother would find old kimonos to make into cushions or skirts while my sister and I looked for little things to collect with our pocket money.”

Fabrics like a Jean Monro chintz, Colefax offcuts or the Turkish weave – lugged back in a suitcase – have been made into cushions. Most of the art is by family. A parade of prints, inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes is by her cousin Cecilia Reeve. They hang opposite a lyrical French scene by her husband’s godfather, James Gracie. Her mother, Cecilia Willis, who recently retrained as a potter, made the bowls and moon jars in clear, bright glazes. A vigorous, 1960s linocut of Chelsea is by her great-grandmother. In later years the formidable, Slade-trained Agnes Reeve would fill a pram with artist’s materials and sally forth in search of picture-worthy views.

Chloe likes the way the scroll-armed spoon back chair “talks” to the deep white sofa in the sitting room. There are side tables for drinks or books, and lamps, positioned at just the right height for late-night chats. Everything is at it should be: comfortable, ‘not too precious’ – and practical.

 

James McDonald
 

A wall was removed to make the most of the morning and afternoon light and new bookcases, the backs painted in Farrow & Ball’s Blazer, installed. Chloe designed the minimal fireplace which is made from a wooden frame filled with plaster and sand. The coffee table from Loran & Co is an early 20th century Chinese export and reminds her of her early years growing up in Asia. The bowls are by her mother, Cecilia Willis. The large striped cushion on the sofa is made from an antique silk Jajim found at the Cetinkaya gallery in Istanbul and backed with a red-dyed antique French linen sheet. The relaxed Roman blind is made from Pierre Frey’s Ochre Cabriere linen with a slightly glazed finish.

 

James McDonald

In the sitting room, the large painting, The Jacket, by Tristan Barlow was the catalyst for the room’s vivid scheme. The IKEA Sinnerlig daybed is by Ilse Crawford: “I queued for ages at the Tottenham branch to get my hands on one,” says Chloe. The central cushion is made from Le Manach’s ‘Les Elephants’, while the seat squab is made from an indigo wrapper worn by the Mossi people of Burkina Faso. The artwork above the white sofa was a 21st birthday present. The spoon back chairs are from Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler and covered in a George Spencer stripe velvet with an antique silk ikat used for the cushion.

James McDonald

 

James McDonald

 

On the landing, Chloe designed the bookshelves framed by a simple rebate to conceal the pipework. The back wall is painted in Farrow & Ball’s Blazer to echo the sitting room.

 

James McDonald

 

An antique Uzbek robe hangs against walls painted in a Papers & Paints special mix, PP28 -5-19BB.

 

James McDonald

 

On the wall, the Pichwai, a devotional Hindu altar painting usually painted on cloth, is from the Ganesh Emporium in Udaipur. Its fresh tones inspired the paint colour: Blue Gum by Paint Library. The curtains are made from Colefax & Fowler’s ‘Squiggle’ fabric and bound in olive green linen. The rug is a Robert Stephenson Balbek flatweave; a pair of Anglo- Indian carver chairs are from Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler’s antiques department, with the cushions recovered in Colefax’s Eaton Check. Chloe bought the other chairs as frames from antiques dealer Benedict Foley; they were ebonised by Norfolk polishers Cranswick and Wilkin and covered in a slubby linen.

 

James McDonald

 

The dining table is early 20th-century, from Miles Griffiths Antiques. The side tables are covered in a Dabu cloth from The Cloth House which conceals filing cabinets and printers so that the room can also double as an office.

 

James McDonald

 

A protruding wall unit was removed in the kitchen to make room for a family dining corner. Chloe designed the asymmetric shelving adding the new shelving on the right of the chimney breast. The hand painted tumblers are Spanish.

 

James McDonald

 

At the back of the apartment, Chloe kept the old kitchen carcasses adding new doors from Naked Kitchens, painted in Little Green’s Yellow Pink. The counters are a a deep composite surface, a legacy of the previous owners. The pendant lights are from Pooky.

 

James McDonald

 

In the main bedroom, the antique Sumbanese Ikat weave, bought from John Gillow, was the starting point for the room.  The kilim is from Seref Ozen in Istanbul; the headboard and valance are made from Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler’s Zig Zag print. To the left of the ladder hangs a linocut of Chelsea by her great grandmother Agnes Reeve; above the chest of drawers an Indian Pichwai textile, painted for a festival of cows, was bought back from Udaipur. The indigo throw is from the Chapel Collection. The blue Chinese indigo cushions are from Penny Worrall. The long bolster cushion is made from Santander by Rosa Bernal.

 

James McDonald

 

In the main bedroom, Chloe replaced the laminate wardrobe doors with a new, panelled design adding Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler knobs painted in Papers & Paints 7-077 to match the doors. The ‘Lancaster’ wing chair from Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler’s antiques department was recovered in Rosal Bernal’s Santander. The table is from Malawi.

 

James McDonald

 

James McDonald

 

The bath is all that remains of the old bathroom, where the panel was inspired by the joinery of a cupboard by British furniture maker Russell Pinch. The walls are painted in a bespoke, blue-tinged lilac mixed by Francesca’s Paints and the prints above the bath were snipped from a book about Chinese sampans and placed in painted Ikea frames. Chloe also added the pottery-lined shelving to make it “feel less sterile, or bathroomy.”

 

James McDonald

 

Because the apartment takes up half of the original terraced house, the garden is long and thin. To draw your eye, Chloe introduced level changes and raised beds, breaking it up into three spaces and planting geraniums and climbing roses in the seating area “so that it feels secluded and romantic rather than just small.”

 

 

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