Life at the Top

Some of the grandest Victorian houses in Hastings and St. Leonards were built on quite a different scale to what we are now used to, so it takes some stamina to reach designer Charlotte Elfdahl's flat at the very top of one of the largest seafront residences. Dressed in khaki chinos cinched in at the waist with a green shell top and an Alice band in her hair, there is a strong hint of 1950s style in Charlotte's appearance that is also reflected in the feel of her apartment. First impressions of the rooms also suggest a Scandinavian 'spareness' in the decor and arrangement of furniture, and as she speaks, Charlotte's voice has the slight trace of an accent. "I'm from Sweden," she confirms. "I came to England in 1994 and after getting my degree in Interior Design I worked with several architectural practices in London. I moved to St. Leonards in 2007 and commuted for a while, but then worked with another firm of architects down here until I set up my own business. It sort of started with this flat. I had to do quite a lot of work to it after I bought it and when it came to furnishing it I realised that I needed some really big pieces of furniture and lighting that was more of a statement, so I started collecting old standard lamps and made new, bright shades for them. My friends started asking me to make them for their homes too, and I realised that there might be real demand for these things. I built up a bit of stock and did a show called Coastal Currents last year which went really well. I couldn't keep on sourcing old lamps though, and I didn't feel that it was right to sell secondhand ones in the long term, so I found a woodturner who could make them for me. Now they are made locally to my specifications and I also have a supplier of shade frames. I source all the fabrics myself and I particularly like designers such as Michael Miller, and Amy Butler from America as well as Scandinavian designers of course – especially Tilda, a Norwegian company. I decided to call the company 'Rockville' because I've always been interested in urban design and of course 'ville' means town and the 'rock' part, well that's because I like the rock and roll music of the 50s.

"I think many people in Britain tend to think of the 1950s as a rather drab time, and, after the war, it probably was, but in Sweden, it was a colourful, optimistic decade and we were heavily influenced by America. I started collecting 1950s vintage clothes – especially the dresses because they are so well-made and are intended to be fitted – so the fabric flatters the body rather than just hangs off it. I really admired the craftsmanship involved and I've tried to reflect that in what I do. The lampshades I create are very time-consuming to do. I bind them all with cotton first, make a pattern and then pin and tack them on before I make the complete shade, line it and add the trimmings. It is then stretched over the frame, so it has to fit perfectly."

Charlotte moves into the kitchen to make tea. In this room, she recalls that she replaced what was a rather stained green carpet with black and white tiles and added new kitchen units in clean, plain white, with simple brushed stainless steel handles. The worksurface is dark stained beech while the walls are a sunny yellow. Above the stainless steel cooker is a quartet of framed wartime posters with classic images and slogans that exhorted the public to 'make do and mend', give waste scraps to pigs, send the children to safety in the countryside, and use 'shanks's' pony (ie. your own legs) to get about. The window overlooks the garden square and rooftops of St. Leonards and to the south, the sea glistens in the odd burst of sunlight. "I really like being by the sea, but it seems a little strange to me here because it is so empty. I'm from a seaside town in Sweden but there are always lots of boats and people in and out of the water there."

The flat's main reception room is subtly divided into a sitting and dining room merely by the arrangement of furniture, so that at the end nearest the kitchen there is a sideboard against one wall that has been given the same chocolate brown paint treatment that Charlotte uses on her lampstands, and in front of the window, there is a long pine dining table with a woven cotton runner. A set of Arne Jacobsen style plywood chairs have been painted egg yolk yellow and are arranged around the table and just above it (in typical Scandinavian style) two olive green enamel lights are suspended on long cords so that they illuminate the table and add a sense of intimacy to the space. On a long wall there is a 1950s advertising poster for BSA motorcycles where a group of extraordinarily good-looking and fashionably dressed young people are out and about somewhere 'Continental' on their motorbikes. Next to it is another icon of 50s glamour – Marilyn Monroe reclines seductively on a film poster for The Asphalt Jungle.

On the opposite wall Charlotte has managed to uncover a handsome Victorian fireplace and has placed a triptych mirror above it. A brown tweed covered sofa delineates the sitting area and there is a tall backed 1950s armchair and a pagoda style coffee table to form a conversational group. There are several sets of shelves with books and pictures on display, including the poster for a recent exhibition in Hastings called Built for Speed and a black resin bust of Elvis by local artist, Mark Selby.

Next Charlotte shows me the 'den' where she designs and makes her lampshades. They are arranged in vividly patterned towers of turquoise, chocolate brown and pink and look a little like layers of ice creams. In one corner of the room there is a tall cupboard, one of a pair that were made by Tim Hoades, a local carpenter and on the other side of the fireplace, a floor to ceiling set of shelves. A simple table stands in front of the window and on top of it is a smart but rather old-fashioned-looking sky blue Singer sewing machine. Underneath it there are more wire lampshade frames and pieces of fabric. "I got some bespoke commissions as a result of the Wealden Times Midsummer Fair," explains Charlotte. "People sometimes bring me their own shades and fabrics so I can make them to suit their existing décor, which I'm also happy to do."

The bedroom is the last room to be photographed. In front of the window (as in the other rooms) Charlotte has added Swedish style 'flower boards'. The windowsills in the flat are too narrow to support potted plants or vases of flowers, so Charlotte has made an extra shelf to accommodate some greenery. There is a simple Roman blind with a black and white line pattern and olive green curtains frame the window on either side. A striking black and white photograph featuring two elegant young women in ballgowns has been framed and hung on the wall. "That's my partner Paul's mother with her sister at a real 1950s Society ball. I've always loved that style of photography, but it's even nicer to have photographs like that of someone I know." Beneath the photograph is a post-war utility chest of drawers and apart from a small chair and stool, the only other piece of furniture in the room is a French bed upholstered in light Chartreuse green velvet that is dressed with white cotton and a hand crocheted throw. A particularly apposite poster hangs on the wall to one side advertising Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. On the wall opposite there is a collection of five framed mirrors, all hung closely together so that they form a kind of panel. Then facing the bed are two very lovely watercolours of coastal scenes that are dated 1940. "They were painted in Brittany during the Occupation by Paul's great-grandfather Armand Roussin-Harrington," says Charlotte. "I love the colours in them and I'm really glad that we have been able to put them on show just across the sea from where they were painted."

Address Book:

To find out more about Charlotte’s company Rockville call 07841 873077 or visit www.homeofrockville.co.uk

words Claire Tennant-Scull
pictures David Merewether
styling Lucy Fleming