Strange how things never quite work out as you plan. The Smiths were living happily in a stylish, Arts and Crafts house near Ardingly but, with three boys all growing up and moving on, they decided to look for a house nearer the boys' boarding school. Andrew works abroad, mainly in Russia, so Sarah was charged with the property search and, as she explains, was very much looking for a "home" not just a house. So when Andrew, a chartered surveyor, rang from Moscow to tell her he'd found what looked like a "great deal" Sarah was less than enthusiastic but agreed to take a look.
On turning into the drive, in a rural location not far from London, she was astonished at what she saw - a substantial but deserted modern white weather-boarded colonial-style mansion. "It was so much bigger than anything else we had considered and in rather a sorry half-finished state, not at all the home I was looking for". It had had a very short but rather chequered history.
The developer got planning permission in 2006 and started building, but the property crash of 2008 saw the bank withdraw further funding, repossess the building and put it on the market as a half-finished shell. Internally it had walls, floors and ceilings but no plumbing, no lights, no door fittings and half a magnificent oak staircase spiralling up through the centre of the house. Three years of being left empty and unheated had also taken its toll; it looked dejected and was slightly damp and, quite honestly, it was not an option for the faint-hearted. However, Andrew has always been one to rise to a challenge and was not the slightest bit phased by the work that needed to be done. What swung it for Sarah were the truly wonderful views of rolling countryside from every angle and the 16 acres of flower-filled meadows that surround the house. The deal was struck!
What happened next was also unexpected. They had planned to spend up to a year finishing the building work and decorating the house before moving in but a very good offer for their Ardingly house - before it even went on the market - saw them packing the boys off to school in January with the knowledge that they would all be living in their new house by the time they came home again for Easter. Quite a daunting prospect, especially for Sarah who was left to project manage the work while Andrew went back to Moscow.
With twelve weeks, four floors, seven bedrooms and not a light switch or tap in the building she knew she had to think big, keep it simple - and could not afford the luxury of decorating one room at a time. So, with an army of great tradesmen and the determination to make the most of the wonderful light flooding into every room, the work began. The whole house was painted in Dulux trade white with just three shades of grey used to clever effect in different places. LED downlighters - 220 in total - were used in every room and all the fittings chosen were square and classic to mirror the existing architrave and window designs. What Sarah cleverly created, though possibly not intentionally, was a very simple canvas that provides the perfect backdrop for the wonderful collection of paintings, artefacts, sculptures, junk finds, photographs and family treasures that she, Andrew and the boys have collected over the years.
Entering through the front door, you come first to a smaller entrance lobby with a much larger hall beyond. An old oak dresser base with a collection of pewter bowls on top and a much-used croquet set beneath immediately conjures up a colonial feel that is carried through much of the house. A side cloakroom has a stylish 50s glass cabinet, sandblasted back to the original metal, that now holds an impressive collection of fossils, stones, bones and assorted relics collected by the boys over the years. On top of the cabinet is a horse's skull, found when excavating one of the ponds - even they were slightly alarmed as it rose from the murky depths!
The main hall, off which all the other downstairs rooms lead, is filled with light from the south-facing windows and a glass cupola at the top of a magnificent oak staircase that stretches up over three floors. Two Japanese style embroideries on very pretty pea-green silk - stitched by Sarah's grandmother in the 1950s, hang either side of the door out to the terrace. A table with all her paint brushes and paints suggest Sarah has inherited her grandmother's artistic streak.
The kitchen/dining room leads off the hall and stretches the entire depth of the house. At the dining room end there is a grand oak table - that can be extended further still - with copies of the classic 1960s Robin Day 365 chairs, picked up years ago from Habitat. Some imposing cabinets, all painted in dark greys from Pastorale in Lewes, are original Georgian pieces and are the perfect backdrop for a collection of interesting artefacts and paintings. An original Dr Seuss Cat in the Hat print, some of Sarah's own paintings, a Native American headdress sitting on a Russian Samovar and a carved whale from Mozambique are among a wonderfully eclectic collection that all display so well on one of many Georgian tip-top tables sourced with the help of local antique dealer Camilla Samengo.
When they bought the house, all the kitchen had was marble floor tiles (not what Sarah would have chosen but replacing them was not a priority), plumbing and exposed electric wiring along the side walls and services for an anticipated island in the middle of the room. With three large and growing boys, Sarah decided not to have an island as it seemed to take up too much space, so she bought a clever unit on wheels that holds lots of useful kitchen kit but can be wheeled out to create a much larger room at times like Christmas when there are lots of people around. One side of the kitchen now has a run of black off-the-shelf units with a big range cooker and the other has bespoke stainless steel units that subtly match the black side but are really stylish and original. A 1960s leather sofa from Gorringes in Lewes is the perfect place to flop under the window.
Leading off the hall at the other end of the house is the drawing room. Originally two rooms, the Smiths had the dividing wall removed and two doors made into one to create a really splendid light filled room - that is big enough to accommodate their baby grand piano. A simple black fire basket within a classic marble surround looks especially striking against the chimney breast painted in almost black Farrow & Ball. Russian icons meet Staffordshire cricketers on the mantelpiece and work perfectly together in stylish détente! The curtains at this end of the room which were sourced from Evernden Interiors (in fact this is the only room in the house that has curtains) are Andrew Martin pale grey linen and are there purely to create a backdrop for the sensational, far reaching views. This understated look is also perfect for displaying some truly sensational artworks. 'Icarus Rising' - a magnificent bronze by Nicola Godden is imposing, as is an oil painting 'Crowd Surfing' by Julian Bell, that looks at first glance as though it too is celestial but whose subject is in fact far more profane.
Three built-in shelves run the entire length of another wall and are a clever way of displaying a collection of black-framed family photographs, historical prints and etchings. Reproduction 1960s leather sofas from Heals, the baby grand piano and yet more striking art - including a fabulous painting of a Russian Red Star on a golden background - create a stylish yet much lived-in look.
Throughout the house there are oak floorboards covered with antique rugs and kelims, a look that works particularly well on the landings from which all the bedrooms lead. The master bedroom is painted in a very pale, restful grey and is delightfully simple.
The wooden shutters, from the New England Shutter Company, are hung on the architrave so once opened, they fold back from the windows to reveal the full extent of the views. They are deliberately plain so as not to compete with the small-paned windows and this uncomplicated design has also been used to design the fitted wardrobe doors.
The en suite bathroom has a free-standing bath in the middle of the room and a to-die-for walk-through shower along one side. Ceramic tiles that look just like limestone (but are much easier to keep clean if you live in a hard water area) have been used and look great. Two white basins sit well on a bespoke trestle table with two simple but stunning stainless steel mirrored cabinets above, all pleasingly plain and simple and lifted by some of Sarah's own paintings.
The other bedrooms all have the same stamp - but each surprises with quirky one-off touches, like the cosy seating area in the guest bedroom where the sofa is upholstered in a stripy linen sourced from an army surplus store in Moscow or the big bold Iraqi flag in one of the boys' bedrooms.
When Sarah set out on her 12-week project to turn this great big pile of a house into a home, she didn't follow any pre-set interior design rules but, by keeping it simple, she has allowed the light, the views and sheer scale of the place to shine through and ended up with something very special.