All in Place

Philippa MacKinnon has employed her enviable organisational skills to sensitively transform her Victorian grange from a dilapidated space, untouched since the 1960s, to a chic and functional family home with ingenious storage solutions...

On the day the Luftwaffe took out The Grange school in East Sussex, it was really nothing personal. True, the building had been taken over by the Army for the duration but their activities were hardly giving Hermann Goering sleepless nights. It was just that on one winter's evening in 1942 a wandering V1 buzz bomb decided to run out of fuel directly overhead and that was that.

The fine Victorian mansion had been designed by architect Basil Champneys who was responsible for a host of illustrious buildings including Mansfield and Merton Colleges, Oxford, and Newnham College, Cambridge. All of which is of no interest whatsoever if you're a tired buzz bomb. Half of the building was reduced to rubble and the remainder left feeling very sorry for itself.

When it finally came to rebuilding, the day of the great country house was over and the property's new owner decided to work with what was left which, although just the rear of the building and less than half the original structure, was still a sizeable chunk of masonry. It was, however, a faceless chunk - this part of the building had never been designed to have any sort of front elevation. Looking at what remained - large, high elegant rooms and equally elegant and generous windows, the owner decided not to go for the obvious option - another Victorian frontage - but a Georgian facade.

Now tacking Georgian frontages onto younger buildings is always something of a gamble. Get it right and you've a beautifully proportioned building that is every bit as pleasing as an original. Get it wrong and it looks like something a hyperactive three-year-old has built from Lego. So in the case of The Grange, did they get it right? They certainly did.

The Grange is now an absolute joy of a building, inside and out. Credit for the latter goes to its original rebuilder but the interior Brownie points must be claimed by the present owner, Philippa MacKinnon.

"I've always loved Victorian houses," says Philippa. "All our houses have been Victorian. But in the Kent and Sussex countryside really good ones are pretty thin on the ground. When we began looking for a new home, I saw exactly 67 houses - which actually was better than the previous house - that took over 100.

"When we first saw the house, it was in a pretty terrible state. It hadn't been touched since the '60s. We had to strip all the walls and install a proper damp course. The main house took six months to finish, we had six months off and then attacked the kitchen which took another nine months," she says.

When the couple first bought the place, it had four bedrooms and a self-contained flat. Now it has six bedrooms and the ground floor is unrecognizable. "We knew exactly what we wanted to go so we didn't really need any architects," says Philippa. "We just used a structural engineer and builders and craftsmen we could trust."

The kitchen may have been the last to-do on the list but it's now probably the most important room in the house - the room that everybody seems to spend most time in. I say 'room' but it is actually three distinct areas - the kitchen proper gathered around an Aga and large central island, the units all free-standing and built by Rencraft in Tunbridge Wells; a dining area; and a sofa area with woodburner and TV.

The sofas - like every other sofa in the house - are from and the substantial dining table was one of her husband's much-loved pieces from his days in Hong Kong. "I can't tell you how awful it was - orange and dreadful," says Philippa. "I'd been after him to get rid of it for years."

A compromise was reached - the table would remain but the colour had to go and Philippa came up with an excellent and cost-effective solution. Instead of spending hours of her own time painting it or getting a specialist painter to do it, she took it to HRC, a car body shop on the Cranbrook-Goudhurst Road who loaded up their guns with Farrow & Ball Pavilion Grey and charged 100 for the table and 20 for each chair.

However, the real secret of Philippa's kitchen lies not on show but in her capacious cupboards. Open any one and you will find order on a truly epic scale. Here, not a tea bag, not a lump of sugar, not a grain of rice is given shelf space unless in its own immaculately labelled container. Here making a cup of builder's is - unlike my own home - no magical mystery tour through a dozen jars, tins, pots and packets. Here there is organisation and thereby hangs a tale.

Philippa has a demanding London career as a leadership coach but she also has had to find time to run a large home, a husband and four children, which means, in short, she has always had to be organised. For inspiration she turned originally to US domestic guru Martha Stewart. "There just seemed nobody in the UK that was offering this kind of advice," she says.

Stewart worked and Philippa found that merely by being thoroughly organised, by putting in place a range of simple, commonsense ideas, she was able to run the domestic show and the career and even have a little time left over for herself. However, even on short acquaintance, one quickly realises that, for Philippa, 'a little time for herself' is not for a moment translated into ten minutes on her terrace with a cuppa, hobnob and last month's Harper's.

She found, having taken Stewart as starting point, she was adapting it to a UK lifestyle, adding her own ideas and discovering for herself all manner of whizzy organisational aids. "If this was working for me, I knew it would work for other families and individuals," she says. The result was that she teamed up with friend Sarah Mavius to launch a new business - Organised World - which debuts online this month.

'What we're aiming to provide is clever ideas for simple living," says Sarah. "We'll be providing practical and stylish solutions for organising your home, office, garden and travel. Our products are available to buy on our website and we'll be using videos to show how to use our products and how to get the most benefit from them."

But back to The Grange. Entering the house one is met by a lovely vista running the length of the property provided by some serious remodelling, a new steel in place of former arches in the entrance hall and the renovation of an acre or two of superb herringbone parquet.

What is now the drawing room was once the grimy home of the property's oil tanks but that incarnation is now a distant memory. There was no fireplace in the original room so one had to be created for the woodburner. Immediately one's eye is caught by a Swedish style grandfather clock which for all the world looks like an antique but which Philippa quickly points out has an electronic movement. The next eye candy is a wonderful canvas by architect and surrealist painter Leslie Gooday.

On the walls is Farrow & Ball Light Grey and on the floor an Aubusson rug in greens and pinks. By the fireplace stand two Louis XV chairs that Philippa has had re-upholstered in the French style with a different material on back and front. At the other end of the room are two impressive Thai teak chests from Thaiger House. The Design Forum blinds are predominantly grey with the bottom 10 inches in lime green, the two colours separated by a red stripe.

However, when watching TV or a movie, the family retire to the den - once the kitchen and now a cool but comfortable space in Farrow & Ball Downpipe with an L-shape of big and welcoming cream sofas and Designers Guild cushions opposite a generous-size TV. "I wanted big comfortable sofas in here so we could all curl up together and it works beautifully," she says.

The dining room, once the drawing room, gathers around a great dining table from Sir William Bentley Billiards, which converts to a billiard table when it is spun over. And, no matter what the occasion, there is always one important guest present - Maud Faviell, Philippa's great-great-grandmother. Actually, being pedantic, Maud is only present in spirit and beautifal Carrara marble - a bust sculpted when she was in Italy on a Grand Tour in 1874. The room originally just had shutters which Philippa liked for a drawing room but felt that curtains were better in a dining room and so, with the help of colour consultant Tessa Zundel - who advised through the whole remodelling project - she sourced the fabric from the Design Forum in Kenardington and went for Farrow & Ball Elephant's breath for the walls.

Upstairs, the master bedroom suite required a little knocking down of walls and remodelling but the result is superb. The bedroom walls are Farrow & Ball Dovetail and the big fabric headboard and matching cushions are Philippa MacKinnon who simply took a large chunk of MDF and attached the fabric of her choice. The dressing room - a walkway through to the bathroom - is a great piece of craftsmanship by joiner Andy Brush who also made all the house's bookcases and panelling. There are no obvious doors or handles just a clean sweep of panelling that provides a lovely view through to the bathroom - a view enhanced by a superb shower, simply a single sheet of glass standing before a glowing wall of Italian glass tiles.

Philippa's philosophy as far as bathrooms is concerned is to go for a high quality centrepiece - all her baths, showers and taps are from C.P. Hart - and then looks for bargains for the rest of the furnishings. This works superbly in the family bathroom where the shower tiles are from Walls & Floors and the graphite marble floor tiles are from eBay.

A third Jack and Jill bathroom is shared by a guest room and daughter Izzy's room. In the former, Philippa has gone for white panelling and Farrow & Ball Blue Grey and, in the latter, Izzy has opted for Union Jacks, a distressed French armoire and an Ikea wrought-iron bed. Focal point of the second guest room is a beautiful, warm grey velvet bedspread, the grey echoed in the Ikea linen curtains which Philippa has had lined and fringe-edged.

The Grange may not now stand gracing the East Sussex countryside quite as Basil Champneys had in mind but, then, he has enough memorials, enough fine buildings to carry his name on through the years. Let The Grange stand instead as testament to the creativity and commitment of Philippa and her family who have guided the building with such a sure hand into the 21st century.

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  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming