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Period homes with a modern makeover

Bright colour and bold furnishings can give a period house a whole new lease of life.


Home owners have become the new time travellers. Intrepid house restorers no longer feel that period authenticity is the ultimate goal. Dark antique-filled rooms are lightening up and modernist geometric shapes of glass, steel and plastic are moving in. There is a growing understanding that the 16th and 21st centuries not only cohabit well but each can accentuate the beauty of the other.

Bruce and Anna Usher did the unthinkable when they bought Ovey’s Farm in the heart of the picturesque Berkshire village of Cookham. It was a Grade II listed 14th-century farmhouse which needed work. They added a startling new 40ft-long kitchen cum family room with an all-glass wall fronting onto the garden and concertina doors that could be folded right back in the summer. Didn’t the planners throw up their hands at the desecration of this frail and ancient building? “We are listed, and in a Conservation Area,” says Bruce, “but we asked the conservation, listed building and planning experts to come around with the architect, all at the same time, and talked it through with them sensibly. They were brilliant.”

The unashamedly contemporary design used air-dried green oak, much the same as that used in the original house. “The timbers will bleach and settle and work well with the old,” says Bruce. To do the work they employed Boshers, a highly respected firm of master-builders specialising in historic buildings, which helped to reassure the council. At the same time they gutted, replumbed and rewired the old house, sandblasting the timbers back to their original silvery grey. Knight Frank (01494 675368) is now selling Ovey’s Farm, with four bedrooms and a one-bedroom converted stable block, at £2.2 million.

Bruce, who is a commercial property developer responsible for the greening of Silverstone race circuit, has a fast developing interest in eco-design. He wants to buy a smallholding, be self-sufficient in energy and grow his own vegetables. He aims to teach the children – Polly, nine, Sam and Will, eight and Charlotte, five – how to live in an environmentally friendly way.

Meanwhile, he keeps them in the new extension. “I don’t want them crashing around in the rooms which have walls of wattle and daub and are so old they need protecting,” he says.

Leading designers these days love the look of old and new. They seem to effortlessly navigate around the questions which would hold the rest of us back. How do you mix and match? Do you use colour? Which periods work well together? It seems there are no rules. It all comes down to the individual.

Back in 1989, Tricia Guild, founder of Designers Guild, bought a ruined Tuscan farmhouse called Le Contesse, rearranged the interior to make big light rooms and filled them with Designers Guild fabrics, paints and furniture. Voile hangings from India sit quite happily with comfy old sofas. “People used to think antique wood had to be dark and you couldn’t modernise it by painting it or mixing it with bits of Philippe Starck,” she says. “But we are all travelling more now and seeing how different ingredients can work together.” She has whitewashed the dark ceiling timbers in Le Contesse to make lighter interiors in a style she describes as “rustic modern”.

In the kitchen, a minimalist Corian white table is surrounded by classic Charles Eames chairs and a rustic bench. “It is eclectic but it seems to work. The one is a foil for the other.”

As ever with Tricia, there is intense colour – spring grass green, lavender, Mediterranean blue – with simple textured linens, silks and embroidered fabrics. She is now selling the house, with four bedrooms and a swimming pool, through Knight Frank (020 7629 8171) at £2.5 million to take on another project across the valley which will be large enough for her extended family.

Simplicity is probably the key to managing the hinge between old and new. At High House in Oxfordshire, John and Carol Davies also adopted a severe palette of neutral colours. When you approach the lofty Victorian Gothic exterior, you imagine the interior will be bursting with stuffed moose heads, occasional tables, heavy portraits and an accumulation of ornaments.

But the garden, a peaceful geometric arrangement of cut hedges and still channels of water, hints at what is inside. The country Aga look is nowhere to be seen.

They lived here for a decade before completely reworking the interior three years ago. John sold a business and they used some of the money to dispense with the jumble of small rooms and create a house which flowed to their needs, and was sleek as a modern executive pad.

“I had a very good designer, Karen Batchelor from Isherwood International Design,” says Carol. “There is no flash of colour. The palette is restricted to neutral tones, from chocolate through to white, for the entire house. Every painting was reframed and most of the furniture was handmade for each room.”

A large part of High House was built in 1856, an era when Mrs Beeton ruled below stairs. Now the kitchen is a gleaming chocolate brown and white Bulthaup affair with a central island, tap spray and clever storage solutions. More often than not, John and Carol sit at it with their two sons and four laptops between them. All the furniture is modern, and the music system is streamed into every room. There are seven bedrooms and a gym.

High House is for sale through Knight Frank (01865 790077) at £1.3 million. “I like to explain the amount of thought that has gone into it,” says Carol. “We decorated it for shock value as most people expect the house to be full of wood panelling, chintz and flounces. But nothing is in a room if it doesn’t belong.”

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