Retro Seascape

I am sure we've all thought about buying a house by the sea - perhaps after an idyllic holiday, or a bracing walk, even just a drive along the coast. On the morning we visit James Rourke's house, as the sullen sky washes grey sea onto grey shingle in a biting wind, I'm feeling poetic, but slightly less enthusiastic about coastal living. Until that is, I step inside this unassuming looking holiday property. And - suddenly - it's as if the sun has come out. We walk in through the light filled ‘sun' room straight onto the soft (actually bouncy) pale carpet of the living room and immediately feel cheered by the light and colour reverberating off the white walls and around this authentically sixties and very stylish space.

James found the house while out for a walk. "We come down here quite often and I know the area very well. One day I saw that this place was for sale," he says. "We were looking for an investment property but I never imagined it would be anything like this. I was thinking much older, something that would be more suited to the type of furniture I collect and sell in the shop (James runs Foxhole Antiques in Hurst Green, where he sells country and French style furniture), but I fell for this sixties box with plastic windows instead." So the furnishing of this house was something of a challenge? "It's such a different style for me," he says, "and it took me right out of my comfort zone, finding things for this house." He does admit though, that since doing this house the odd retro piece is creeping into the shop's stock here and there.

James used to come to this part of the south coast for holidays with his family when he was a boy (they stayed a little further along the coast at Greatstone) and it has great memories for him. "We came down every year. I loved it. There's masses to do around here," he smiles and looks briefly out of the window, "even if it is raining every day."

The house was built in the early 1960s by three brothers and hadn't been out of their family until James bought it two years ago. Eerily James's mother found out that a friend of hers knew the owners and had actually stayed in the house. He plans to have a reunion later in the year with his family and the other family they came on holiday with back then.

The original owners hadn't updated the house at all, so the interior was completely untouched, together with the ubiquitous and compulsory swirly carpets. Many of us would have been tempted to rip out the dated sixties fixtures and fittings, but such is James's vision and sense of style he's been able to incorporate most of them - well ok, the carpets had to go - into the refurbished house, including a yellow bathroom suite which would look horrible almost anywhere else, but proved, along with a small yellow table in the living room, to be an inspiration for the entire colour scheme. "We could have rushed into the renovation and ripped everything out, started with a clear shell, but you have to live with a place for a little while," says James, although he admits that he might not have been quite so patient had he had to actually live in the house prior to the re-decoration.

It's a solidly built house, so no structural work was needed. All they had to do was paint and furnish it. The colour scheme is a wonderfully simple one, with white walls and accent colours limited to three shades: a sunny yellow and two shades of blue. I notice as we go up the stairs that the floating staircase has no bannisters. Is this allowed in a holiday home? I ask. "Well, we make it very clear in the details and to the letting agent (Freedom Holidays in Cranbrook) that the house isn't really suitable for small children," James replies. No sticky fingers on the walls here then. Good plan. The bedrooms still have original glossy black basin units on the walls and they look great, as does a repro Eames chair and 1970s dressing table (from a charity shop) in the master bedroom. I'm struck over and over by objects that, had I come across them, I would have looked at them at best in bewilderment, and then probably thrown them away, but James manages to turn them into focal points and set pieces and they look totally appropriate, not just quirky and retro. "When you're preparing a house as a holiday let most of the budget has to go on the important items such as high quality mattresses, beds, curtains, comfortable carpets, that sort of thing." (In fact the carpets are so soft and bouncy you could almost sleep on them instead of the beds!) "There wasn't much left over, so I had to make do, beg, borrow and buy carefully." The beds have been very imaginatively put together too. An old painted wooden fairground sign in exactly the right colours that he picked up in France forms a bedstead in the master bedroom and he has taken a broken piece of an old bed (which I would have burned) to cleverly make a stylish pair of headboards in another.

I think James is an interiors magician. He smiles at this and admits that he does have a background in art, and has spent many years in the antiques business. But it takes an innate feel for what's right: for colours and shapes, and an understanding of what works within a space. Even the ‘shabby-shagpile' brown rug in the front room, a relic left by the previous owners, has become a fitting and attractive thing. I know it for what it is - a dingy, shaggy old rug that the old owners left behind, seeing no value in it (as with many of the other items), but James has woven an interior spell over it and it looks great. If I put it in my house however, I know the result would be hideous. It's a confidence trick and you have to be bold and able to sustain an illusion. James points out other pieces that have either come out of his mother's loft (a lamp originally from that exclusive interiors emporium - Woolworths), or from second-hand or charity shops.

Riding on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch light railway was always a highlight of James's childhood holidays and now the railway runs right along the bottom of his garden. Not that technically it can be called a garden. At present it's a square of shingle - hard to plant into and hard to find things that will grow in such a place. Luckily the famous Derek Jarman (who knew a thing or two about gardening on a beach) garden is just down the road for inspiration. The garden is the next project.

The subtle seaside colour scheme, white walls and the elemental light of the coast give this house a wonderful feel. There's nothing of the usual cheesy seaside theme here: no old rope or driftwood mirrors, just some lovely, discreet little flotsam fish sculptures that James has made from things he's found on the beach. And it's clean and uncluttered, as only a holiday or showhome can be. "That's the great thing about this place," says James. "The only baggage here is the overnight bag. Everything else can be left at home - no desk or office or everyday detritus. When we're here we're on holiday, or at least in holiday mood."

I'm almost in holiday mood too; I really do love this house beside the seaside, except that now I can't help thinking about all the things I've thrown away that could have been made into charming retro pieces (had I the vision and confidence to use them). Back outside the salty wind is still battering the front of the house and the sea, sky and beach are still just the one shade of grey. "Thank goodness for plastic windows," chuckles James as we (reluctantly) leave.

Address Book:

  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming