Serena Williams-Ellis became an antiques dealer, after a period working at Christie’s, because she was ‘always falling in love’. She explains: ‘It gave me an opportunity to buy everything I fell in love with, then sell it when the a fair was over.’
Now an interior designer, she has worked on ‘lots of classical buildings in Ireland and England’, as well as new-builds including a riad outside Marrakech, where she describes the interiors as ‘eclectic French/modern/Moroccan’. Curiously, Lazonby Manor, the family home outside Penrith that she created and lived in with her former husband, the sculptor David Williams-Ellis, and their three children, is also classified as a new-build.
‘It was a crumbling farmhouse and we pulled down half of it,’ says Williams-Ellis. ‘The peel tower is like a keystone, linking old to new. A lot of what I do, including our drawing room at home, is what I call a happy jumble. The pair of chairs covered in bright pink linen, the hand-embroidered textiles from Guatemala — they’re just things I like, thrown together. So get yourself a storeroom — I have cupboards of stuff that I’m always bringing out for clients’ projects — and go with your instinct.’ The designer also lives in Holland Park, London.
The drawing room at Lazonby Manor, which Williams-Ellis describes as a ‘happy jumble’
1: Consider starting from scratch
Building your own home is one of the most exciting things you can do, because you create your own footprint. Old houses usually have a rabbit warren of kitchen, sculleries and pantries at the back. Today, though, the kitchen is the most important room, and everyone wants the kitchen, dining room and living room all to be one space. In a new-build, you can have a big front door with the kitchen of on one side and a boot room on the other, and the morning sunshine pouring into an east-facing bedroom. You can really make it work to fit your lifestyle.
2: Choose your architect carefully
You don’t want a new-build to look like a Georgian pastiche; nor does it need to be 21st-century cutting edge. What you want is timeless — the architectural equivalent of the little black dress. A good way to achieve this is by incorporating local materials, as we did in Cumbria, and varying some of the features so the end result doesn’t look brand spanking new: we used big old Cumberland stone tiles on the roof of our peel tower and old Burlington slate tiles for the other new part.
3: Look and copy
The mother of one of my clients created the most incredible houses. She used to say, ‘There’s no such thing as being original, I just copy, copy, copy.’ I agree. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Some of the best design was done by the Greeks and the Romans. So look at what’s gone before and copy it, or simplify it a bit. Nature can be a source of inspiration, too. In the spring in Cumbria, you get these bright blue harebells and silvery green lichen. It’s an unexpected colour combination but it works beautifully.
‘Contrasts make things interesting,’ says Williams-Ellis. Here, a Hepplewhite bed in one of the bedrooms
4: Use salvage
Salvage is brilliant, but needs to be used sparingly — you don’t want your house to look like Steptoe’s yard. The 18th-century panelling in our dining room came from a Chatsworth attic sale of items from Devonshire House in London, which had been demolished. The family had taken out all the doors and architraves, and kept them in the attic. You don’t need to do the same thing in every room, either. The beautiful 18th-century mahogany door in our drawing room has a very different feel to the panelling.
5: Contrast colours and textures
I’m a great one for mixing and not matching — contrasts make things interesting. I would never put baby pink and baby blue together, for instance. I would contrast pretty with ugly: pink with grey or chocolate brown, yellow with mossy green, brilliant hues with drab ones. And if I do walls that are skim-fat and high-gloss, I will almost certainly choose something like an uneven, slightly crusty, salvaged French limestone for the floor.
6: Embrace the unexpected
One of the guest bedrooms in Cumbria has a very pretty (sadly discontinued) floral wallpaper by Colefax and Fowler. The obvious thing would be to put a simple white linen cover on the bed and pretty little floral prints on the walls. But that would look too ‘done’. So instead I’ve added a vintage red paisley bedcover and a classic painting of horses that you would normally find on a plain wall in the dining room or library. It gives the room a bit of gravitas. I will also, typically, put a 20th-century modern British painting in an 18th-century frame. It’s just more interesting.
Opening off the hall, the downstairs bathroom is adorned with architectural plans
7: Create balance through variation
Again, I would never have a pair of chairs, a pair of lamps and a pair of sofas in the same room, or design a room with tables and chairs all of the same height — you can create balance instead with a high-backed chair and a low table. Over-scale lamp bases, like pots and jars, are also good for creating variation, and if you have a lot of hard edges, you need to soften them.
Main image at top: A pink and grey landing. Interview by Lisa Johnson
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