Kitsch & Chic

Hannah Gee's house is set back from the road, much further back than all the others, hanging back, in case anyone notices that it doesn't look like the rest, that it isn't a period house. Hannah was curious to know what sort of property was hiding behind the substantial front garden. "When I walked past I'd see the dirt track, and the house all hidden and always wonder what was up there," she says. "We were living in an Edwardian flat nearby and when I saw this house was for sale one day, I said to my husband 'can we go and see it?' I just knew we could do some magic on it." Looking around, it's clear that this house has nothing to be ashamed of now, that Hannah and her husband Colin have certainly worked their magic, transforming a mid-century (the house was built in 1964) concrete box into a contemporary, light-filled family home. But, as in most magical stories, exciting transformations seldom go without a hitch.

Hannah and Colin sold their flat and rented, spending weekends here at the house in the daytime, making plans. Liaising with local architect Martin Roberts, they were able to work out how to get the best from the property. "Then, on the day we exchanged on our flat, I went into labour prematurely and had to stay in hospital for a few weeks. My poor husband had to manage the move on his own. I remember coming out of hospital into the rented flat with the baby (and a toddler) and muddling along not knowing where anything was." Worse was to come half way through the build, in the shape of the financial crash. "Colin was made redundant, so it was all very tricky for a while." Hannah remembers. "When it happened, the builders asked us if we wanted them to stop work on the house - we just said no, but please be as quick as you can so that we can move in!" She is smiling about it now, but it must have been extremely nerve-wracking at the time.

The original house had some sixties features that Hannah and Colin were keen to remove. "There was a huge fireplace and chimney in the middle of the house (where the dining area is today). That had to go. I like most sixties things," she says, "but the fireplace was just hideous." Where the kitchen is now was once a carport and the room the family spend most of their time in, the den, was the garage. "It's a lovely big space," says Hannah. "We had to come out about six feet further than the original footprint of the garage in order to fit Colin's table tennis table in." Today that's been folded away (into the huge cupboard that runs along the back wall) to make space for an indoor climbing frame. There's an elegant cupboard at the end of the room, packed full of shining silver cups. "That's the trophy cupboard. My husband played Roller Hockey for Great Britain and all the children can skate perfectly too, and often do - all around the house!" She laughs.

I notice some old (sorry, vintage) Fisher Price toys in the den. "Fisher Price is so robust," Hannah says. "The fact that it's still around today is testament to the fact that it really takes a bashing. If I have to have plastic toys, I'd rather have retro Fisher Price. I just love the colours and I know they'll last." At the other end of the den is a music centre (for Colin's hobby as a DJ) and a bar - "It's a milkshake bar for the children's parties and then becomes a more grown-up bar in the evening." With its open-plan layout and several sets of French doors opening out onto the garden, not to mention the bar, this house must be a wonderful place for entertaining. "It's great in the summertime," Says Hannah. "The windows on the original house were too small, so we made them all bigger and, where possible, put in glass doors. I call it our 'inside outside' house, because we can open up all the doors and really feel as if we're living outside." Even today, with all the doors shut, the house still feels fresh and elemental.

A covered verandah opens out onto the main garden, complete with ingenious hooks screwed into the framework to support swings of all sorts - from baby swings up to a full-sized hammock. One of their favourite pieces of furniture, the Ligne Roset sofa in the den came from her husband's warehouse-style flat. Hannah had been more 'country cottage' when they met - "So we had to blend minimalism with vintage. Luckily I like the juxtaposition - they can blend well together," she says. "I've really enjoyed mixing contemporary and sixties retro." Hannah obviously has a knack for style blending and has now started a business, Love Inc, a pop-up shop selling and sourcing retro and vintage things for the home. "It started because friends kept asking me 'where did you get that from?' and would I source pieces for them?

Last September I had the idea to buy a few things and hold an open day here in the house. It was really successful. My friends brought their friends and so on, and it worked really well. So I took a table at the Pantiles farmers' market in town - and nobody came." She laughs. Undaunted, Hannah contacted Wealden Times a week before the Midwinter Fair last year. "There were no spaces left, but then, on the first day of the fair Joy (Adams from WT) phoned to let me know that one of the stallholders hadn't been able to make it to Bedgebury. We got there within the hour and sold everything!" The last open day at the house was a shared one, held jointly between Hannah and five other members of the Tunbridge Wells Mums in Business group, a monthly networking organisation that supports mothers running small businesses. "The other sellers were garden designer Karen McClure, interior designer Justine Hodgson-Barker, cake maker Angharad Llywelyn, florist Emma Mills, personal stylist Lyn Meek and Annabel Davies of Bella Jane Jewellery. It's a ticketed event so that everyone has enough space for it to be enjoyable and all donations go to chYps, a local children's hospice at home. 10% of my annual profit goes to Hospice in the Weald."

The house is an ideal venue for the open days (it's also open by appointment) and although there is a 'shop' at one end, it's hard to see where the shop ends and the house starts. Hannah has one firm rule for the business: "I just buy things that I like and then if they don't sell it's not a problem." She chuckles. In fact it's often the opposite that happens and she regularly spends time sourcing replicas of her own possessions and furnishings. "I don't like old brown wood so I've painted quite a few pieces of furniture - the desk in one of the children's bedrooms and a stunning basin unit in the 'grown up' bathroom. "That was a bit of a fiddle at first - working out the exact height of the basin and taps and how it would all fit together. But now it's easy - these can be made to order if people want them." She has acquired quite a few new skills while getting things ready to sell. "I've learned how to mount prints. The posters and prints (Hannah sells original Enid Blyton prints and others from vintage children's books) look so much better when they're properly mounted."

There are a few things she's determined to hang on to though, including her collection of glassware in the children's bathroom. "You won't find any turquoise glass bottles or jars in the shop." Hannah laughs. "I keep all that. Turquoise and pink are my favourite colours," she adds. "They just work so well - with grey, with white, with light." White is used very effectively in this house - on the walls and the shelves in the shop (which can also be made to order), as a cool backdrop to the exuberantly cheerful colours of the objects in the shop (some so garishly retro that they're utterly wonderful) and to allow the more permanent pieces and furnishings to shine - the Calligaris dining table and chairs light up the centre of the house in a way that the original 'feature' fireplace couldn't. "Being built so solidly, it's a very warm house anyway," says Hannah, and there's also under-floor heating all through, running beneath the Amtico parquet-style flooring. 'OH HAPPY DAY' is the message on a framed print for sale in Hannah's shop - a present first given by Hannah to her husband (the gospel song of the same name was played as they left the church on their wedding day). When Hannah and her family moved here four years ago, I'm sure this house (if houses could sing) would have been singing that song.

Address Book:

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