My friend Patricia’s birthday parties were the best. They were big occasions: she would invite 60 or 70 people for dinner and set up tables not only in the capacious dining room and kitchen, but also in the drawing room and the hall. The very best table was at the foot of her four-poster bed.
The point was the party, and the anticipation of wondering which room you would be sent to added enormously to the fun. Patricia was fortunate in that her apartment was large and lent itself to entertaining — which it needed to be, as another hundred or so were asked for drinks after dinner.
While very few people are able to host such extravagant affairs, it does feel like fun is on the wane. We work ridiculously long hours, often in our homes, and often with a sad little lunch al-desko.
Last month, Barbra Streisand told the BBC that even she hadn’t had much fun in her life. This should be a wake-up call. We should, where possible, set aside more time for having fun and enjoying ourselves — and that begins in the design of our homes.
Patricia’s exuberant entertaining style is not suitable for all — and thankfully, a four-poster bed, caterers and a vast dining room are not prerequisites for entertaining — but now that our post-pandemic freedoms allow us to have shared experiences in our homes again, we should seize the opportunity, whether that’s drinks with one friend or 300.
As an interior decorator, the most common complaint I hear from those hesitant to host is lack of space, particularly given the demands put on today’s homes. House prices and rents are incredibly high. And very few people have morning rooms, garden rooms, drawing rooms, dining rooms or libraries, which in the past all had their specific functions. Today, we have fewer rooms — and they need to work far harder.
I like to know how clients want to use their room or house — what they need from it. When it comes to designing homes for entertaining, my list of questions is long. How, exactly, do you like to host, or enjoy yourself at home as a family? Are you partial to chic cocktail parties or rabble-rousing dinners? Do you hope for your guests to arrive besequinned and kitchen disco-ready, or are you happiest holding movie nights, slouching with pals in front of an enormous telly? Consider all these requirements at the earliest possible stages.
Magic can be made even if you don’t have a huge number of square metres. A perfect example is the tiny space in Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, where Jim Ede’s beautiful, American elm table with the skinniest benches on either side is shoehorned into a sliver of room. Up high and out of the way, a shelf runs around the L-shaped alcove, with green and white Rockingham plates for decoration. It is one of the best dining rooms ever. What can we learn from this minimal space? That every inch counts, and dining tables of the perfect size are a devil to find, which is why often they must be made bespoke.
Don’t be afraid of making changes to the layout. My daughter and son-in-law’s first one-bedroom flat was a muddle of tiny rooms and corridors. We knocked out walls to leave a bedroom, bathroom and then one room for everything else (you may need to seek permission from the freeholder). Plenty of tricks were used: a dining banquette with a hinged lid for storage, a large glass-topped table, a decadently lacquered L-shaped kitchen and finally, a deep sectional sofa that everyone could pile on to.
I am not, however, always an advocate of open-plan living. If you’ve succumbed to the typical terrace kitchen extension, you’ll know that guests end up huddling in corners rather than circulating around the whole space, and that noise levels are horrific. Far better to install double bifold doors between the rooms so that they lead into each other, allowing the whole space to flow. The fact is, people don’t really want to stand up all evening and, actually, smaller spaces are often more appealing. If you want to break up a large room and joinery is out of the question, think curtains, screens and rugs.
Having a separate dining room is a great luxury but if you don’t have enough space, careful planning can resolve this. A London client recently requested a kitchen that shouldn’t look like a kitchen, so I made it look like a dining room. Must-haves were his antique mahogany dining table and a wonderful Gothic brass hanging light. I put in as much storage as possible — storage is key to living comfortably — with newly installed double doors leading to the drawing room. Farrow & Ball’s deep Studio Green for the walls and woodwork made a glamorous background for the furnishings.
Where we had to see kitchen equipment, I made sure this was beautiful too: a copper-clad sink, brass taps, mottled Balineum tiles and a large range cooker with marble splashback. It’s always good to have a large, deep sink, so that you can hide the plates out of sight while eating in the same room. Even better, if you have the space and budget, you might be able to carve out room for a “dirty kitchen” for prep, cooking and tidying — sometimes called a back kitchen, these are increasingly sought-after and can be created with joinery — so that the eat-in kitchen can stay looking pristine.
There is something incredibly glamorous about a home bar, and they really do come in all shapes, sizes and budgets. Consider a marble-topped table with serried ranks of mixer cans, bottles and glasses à la David Hicks, or a bar cart or butler’s tray, which takes up barely any room at all. Those short of space can choose one that’s petite in size but punches above its weight in looks, then squeeze it into an alcove or a corner of the sitting room. You could also tuck in a drinks cupboard under the stairs, as I did for a client whose hallway was the centre of the house. We managed to slot in a small fridge, then added a slate top and skinny shelves on three sides for glasses.
For a budget at the higher end, my colleague Lucy Hammond Giles designed a very smart piece of furniture with pocket doors which open to reveal a mirrored interior, beautifully lit with glass shelves. That element of surprise is particularly fun to incorporate. I’ve just designed what looks like a tall screen in the corner of a large room. When you fold back the antiqued mirrored doors a bar is revealed, stocked with bottles and glasses. The joy of the screen cupboard is that the drinks are concealed until you want to see them. I worked on it with furniture maker Rupert Bevan, who is unparalleled in the art of the cocktail cabinet and bar.
On to entertainment. Living in a block of flats above a pianist, I love hearing her practice when I’m at home. However, for a house in Hampstead where my clients liked to listen to very loud rock music, we not only covered the walls in fabric but added acoustic insulation to walls, floor and ceiling. It’s like a padded cell, but a glamorous one, and his neighbours still speak to him.
If live music is more your thing and, like artist and designer Alec Cobbe at Hatchlands Park, Surrey, you can dedicate most of your house to an unparalleled collection of musical instruments, that is very wonderful. Equally, a friend’s sister with a small terraced house in Cheshire has sacrificed her sitting room to house her baby grand. Our houses reflect who we are, after all, and pianos provide decoration as well as pleasure.
Spaces such as games rooms need to earn their keep, but I love the way they can be multipurpose. If movie nights and games — electronic or otherwise — are your thing, then consider a games room, TV room and library combined. I like nothing more than the idea of a snooker table in a book-lined room with a large screen and a huge sofa.
For one client who wants a games room and dining room but doesn’t have space for both, we are looking at games tables that morph from a dining table to a pool table to an air hockey table to a ping-pong table — genius! Projectors and drop-down screens, too, are easy to fit into a small house as an alternative to a permanent, large screen.
A dedicated puzzle or board game table is a delight. For a bespoke commission, designer Cressida Bell transformed a simple round table by painting it with her wonderful designs — this sits in the bay window of a games room for a client with a penchant for puzzles. With a baize cloth it becomes a card table or even a place for the roulette wheel. An upholstered ottoman will serve very much the same purpose. In fact, the humble ottoman or coffee table can play all sorts of roles, so don’t scrimp on size.
Lighting plays a big part in creating atmosphere. Sally Storey’s book Inspired by Light is a bible to scene setting. If you have the budget, a lighting system will allow you with a flick of a switch to go from daytime mode to full-on nightclub. Harsh lighting is to be avoided at all costs; nothing is worse than the unflattering glare of overhead lights for you and for your guests.
Ultimately, it is my job to create homes that reflect the lives, tastes and pleasures of the people who live in them, not just their guests. I did just that for myself, in what I call my “book barn” in Oxfordshire. In what was a glorified garden shed, I created a galleried reading room to display my beloved book collection, along with a bar, pantry, annexe bedroom, study and tiny bathroom. I love spending time there — with guests and family, of course, but perhaps most of all when I’m alone.
Everything in it is recycled, including my grandparents’ sofa, recovered in corduroy. My books are to hand, as is a trunk filled with many of my vintage fabrics, through which I love to rifle. A proper home for personal hobbies and treasures is a domestic joy. I have not just one but several favourite places to sit and read, each with a table, lamp and small tray for a drink close by. Gardening kit is stored neatly in an adjacent storage room. I can eat, relax, read, garden, listen to music. It is a space that really flows, which is the essential ingredient we want from our homes.
Whether a room is successful and enjoyable has little to do with the spend, and far more to do with thought. The least successful and least enjoyable rooms are the “try too hard” ones that try to make everything too perfect. Worry less about how a room will look on Instagram, and focus instead on how it feels and works for you.
As hostess extraordinaire Sibyl Colefax advised, “Everything in a house should be so simple and yet so ingeniously contrived that life flows through it easily. Furnish your room for conversation and the chairs will take care of themselves.”
Emma Burns is the joint managing director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler
Source: Financial Times