With hundreds of fabrics, wallpapers, and paint colours to choose from, many of us are confused, perplexed, or out of our depth when it comes to decorating a room. The thought of refurbishing an entire house from top to bottom could make some want to lie down in a darkened room. But for Belinda Benton, the prospect makes her heart beat faster.
"I have always had a passion for fabric," Belinda explains. "It started when I was a child and my mother taught me to use a sewing machine. I started making my own clothes at the age of eight, I then went on to train in fashion design and then worked in a design studio," Belinda continues. "But when I got married and had children I began to channel my creative energies into our home – and found it was something I very much enjoyed." Which is just as well, for the family moved six times whilst the children were young. "We had to," Belinda points out. "More babies meant more bedrooms – and I ended up having six children."
With every house, Belinda got the chance to indulge her love of interiors and soon found friends coming to her for advice on making their own homes as stylish. "I just loved it," Belinda confesses. But, as with many families, growing children brought thoughts of schools and outdoor space for playing and, sixteen years ago, the family moved to Kent. "I've never wanted my houses to look like show homes. For me, the feel of the house is as important as how it looks. I want a home not just a house to live in." Which is perhaps why Belinda's family stayed happily in their first Kent home for fifteen years. With more and more friends asking Belinda to help them with their own homes, it is not surprising to hear that Belinda opened Evernden Interiors in Cranbrook in 2003. It seems, though, that going into business was a surprise that crept up on Belinda.
"My husband and I spotted the empty shop for sale," Belinda says. "A former ironmonger's, it still had 'Evernden' painted on the fanlight. 'That would make a great art gallery,' my husband said. 'Or the perfect place for me to open an interior design studio,' I pointed out. It was a surprise to both of us. Neither of us had discussed either idea before. But when we did talk about it, Evernden Interiors seemed right."
Having successfully run her business for nearly ten years, Belinda has been busy helping her clients create homes of their own. "I like to get the feel of a house when I work," Belinda explains. "I never want a home to look over designed – the greatest compliment is when I'm told a house looks wonderful but is also very comfortable to live in." With her own children ranging from 15 to 27, and now divorced from her husband, Belinda realised it was time to think about her own home again. A move to a smaller house seemed appropriate again. Having been so happy in their other home, Belinda had a distinct idea of what she was looking for and spent six months searching for it. "Although most of my children have left home or are at university, it's important for me to have enough space for everyone when they all come home. I'd actually made an offer for another house when I got the details on this one," she confesses, "I had to see it. As soon as I walked in, I knew it was my next home. It had good proportions, lots of light and space that was properly laid out. It was also a well-loved home which meant it felt right."
Tucked into the centre of a village, the house had been recently re-roofed and re-wired and it was the perfect canvas for Belinda to put her own touches to. Belinda explains that when looking at a house her mind clears the space and then she starts to place the furniture and ponder on colour schemes. "Sometimes, I start with a lamp and then I'm off, thinking of fabrics and wallpapers."
Standing in the kitchen of her new home, Belinda reveals that this is one room that hasn't changed very much since she arrived. "The previous owners had put in this lovely kitchen and added a light and spacious extension. I love the fact that all the upper storage areas around the workspace are open shelves. That way, you can add the colour with what's on the shelves. But what I really fell in love with the first time I walked into the kitchen was the original cupboards." To one side of the kitchen, Belinda opens flush doors to reveal spacious storage. "I don't know for certain that these are genuine Georgian doors but I like to think they are. Then," she says, stepping out of the kitchen and just into the hall, "look at this! I just love it." It's a 'ta da' moment as Belinda reveals a walk-in larder so large that you could invite a friend in to help you choose the ingredients for supper. "Isn't it great? It was originally part of the entrance into the other part of the house. During the War, the house was a children's home but straight after, the property was divided into two."
Of equal delight to a family home-maker is the dedicated laundry. "I've not had much to do in here," Belinda almost sighs. "It was just right as it was, with linen cupboards and shelving already here. It just needed a lick of paint – Shaded White from Farrow & Ball on the cupboards and Bone on the floor." Back in the hall though, Belinda got to indulge in one of her favourite wallpapers. "It's called Adam's Eden from Lewis and Woods," she says. "It's gorgeous and I've used it in clients' houses a few times. As soon as I saw this hall, I knew it would look terrific in here." And, with images of exotic birds and fruits, it truly does. The floor in the hall was carpeted but Belinda had that taken up and the original floorboards refurbished.
The hallway of the original house is now the dining room. Belinda confesses that she's not usually a fan of the panelled walls that line the room. "They can often seem dark and oppressive so I was surprised when I first came into this room because the wood is actually much lighter and warmer than I thought. Actually, I ended up using a plain, very heavy linen for the curtains in here because, in the end, I didn't want to detract from the panelling! It's not an enormous room which is why I think it makes a good dining room – much cosier than a huge dining hall."
Across the hallway, Belinda leads the way into the drawing room. "In our last house, I'd had a palette of corals so I really wanted to make this room very different. My starting point for this room was a wonderful crewel-work fabric that I fell in love with. I had some of it made up into two cushions and then had the piano stool covered in it. After that, I picked out the colours in the upholstery. The sofa is covered in Osborne & Little Skye linen – it's a great earthy, stone-washed fabric in a fabulous limey green. I really have a passion for fabrics and it isn't just the pattern that's important but the feel of it too – the way it hangs and the way light works on it." The magnificent windows in this elegant room allow the light to flood in. "Lighting is incredibly important in a home," Belinda says. "Natural light is wonderful but lamps can also add dimension to a room and make it feel so much more welcoming. When I'm going round other people's houses I often find I need to clamp my arms behind my back, otherwise I am tempted to switch on lamps and tweak the shades." In this drawing room, Belinda maximised the natural light by refurbishing all the shutters, some of which slide within the walls. "I didn't want to cover those up with curtains." The floor is covered with sisal. "I'm a massive fan of sisal and often recommend it. It's smart but relaxed. I think it creates a more homely feel to a room but it's also very practical. Some people worry that it will mark if something is spilt but in my experience, that doesn't happen."
The snug also has furniture from the old house that has been reupholstered in a new colour scheme. "I had a lamp in my showroom which I realised would look in place here. It has a deep amber glass base and that dictated the colours I used. The sofa in here is covered in a Lelièvre mogadore velvet," Belinda points out. "What I love about it is that it looks fresh but still seems as if it's been sat in for years. As I said, I hate things too designed and perfect." To make the room look more cosy, Belinda has brought the furniture in from the walls. Those thinking it would make the room seem smaller are wrong. The snug lives up to its name without feeling crowded.
The final room on the ground floor has what Belinda calls her 'mad wallpaper'. The downstairs closet has been partly wood-panelled and painted with a Little Green paint. Above the wood though is Andrew Martin's book-lined wallpaper. "It's mad and I love it," Belinda smiles. She is equally proud of her 'wobbly door', hiding a storage area, that was made by one of the many craftsmen she employs. "It fits perfectly around the original beam running up the wall."
The sweeping, wide staircase is flooded with light from the spacious landing. "One of the selling points of this house was that all the bedrooms and bathrooms lead off the landing," Belinda comments. "There are no dark, narrow passageways leading to bedrooms out on a limb." One of the original bathrooms has now been made into a bedroom. "I wanted my own bathroom to be en suite so I had a new wall created in the master bedroom and the bathroom built on the other side of it. And I adore my shell-pink bath." In order to maximise the light, Belinda has had another of her craftsmen make shutters to provide privacy without blacking out the large windows. In the bedroom itself, Belinda has decorated around her existing furniture. The wallpaper is from a new Colefax and Fowler range and the curtains are a Blithfield linen.
One of the other bedrooms and the family bathroom are all decorated in blocked wallpapers from the latest ranges of Cole & Son and Farrow & Ball. Each of the children has added their own personalities to the rooms and they clearly share their mother's artistic eye. "But wait until I show you this!" Belinda almost skips to the end of the landing to reveal what she declares her pièce de résistance: a walk-in linen cupboard. "I call this my upstairs larder and I have always wanted one," she says with a giggle. "Isn't it great?"
It has taken Belinda a year to complete her home. "Now," she declares with a broad smile, "I've moved on to the garden. I never thought I'd be a gardener but I think it could become a new passion. My friend Jo Thompson helped me to design the garden and I love tending it." Reluctant to accept compliments about her own design skills, Belinda is positively boastful and clearly thrilled with her garden. "I feel I can enthuse about it because it wasn't designed by me."
But it's unlikely Belinda's new-found passion will replace her joy in interiors. "I love helping people in their own homes – adore fabrics and wallpapers. The only thing I haven't had the chance to work on is a hotel. Oh – now that would be a wonderful challenge. I'd love that!" she says with a glint in her eye.
For more information on Belinda's interior design company Evernden Interiors call the London office, 0207 127 6866, or Cranbrook studio, 01580 713778 www.everndeninteriors.co.uk