Beyond Retro


The Hastings art scene lured Anna Deacon and John Taylor to the coast where they developed an enviably creative interior...

Life, it seems, has an infinite number of challenges it can throw at a family and, in the great scheme of things, downsizing would not appear to be one of the most traumatic. Nor is it, if skipping blindfold through a minefield in a thunderstorm is something one does for fun every day.

Hideous great behemoths of sideboards that have been universally loathed since barging their way into your home, refugees from Great Aunt Hermione's own downsizing 20 years before, suddenly take on, for some family member or other, an almost mystical significance. A cat-shredded sofa that should have been burned at the stake a decade ago is seized on by another as the last remaining worldly link with a feline fiend that should have joined it. The 400 volume strong collection of video games that contributed so generously to one's youngest's D-grade in English Literature becomes something worth defending to the last teenage tantrum.

As a family grows it surrounds itself with stuff and becomes passionately possessive of said stuff. That it has no aesthetic value and no discernable function is utterly irrelevant. When my own family recently downsized in a move from country to town, the first 'clear-out' saw binned the sum total of an old puppy basket, a three-legged chair, an antediluvian PC, a drawerful of socks and a teddy bear - and I retrieved the teddy bear.

So when I heard that Anna Deacon and John Taylor had moved not merely from a larger property to a smaller but from two larger properties to a smaller and simply taken the process in their stride I was agog with admiration. The couple had owned a plot in Canterbury that encompassed both a large Victorian and a smaller property in which they both lived and had decided to give up the B&B and move to Hastings.

"We opted for Hastings on two counts," says Anna. "Firstly, property was comparatively cheap which meant we would have no mortgage and secondly, Hastings has a vibrant arts scene which - as we're both artists - was particularly attractive."

The move, alas, did not, at first, go smoothly. A buyer for their own property fell through and they lost their first house choice. They then found a second property they liked but they would have had to start a new B&B business to make financial sense of it. Finally, they found a property that was big enough for their needs and didn't necessitate the need for guests which, in turn, meant they could concentrate on their art. The clincher was that there was, high at the top of a dramatically terraced and wonderfully planted rear garden, a space large enough for John to build a separate studio with its own decked terrace and a wonderful view down over the rooftops.

As far as the downsizing went the couple were lucky, in the first place, in that their taste tends toward delicate and elegant Mid-Century rather than hunky, chunky Victorian or Edwardian so more of their favourite pieces could accompany them as they joined the swallows and headed south. Secondly, what really placed their previous home in a league of its own was their own art - and that of their friends. All their best work came with them and is now on display so their new home has immediately become, for them, a highly personal space and, for their guests, an environment of fascination and a serious pleasure to visit.

The couple redecorated throughout, having found that there were no structural changes to be made - the house, as it stood, was absolutely fine for the lifestyle they planned to lead. The only real building work to be done was the studio, a task which John undertook virtually single-handedly. "We wanted to use as much reclaimed material as possible and all the windows and doors have had previous lives," he says.

The structure provides both Anna and John with their own workspaces and around it are hung examples of their wire art that at one point sold literally around the world. "I've always enjoyed working with unusual or reclaimed materials," he says. "I began designing and making sets for pop videos and we never had a proper budget for anything so we'd have to raid skips and press into service whatever we could find."

Making our way back down the garden towards the house, Anna doesn't mince words about the kitchen. "It was a really naff pine country kitchen and it had to go," she says. "We took off all the unit doors and made new Shaker-style doors, painted them and fitted them with a rainbow of different coloured knob handles. A matching pine dresser was given the Farrow & Ball treatment to complement the units and the cooker hood transformed by one of Anna's own abstracts.

The pretty glass shaded lights over the elegant retro Ikea table came from Baileys Home. On the wall above the table is a collection of favourite paintings, largely their own, and standing next to it a large white Habitat cupboard.

Like the country kitchen units, the previous floor had to go and has been replaced with herring-bone oak parquet which extends throughout the ground floor. "When we first saw the finished floor we were a little concerned - it was so perfect it looked also like lino - but as time goes on it's beginning to look more like the real thing."

In the hallway the walls are a Valspar acid yellow and the stairs a paint-spattered homage to Jackson Pollock. A glass fronted cabinet houses a ceramics collection "mostly car boot sale finds" and stands opposite a stylish Habitat chest of drawers. Here, too, is a great 1950s style monochrome romantic portrait of a woman painted by John. The side window was an unattractive frosted glass and so it was given an etching effect with Emma Jeffs window film. Also in the hallway hang examples of the couple's new project - wonderful canvas bags, patched and hand-painted giving them a superb antique look.

The drawing room is clear, clean and uncluttered with the largest piece being a spectacular mid-60s sideboard which John bought in a secondhand furniture shop just outside Canterbury. Above it hangs a 60s bank clock showing both time and date. The half-glass coffee table is from Habitat as are the two sofas. The 1950s armchair was from a car boot sale and behind it stands a standard lamp that someone, at some time has topped with a tiny lampshade. "It's pretty strange but we liked it so we never replaced the shade," says John.

In a multi-tiered display case is a collection of blue and white ceramics by Janke Joubert. "We bought everything in her degree show," says Anna. "They're traditional blue and white china patterns but she's used parts of everyday plastic containers, such as the top or bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle to create jugs, cups and eggcups with a twist." Janke is apparently now teaching - her students' gain and our loss. The walls are Little Greene French Grey but just over the picture rail is an inspired touch - a strip of Day-Glo citrus masking tape. Paintings include work by old art school friend John Eagle and Maisie Kendall.

Upstairs in Anna's bedroom is one of the few pieces of dark wood furniture in the house - a very serious and beautiful Jacobean chest which once belonged to Anna's grandmother. In the window stands a slim mid-century sideboard with light glowing through a multi-coloured collection of Scandinavian vases on top. Over a mahogany chest of drawers hangs a painting of a US sailor by John and over the bed a Habitat chandelier and an abstract by Anna.

Pride of place in John's room goes to another slim 1970s sideboard and an eight-drawer tallboy on which stands a collection of Habitat chrome vases. The chic green plastic-topped bedside table is also Habitat. On the walls is a nice example of John's clever and pleasing word-play art - a large canvas on which is centred in very, very, small type Think big. In the corner hangs a boater. "It used to belong to a friend," says John "but I'd always admired it and so my friend agreed to swap it for a picture of it."

Downsizing by its very nature involves compromise. Some big compromises, some small. Both, Anna and John may have had to make. And yet to any visitor, this is home without compromise. This is a home that now perfectly meets their needs and reflects their personalities and their considerable talents. They have approached the whole exercise not as a daunting challenge but an exciting opportunity to mould a new space for their future lives.

And they have, consciously or by happy accident, created a space which is a delight to any guest who crosses their threshold.

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