Dulwich-based architect and interior designer Melanie Williams shares her tips on adapting period properties for modern life

Words: Trish Lesslie

You love the spacious rooms and the high ceilings, but while period properties can offer generous proportions and a sense of character lacking in many a new-build, they can also leave a lot to be desired when it comes to the practicalities of 21st century living.

Kitchens designed in another century can struggle to accommodate all the appliances we consider a necessity, the flow of rooms often doesn’t suit our less formal lifestyles and bathrooms are usually too cramped and/or too few to complement contemporary family life.

All of the above were issues for the owners of a five-bedroom, one-bathroom Victorian Herne Hill house recently remodelled by Dulwich-based architecture and design practice Melanie Williams Interiors (MWI). A priority was upping the bathroom-to-bedroom ratio, which was achieved by installing a new guest WC on the ground floor, a more spacious family bathroom on the first floor and a large double shower room on the second floor, which is also home to the master bedroom.

The owners, who have two young children, were also keen to establish a better a sense of flow on the ground floor, which MWI achieved by removing interior walls to allow for a clear view to the garden from the front door.

‘The property was stuck in a time warp,’ explains Melanie Williams, who trained at the Royal College of Art. ‘The owners wanted a fresh new look and to avoid any dark corners, so we used minimal-framed windows to open up the kitchen to the south-facing garden. The flush threshold [barely visible frameworks around windows and doors] was important for the sense of space flowing out and to make a safer, more child-friendly route to the garden.’

The owners wanted a fresh new look and to avoid any dark corners, so we used minimal-framed windows to open up the kitchen to the south-facing garden

The kitchen fittings were inspired by Italian brands such as Boffi, but were created without the hefty price tag. ‘Since it was bespoke built, we were able to choose whatever colour we wanted and opted for a darker shade (Farrow & Ball Green Smoke) to contrast with the rest of the bright space,’ says Melanie.

What would originally have been the master bedroom, the largest room at the front of the house on the first floor, was transformed into a family room complete with a climbing wall for the kids – a feature that would have been inconceivable in the ‘children-should-be seen-but-not-heard’ days when the house was built. MWI also ensured the designs included plenty of built-in storage.






‘Having a young family of my own I’m all too aware that storage is key because of all the necessary paraphernalia that comes with having children,’ says Melanie. ‘I’m also aware of how important it is to design-in clever solutions that can help everyone live more harmoniously. Being overwhelmed by stuff can make a place feel less restful and a home should be a place of respite and where a family can relax.’

In the second floor master bedroom, the headboard, which has a practical secret shelf at the back, was designed to match the built-in wardrobes opposite. ‘The matching finishes balance the room,’ says Melanie. ‘We wanted to use something with some texture – not upholstered or a timber veneer as is typical – so we chose an unexpected finish.’

Bespoke joinery offers the chance to create something with unexpected features and finishes that can become a real talking point

That finish came from OSB (oriented strand board), an engineered lumber similar to plywood formed by compressing layers of wood strands. Painted in Farrow & Ball Railings, it has a tactile, textural look and finish.

In terms of recent trends, Melanie says she’s noticed clients are increasingly interested in bespoke joinery. ‘It offers the chance to create multifunctional spaces and furniture that can work really hard for you. It can also create a “wow” factor,’ she says. ‘Designing bespoke offers the chance to create something with unexpected features and finishes that can become a real talking point.’

‘I try to show clients ways of achieving what they want but with a unique, bespoke twist,’ she says. ‘Why not have a one-off, something that others can’t buy? It’s fun to explore interesting finishes, but that doesn’t mean you need to end up with an overly fussy design.’

Many of her clients are also opting for the kind of finishing touches you would expect to find in a boutique hotel, such as ambient lighting. The owners of the Herne Hill property, for example, opted for LED backlighting behind the headboard in the master bedroom.

Melanie has also noticed how keen many are to reinstate original period features when buying homes where they have been stripped out. ‘Putting back a layer of decoration such as cornices into period properties doesn’t take away from a contemporary feel,’ she says. ‘New-build properties tend to be very well laid out and often include practical touches such as buggy storage in the hallways, but they can’t beat old houses for character,’ she says.

So it seems it’s in with the old and the new when it comes to modern living…