Period homes are so full of character but come with challenges. For families who wish to live in a modern way, it can be difficult to see a path when you first buy a period home. It can be overwhelming and timing consuming. Yet they are so rewarding and make the warmest welcoming family homes.
I really enjoy designing period homes but I know from my own experience that it’s so easy to make mistakes. In this article, I share my tips for designing period homes and potential pitfalls to avoid.
LET THE ARCHITECTURE SHINE
A period home has so much of its own character. In my opinion, the architectural features of a period home are what makes it interesting. The way you decorate it should highlight the architecture and its unique features, rather than distracting from it. Your furnishings and fabrics shouldn’t compete with the features of the room. The architecture provides the bones of the room and the furniture adds structure and contrast. Then let your fabrics and textures create atmosphere and warmth, alongside your lighting. It’s layering that creates a beautiful room, not a competition between the different elements.
EMBRACE THE ECCENTRICITIES AND FLAWS
In one of my recent period home projects, the clients were totally confused about how to disguise the wonky ceiling and floor lines in their bedroom. In reality, you can’t argue with the architecture, yet at the same time, you want to feel relaxed in that room and be able to sleep! There are ways to soften wonky lines and deal with those practical challenges, yet at the same time embrace those eccentricities. In this bedroom, we decided the bed had to be on a level for a good night’s sleep. I sourced a bed with adjustable feet to allow one side to be raised and had a bespoke valance made to cover the feet. Then designed a bespoke headboard with a smooth curve, rather than a straight line. A rectangular headboard would have totally accentuated how out of line the bed was with the ceiling.
INVEST IN WELL MADE CURTAINS AND BLINDS
An inexperienced curtain maker will be stumped by what to do with wonky floors and you could make expensive mistakes. This is one area I recommend you invest in. I tend to specify pooled curtains (that break on the floor) in old houses to disguise a sloped floor, otherwise, one side of the curtains will hang higher than the other. Pooled curtains also keep the room warm and suit the character of a period home. In some rooms I recommend gathered or ruffle top curtains.
They disguise a pole that might be highlighting a slope and also stop draughts coming in through the top of the windows. Finally, choose your fabrics carefully and with warmth in mind. In period homes you are often not allowed to change the single glaze draughty windows. I like soft wools or chunky linens on curtains and I always make sure they are lined and interlined. The style you choose for the curtains depends on the feel you want to create. In this house we deliberately went for a loose relaxed style, avoiding perfect pleats and any sense of formality.
PICK YOUR NEUTRAL PAINTS CAREFULLY
I tend avoid cool whites and greys in old houses. I find it just doesn’t go with the brown tone of wood beams. If you do like greys, there are some mid-tones I love colours that sit between a warm white and a grey. My favourite neutrals include the Slate palette by Paint and Paper Library and the Slaked Lime palette by Little Greene. If you choose a neutral, then build colour and texture in other areas of the room.
In this room, we used the Slate palette as the clients loved smoky colour tones. When accompanied by those fabrics Slate works perfectly and feels sophisticated and quite contemporary. The room feels calm and relaxed and the rooms that lead off it were painted in richer tones to create interest. I love these peek throughs to other rooms.
Other neutrals I recommend include Schoolhouse White, Old White and Slipper Satin by Farrow and Ball and the Stone palette by Paint and Paper Library. These are failsafe colours that tend to look good in most lights. For me, the most challenging neutrals are those cool greys that can look incredibly cold in badly light old houses. The Salt palette by Paint and Paper Library is the one grey palette I find totally reliable and avoids the dreaded lavender!
CONSIDER “NEW’ NEUTRALS TOO
When we think of neutrals we tend to think of whites, taupes and greys for instance. But in rooms with poor light or little character, I prefer using dusky pinks and sage greens for instance.
These new neutrals add much more warmth than an off white and don’t feel obvious when you walk in the room. My favourite example is Setting Plaster by Farrow and Ball or the China Clay palette by Little Greene. In this beautiful kitchen by Middleton Bespoke I recommended the client paint a chalky pink on the walls to go with the blue/black cabinet colour that had already been selected. It was such a dark room with terrible light that any white or grey would have looked so drab. China Clay Dark on the walls adds so much warmth to the space and makes the kitchen feel so inviting.
EMBRACE WARMER COLOURS IN DARK SPACES
In my mind, there are two main reasons you’d use a darker colour in an old house. The first example is a poorly lit room that you predominantly retreat to at night. For instance, the TV room was so dark and was previously painted white. With no natural light, we decided it would be a perfect cinema room and installed full cinema technology with The Cinema Company. We used Indigo by Edward Bulmer, which is a wonderful chalky blue with warm undertones. When combined with the lush velvet corner sofa this space feels so enveloping and cosy.
Other examples that work well for dark colours include gloomy hallways with no character. This corridor used to be an unwelcoming space you simply walked through. It’s now a space you want to linger in and the colour connects to the rooms that flow off it. So it feels lovely walking from room to room. I always recommend atmospheric lighting in spaces with dark paint colours. In the dining room in the same house, the large mirrored wall lights create a beautiful glow at night.
ALWAYS CHECK FOR ACCESS
One of the most common mistakes with period homes is access. As well as the width of the door check heights too. Heights are so easy to miss and a crucial for pivoting furniture into rooms. Watch tight corners and staircases too. Staircases in old houses often aren’t suitable for access as they have very low ceilings and tight turns. You may find that some items of furniture (such as wardrobes) have to be delivered in pieces and assembled in the room itself. This house had the smallest door I had ever seen – it only came to my shoulders and I lost count of the number of times I hit my head on it! So measure, measure, measure and then check again. And if your furniture company offer access checks take them up on it!
ADD WARMTH WITH YOUR FLOORING
Period homes often come with very shallow foundations. You are unlikely to be able to dig down to install under floor heating. In my own house, I have so many stone floors and they can get very cold in winter. Invest in large rugs made from 100% wool and carpets with the best underlay you can afford. In old houses, you have to find as many ways as possible to add warmth, as the houses weren’t really designed for warmth when they were built!
As much as I love the look of jute and sisal, I tend to only use these rugs in spaces where I wouldn’t have bare feet such as halls and kitchens. Do be aware that these duvz aren’t as practical for spills and stains so reserve them for when the kids get older and go for the darker colours. Or spaces where spills are less likely!
Finally, MAKE SURE YOU GET THE APPROPRIATE PERMISSION
Your house is likely to be listed so you’ll need both planning permission and listed building consent. Listed building consent is required for all works which affect listed buildings. It focuses on the effect any works might have on the historic interest of a building. Work that usually requires consent includes replacing windows and doors, removing internal walls and changing fireplaces. Get the best advice you can as cutting corners just makes things more expensive in the long term. The success of a project is totally reliant on the skills and experience of those employed to work on it. See my article on renovating listed houses for more tips on this.
I hope you’ve found this article interesting. More photos of this project are available in the Portfolio section of this website. Please do get in touch if you’d like to discuss your period home. I’d love to hear from you.