When Phil Russell's job brought him back to London after 18 years of living and working in Tokyo and Hong Kong, he had only a short time to find his family a new home in England. But the house that he selected did not quite meet with his wife Gaynor's approval, and so at a distance of nearly 6,000 miles, she set about finding a more suitable one. It had to be located within an hour and a quarter of the City for Phil, and close enough to Ardingly College for the children to get to school. So, with the aid of the internet, Gaynor began her search. "When I found this house advertised, I flew over and pestered the owner to let me see it. I loved it as soon as I walked in, but although I tried to play it cool at first, my mother was with me and gave the game away by loudly insisting that we had to have it!"
It's perhaps unsurprising that Gaynor should have rather exacting standards, as she runs her own business as a personal stylist, so design is obviously important to her, "Actually, my job is about so much more than just making people look good. The main thing is that I should help them to feel confident, and a lot of the women I meet have slowly lost that sense of themselves. Often they have given up a successful career and, like me, moved out to the country to bring up their children, which of course is great, but it does mean that they don't have much opportunity to go shopping, so as time goes on, they lose touch with what's available and what really suits them. We can all get into a bit of a rut, wearing the same things week after week, but that's where I come in!
"The clothes business is virtually in my blood. My mother worked for Hardy Amies for many years and now has her own shop. My brother-in-law is also in fashion PR, so we have a tendency to talk shop when we all get together. I had intended to open my own shop, but I just felt that it wasn't the right time, and I really love that personal involvement that I get with my clients. I offer a variety of packages, but most often, people want me to come and do a wardrobe detox and then a shopping day afterwards. I ask clients to do a little bit of homework, to fill in a short questionnaire, and to leave just one season's worth of clothes in their wardrobes. I also supply them with a ‘look book' and ask them to fill it with pictures and cuttings of the kinds of clothes and accessories that they like. Then I come to their house and we go through everything in their wardrobe and often they are surprised how many new outfits we can create, simply by making different combinations of things. Sometimes we photograph them and stick the pictures on the inside of the wardrobe, so that the client can see at a glance what they have and what really works. Then we go shopping… but it's not all about designer clothes, it's about knowing where to go to find things that really suit that person's style – and budget. Quite a lot of people who contact me are men who want to give their partner a treat, but in those situations I have to go gently because to some women it might seem like an implied criticism, but it's absolutely NOT about changing her, more about saving her time and energy. I would never do ‘a Trinny and Susannah' and criticise someone's style."
Moving from one side of the world to the other is a pretty dramatic change and Gaynor admits that she experienced quite a culture shock at first. "All my children had been born in the East, and of course we had collected lots of Oriental pictures and furniture over the years. We had a lovely house in Tokyo and I was used to the bustle and anonymity of a big city, so although it was breathtakingly beautiful here, to be in the middle of the English countryside did feel quite strange. I remember a lady knocking on the door here one evening to tell me that she'd noticed that I'd changed the lights in the kitchen! I was rather shocked at that!" she laughs, "but gradually, I got to know everyone in the village. It's very friendly, and for such a little place it's astonishing how many really interesting and creative people live here."
Although the magnificent wrought-iron gates to the house proclaim the date of 1688, it's likely that they were added simply to commemorate the year that the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution' ended with William and Mary taking the English throne, because the house looks even older at its core and from the outside one can see the form of a typical medieval hall house. It has had later additions though, including some made in the early 20th century, but it has remained unspoiled, as the modifications made in the Arts & Crafts style were, fortunately, sympathetic to the original architecture. Interestingly, when the A&C movement was at its peak, it also coincided with a great European interest in Oriental art and a kind of fever for collecting Chinese and Japanese furniture and artefacts. So it's amusing to think then that many of Gaynor and Phil's interiors would not seem out of place in a 1910 edition of Country Life.
The handsome drawing room was once a ballroom, and its warm, honey-coloured wooden floor still bears the scars of many a stiletto heel, but Gaynor has left the boards bare, save for a large square of cream corded carpet in the centre. Two ivory linen sofas have been arranged opposite one another, with a low, mahogany table in between. One sofa, from Designer's Guild, has a tall, buttoned back. Each button is in a different material and some have been delicately embroidered with fabrics that have also been used on the square, plump cushions that punctuate the sofas and armchairs. The huge inglenook fireplace, with its herringbone-patterned brick chimney-breast, has a grand, iron fireback with an important-looking crest. In front of it, Gaynor has placed an iron guard patterned with exotic animals and either side of that stand Japanese temple lanterns.
One wall, which now covers another old fireplace, has been panelled in oak, but otherwise, the walls have been painted a neutral, chalky white. The simplicity of the decorative scheme provides a serene backdrop to the furniture that the couple have collected on their travels. A pair of lacquered Chinese wedding cabinets add a touch of glossy black glamour and a Japanese altar table that stands behind one sofa, beautifully echoes the dark lines created by the stained ceiling timbers and beams. On the south side of the room, a leaded-light door leads to a long, glazed and leaded sunroom that resembles a giant lantern and overlooks the swimming pool and summerhouse, adding another pleasing layer of geometry to the view. Along the corridor is the library. Floor to ceiling shelves seem to groan under the weight of a great collection of books, many of which focus on travel.
A circular mahogany table shows off an oversized white Japanese urn with a mythical Foo or Komainu (lion) dog standing guard on the jar's lid. There is another generously proportioned fireplace stacked with logs and a pair of sofas upholstered in Zoffany pink velvet. "We usually take these sofas out to the summerhouse in the warmer months," says Gaynor. "Our children, though they're now pretty much grown up, love to spend time out there and it's great for entertaining, but most of the time we use the kitchen and dining room when people come to eat."
It's easy to see why. Gaynor knocked the two rooms together and the space is enormous, but she has cleverly furnished it. A red lacquered Chinese wedding cabinet adds a splash of rich colour. Gaynor added window seats and black tasselled blinds. Instead of a traditional, long dining table that would have looked formal and rather cold with so much space either side of it, she chose a square one (that was so vast, it had to be built inside the house), and then she teamed it with some Indonesian wood and cane chairs that she found at Trading Boundaries in Sheffield Green. A simple wrought-iron candelabrum hangs above the table and on the wall behind, an artwork created by American artist Daniel Kelly depicts Confucius and Buddha in conversation. It has been made from vintage Japanese Tatami mats and paper lanterns and rather than being a flat-surfaced painting, the mats have been bowed and lacquered to create a curved urn shape. The edges are ragged, and Gaynor recalls one of the movers being afraid that they had damaged it in transit. "I had to reassure him that it was meant to be like that," she laughs.
Upstairs, the main bedroom is painted a pale green from Kelly Hoppen Paints and the bay window has had window seats added, this time with lilac suede cushions. A blind has been made from a delicately patterned floral fabric and the Danish hand-embroidered cushions on the bed echo the fresh, spring-like colours. The beams in the ceiling have been exposed and form pleasing shapes that resemble leaves and stalks. Along one wall Gaynor had a row of cupboards built to house the couple's clothes and accessories. A small door leads to what was once a priest hole, but which now serves as Gaynor's dressing room. "In one corner of the room there was a rather horrid orange bath, when we first moved here," she recalls. "We really couldn't live with it, but we covered over the space from this side of the room and made a bathroom for our daughter next door. When we came back to England I made the mistake of letting the three children choose the colours for their rooms. Olivia chose pink, red and orange… and then unsurprisingly, she couldn't sleep in it! We have made all the bedrooms more neutral now, but it's still good to have a splash of strong colour here and there." A guest room has been given the same chalky white walls as elsewhere but there is a chocolate brown and white striped blind, echoing the dark wall timbers, while the white bedlinen is dressed with pink embroidered cushions and a Japanese lantern made of textured pink paper hangs above. Against one wall there is a huge mirror and a stack of lacquered boxes. On the smallest box a Perspex stand supports the bronze head of a Buddha. "When I walk past the room at dusk sometimes I can't see the Perspex, so it looks as if the head is hovering in mid air," says Gaynor. "But it's rather nice, as if Buddha and the spirit of the East is watching over us."
To contact Gaynor Russell, personal stylist, call 07771 881519 or visit www.gaynorrussell.com
Trading Boundaries 01825 790200 www.tradingboundaries.com
Designers Guild 020 7893 7400 www.designersguild.com
Zoffany 0844 543 4600 www.zoffany.com
Kelly Hoppen Paints 01383 740011 www.craigandrose.com