The Detail Makes The Difference

24th August 2012

Jill Glenn meets one of the designers responsible for the interiors of the revivified Bentley Priory – and picks up a few tips

‘Acquaint yourself with opulence’ suggests one of the marketing slogans on the hoardings that surround the Bentley Priory site, and all evidence indicates that, once you drive through the gates, you have little option to do otherwise. The historic mansion house at the heart of this 50 acre parkland site is being superbly brought back to life by City & Country Group, while Barratt Homes are building a selection of lavish new properties in the grounds – all approached by a long driveway taking you to the heart of this beautiful setting. The views over London are magnificent – genuinely breathtaking – and gardens are, of course, exquisite.

The location has a long and distinguished past; it was mentioned in the Domesday Book, was the home of medieval Augustinian monks, fell into private hands after the dissolution of the monasteries and eventually benefited from the attentions of eminent 18th century architect Sir John Soane, who, in 1788, transformed a small villa into the impressive – and now Grade II* listed – building that we see today. Home to the Abercorn family, it welcomed the cream of political and literary society in the 19th century, and was the residence of Dowager Queen Adelaide. It’s been both a hotel and a girls’ school. It is, though, best known for its role as the Headquarters of Fighter Command. Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding set up his office in elegant rooms and oversaw both the Battle of Britain and the D-Day landings. As well as stunning homes, the mansion house will also contain the Bentley Priory Museum, to interpret the history of the property and honour its past.

The combination of history, fine architecture and beautiful gardens in registered parkland is incomparable. It is, without doubt, one of the country’s most historic addresses – and it’s rapidly becoming one of the most prestigious again…

When you start with a structure as iconic as Bentley Priory, and have plenty of resources at your disposal, making an impact is almost inevitable. You’ve wonderful big windows, for example, and all those quirky architectural features that give the building individuality. Surely it’s a one off, that can’t possibly be replicated anywhere else?

True – and not true, says Liz Freeman, one of City & Country’s in-house interior designers, explaining that she’d take a similar approach to a much smaller project, too. “A mixture of flair and practicality gets the best end result,” she declares, when I meet her to tour some of the newly finished apartments.

The hall walls here are painted in the most delicious rich blue (a shade with more than a passing nod to the building’s RAF heritage), which contasts beautifully with the lighter colour and clean lines of the Sir John Soane staircase. That’s some statement piece, and I’m interested to note that Liz hasn’t slavishly followed a heritage theme in the rest of the space. The wall lights are very contemporary, delivering an atmosphere that is both elegant and in keeping with the architectural feel, but without being oppressive.

You can use a strong shade anywhere, Liz suggests, but do have the courage of your convictions. The first few brush strokes may alarm you, but don’t be put off. Be brave. Wait until you’ve finished before you make the final judgement. And don’t be afraid of colour. Darker walls don’t necessarily mean darker rooms; you can use mirrors and even chrome furniture to bring light in, and the contrast with white paint on skirting boards or window frames, for example, is deliciously crisp.

Liz has a particular antipathy towards gloss paint. “It discolours so quickly,” she explains. “Satin’s much better… warmer, softer, less sheen… and it’s more traditional, too.”

Light, she believes, is crucial to any scheme, and she’s full of little tricks about how to make the most of it in every room. In one of the well-appointed bedrooms, for example, not only is there mirrored furniture and a light-reflective throw over the bed, but even the cushions have a gentle sheen. The mixture of subtle colours and textures is soothing without being bland. The light is further enhanced by the fact that there are no curtains or blinds at the windows; that might not be practical in your average property, and, indeed, purchasers of Bentley Priory apartments may choose to add them, but, as Helen Moore, Managing Director of City & Country Residential, observes, “of course, here, people are buying features, not curtains.”

One of the keys to a coherent and pleasing end result, Liz says, is lots of time spent on attention to detail early in the process. That applies whether you’re embarking on just a simple overhaul, or a major refurbishment such as has been taking place here. Extra little touches that have been incorporated include not only enough sockets (always more than you can possibly imagine you’ll need) but also a 5amp circuit, so that all the table lamps around the room can be operated from one main switch. Think everything through, and then think it through again.

“Architects don’t really design houses to live in,” Liz laughs, “so designers really need to be asking the questions such as ‘where would you put the bedside table?’“

Breathing new life into the building has been demanding: retaining the essence of the past, while creating homes that are appropriate for today. The bathrooms and kitchens have been beautifully specified – I particularly like the mixture of matt lacquer and woodgrain doors and the stone worktops in the kitchens – and the solid oak rustic boards in the living areas are wonderfully rich and simple. It’s a clever interplay between structure and style, and filled with furniture and fittings to give an impression of the life you could live here.

Liz’s approach to interiors is a powerful mixture of good sense and creative passion. Buy in neutral colours for expensive items, she advises; play safe with investment pieces “…but not too safe”. If you were starting a new room from scratch, I ask, where would you begin? What’s the best piece to buy first? “Base it around something you love,” she says. “Derive the rest of the scheme from that.” I press her for details. Buy the dining table? The sofa? She won’t prescribe a definitive course, admitting that she has, on occasion, based an entire design around a duvet cover.

Don’t buy cheap, she adds: reuse, reupholster, recycle. Buy only for a reason – because something is practical, or you loved it. It’s a straightforward philosophy that often sounds worthy, but Liz invests it with such enthusiasm. “You have to love where you live,” she says.

The Bentley Priory project is huge, no-one can deny that, and few of us will ever get the chance to indulge our interior design fantasies on such a scale; Liz, and her colleague Karen Cox, have had an enviable task. The quality of the end result, though, is within everyone’s reach. Whatever the property, whatever the project, whatever the budget, as Liz says, “the detail makes the difference…”

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