London town houses can offer a lot of period charm, but it can be hard to work out what to keep, add or lose if you are renovating or modernising one. Benita Barretto, owner of BB Design & Decoration, who has worked with several listed and period properties in London, shares her interior design ideas
1 Get to know the history of your house
The past can create inspiration for your interiors, such as painting the skirting dark, or the exterior plaster-work in a “Portland” stone colour, as the Georgians did, instead of white (a rather new colour). Create a modern feel to rooms with period features by either covering all the walls and architectural fitting in the same colour, or by moving from dark to light, i.e. using the darkest shade at the skirting level and the lightest for the ceiling, so that you have a marginally different tone being used on each architectural layer. By looking carefully at your home you can discover amazing finds, e.g. long-hidden fireplaces or original shutters that were buried beneath walls in prior renovations. Restoring these major features can be a super way to add that elusive period charm.
2 Keep the designs simple
Remember that many of the London streets we admire were built with speculative money. As a result, only major reception rooms would have ever have had ornate fittings and fixtures. Bedrooms were plainer, servant’s rooms (the top floor or the lower ground floor) would have been plainer still, and mews houses were once stables. Consequently, don’t feel compelled to over-do it with replica period features such as cornicing. Likewise, the English rarely invested in high-quality flooring. Pine (not oak) was the order of the day and its golden tone, even when aged, can be tricky to work with. As a result, laying a new floor is usually helpful both aesthetically (unless you want a rustic look) and acoustically.
3 Restore or remove period features
Good plaster work, such as an elaborate cornice, is a wonderful feature to be treasured. Plaster specialists can restore its original finesse from beneath layers and layers of paint and bad patch-ups; use the Master Guild of Craftsmen to find appropriately skilled tradesmen. Work hard to keep and restore original tiling and plasterwork if you are lucky enough to have some. It’s also worth restoring fireplaces (a good clean to get old soot off is a great start) and sash windows to their full glory in major rooms. On the other hand, it’s hard to see what a picture rail contributes these days, especially if no pictures are hung off it. If they’ve already been removed don’t bother adding back dado rails or picture rails.
4 Choose complementary materials and designs
All too often, and in particular it seems with kitchens and bathrooms, the interior design jars with the rest of the property. Sometimes it is about the décor, such as using a very different material for kitchen cabinets compared to what is used across the house. Overall, you should aim to have three key hard materials running throughout a house to help provide continuity between the different spaces. For example you could choose polished nickel, French oak and natural grey slate. You then need to stick to this choice. Sometimes this is about scale, such as a bath or sofa that is too large or too low for the proportions of a period room. Take another look at the architectural features in your room and make sure the key pieces of furniture and new fittings co-ordinate with the existing levels. For example, a door height or window bar level gives a natural height for the top shelf of a new shelving unit.
5 Take care with lighting
New regulations require certain proportions of LED lights to be installed if you are putting in new electrics. Downlights can be especially problematic for period homes. Firstly they have the horrible effect of flattening everything and everyone underneath. Secondly electricians (and/or property developers) have a habit of arranging them in ordered rows, this does nothing to enhance a space. Why put a stunning cornice into permanent grey shadow? Instead, install dimming directional spot-lights and/or LED up-lighting or strip lighting for key features, plus floor and table lamps for tasks with dimming capability. It is worth paying the premium for quality known-brand LEDs such as Osram or consulting with specialists like John Cullen Lighting. Then use the same brand and kelvin (or colour) LEDs throughout as much of the house as you can e.g. natural daylight LEDs (3500 kelvin).
6 Have fun with the interior design
The Georgians and Victorians did not decorate to be modest. They decorated as technical innovation and budget allowed, mixing up new and old. A modern contemporary interior usually has a good blend of period features plus either re-interpreted old furniture, for example a Chesterfield Sofa in bright orange, or contemporary furniture and fittings, for example a mid-century pendant in a reception room.