California Dreaming


Never mind the house, look at the view… With vision and flair, the most unappealing chalet bungalow can be transformed into an expansive dream home of Hollywood glamour

If there is one property cliché that has stood the test of time, it's the assertion that in choosing a new home the three most important factors are 'Location, Location and Location'. However, like most hardy clichés, its longevity is due to the simple fact that it so neatly encapsulates an undeniable truth.

Over the years, I have met people living in shoeboxes in Manhattan, holes in ancient walls in Greece, moth-eaten houseboats on Indian lakes, caves in Granada and upturned fishing boats on obscure Pacific islands. The space in which they lived was far from ideal and comes with a dozen compromises per square foot but look out of the window or step outside their front door and there was no arguing whatever with their decision.

So when Alexa and Sebastien sold their lovely five-storey Victorian house in Hastings and bought a run-down, stunningly ill-designed little bungalow outside the town, it was perfectly understandable - because the stunningly ill-designed little bungalow was in a position stunningly designed by God. Set on a hillside on the edge of the Bourne Valley, the view stretches down over the valley, across Hastings Old Town, the New Town, Eastbourne and along the glitter coast to Beachy Head.

"Quite honestly we didn't give a damn about the house - but just look at that," says Sebastien, waving an arm across a land- and sea-scape to die for. Strangely, though, the previous owner couldn't really 'look at that' at all. The way the house was built meant there were no views of anything.

The hillside site meant that the house had to be cut into the bare earth so on two sides its windows faced retaining walls, while on the valley/sea side there was a small area of decking surrounded by box hedges beyond which was a large area of dense woodland. The house was also effectively back to front; one entered through the drawing room on the uphill side and walked through to the kitchen on what would have been viewside - if one had x-ray eyes and could see through foliage.

For some of us even that untapped view wouldn't have been enough to make up for the shortcomings of the house, but with Sebastien's experience as an interior designer - and Alexa's glamorous globe-trotting career as an agent for leading music video directors - these two saw it not as a problem, but an opportunity to create the Californian-style home of their dreams, inspired by her American upbringing, which they have re-named Chaletfornia.

"We'd had a large house with countless bedrooms but it was pretty impractical for just the two of us," says Sebastien. "We wanted something smaller which would really fit with the way we wanted to live - so this meant looking at the new property as a collection of outside walls with a large single space between them."

This resulted in the couple taking out every interior wall except one and dividing up the space to serve their lifestyle - and to make the very best of that spectacular view. The next step was to turn the house round the right way, with the main living area being brought to the back and given a wall of glass opening out onto new decking with the view revealed by clearing the surrounding hedging. This living space then became an open-plan drawing room, dining area, snug and kitchen - the latter accommodated by a modest extension.

Another small extension for a lobby was added halfway up the front of the building on the level with the drive, accessed by a 'drawbridge' over the steps down to the original entrance. High above the new front door is a magnificent metal stag's head by Hastings sculptor Leigh Dyer.

The new lobby has a dynamic feel with stairs straight ahead leading up to the bedrooms and two flights down - one right, to the coat closet, the other left to the living area - making it the first in Sebastien's series of expanding vistas, each grander than the last.

Its floor is of herringbone parquet reclaimed from a 1960s Doncaster school gym floor. Sebastien bought the whole floor of 16,100 pieces and has taken on the Herculean task of renovating each one himself before laying them throughout the house.

The second vista is the wide downstairs hallway that leads past a huge wicker bowling pin lamp, a large chunky Indonesian mirror and, opposite, two curving antelope horn lights topped with ostrich egg shell shades, flanking a painting, above an elegant oak bench. In one corner stands a fairground dragon's head and in another a fairground child's motorcycle. It's a taste of things to come.

Off the hallway is Sebastien's office. A stuffed hawk fixed to a window pane was an Ardingly antiques fair find. "His feathers were falling out so I got him for a fiver," he says. Above is his 'porn star' light, which he made from a large circular mirror. Hanging vertically from the ceiling is another light he made from a wooden model ship.

At the end of the hallway is a floor-to-ceiling digital picture of a lovely lady from a German old master. All, however, is not as it seems. The wall behind the painting slides away to reveal the third vista - the living area that in turn leads one through to the glass wall and fourth vista: the amazing view.

"As you come in, the house is now a series of revelations," says Sebastien. Revelations that end at Beachy Head.

Walking through into the living area is like strolling into Aladdin's drawing room. Everywhere there are objects of desire, fascination and, we have to say, not a little weirdity.

The snug houses Sebastien's impressive and much-loved collection of vinyl. Pride of place, however, is given to his father's beautiful Charles Eames black leather and moulded plywood lounge chair and ottoman

To one's left is the snug which houses Sebastien's impressive and much-loved collection of vinyl and on the shelf above, with much else, is an antelope skull, the bone papered with100 rupee notes and the horns painted red. Pride of place, however, is given to Sebastien's father's beautiful Eames black leather and moulded plywood lounge chair and ottoman.

On the right is the relaxation area where a coffee table is kept company by a French sofa and striped armchairs which the couple covered themselves. On the table are two large candlesticks made from the horns of a Rocky Mountain goat and, on the floor nearby, a large concrete horse's head, a copy of the Elgin Marbles Horse of Selene. "It was incredibly heavy and I had to drive round London for a week with it on the front seat of my car before I found someone to help me move it," says Sebastien. "It was worryingly like a scene from The Godfather."

Above a life-sized red dog - in wellington boots - by Belgian sculptor William Sweetlove hangs an oil of a severe 18th century gentleman. "My sister gave him to me to keep an eye on me..." says Sebastien

And so on past a huge old boar's head wearing a grin and a top hat, a life-sized red dog above which hangs an oil of a severe 18th century gentleman who also looks very much like an old bore. "My sister gave him to me to keep an eye on me," says Sebastien.

The dining area, with its wall of glass to the garden is superb - just how many dining tables do you know with a 20-mile view over ocean, town and country? The couple found the circular table at an antiques fair and the plush chairs that encircle it are from Ochre.

Nearby is an Indian bed, now a coffee table, on which stands a bust of a long-forgotten gentleman, a pair of matching fan corals, a green lobster, a red crab, a brace of antelope head sculptures and another brace of Buddha heads. Keeping all that company is a lovely 'Emmanuelle' Thai cane peacock chair, Sebastien's gleaming glass collection, another of white porcelain and two wonderful giant white Anglepoise floor lamps. Minimalist it is not.

To one side of the kitchen extension is a breakfast bar topped with a superb zinc surface made by Sebastien, the edges secured with roofing nails. In front of the counter are two stools with foot rests made from bicycle pedals complete with chain by Barak'7. On a wall of white Metro tiles is a limited edition print by Kenny Scharf of a huge doughnut, sprinkled with real diamond dust. Hidden is a trapdoor which leads down to a well-stocked wine cellar. The floor here and the bedrooms are the only ones which will not be covered by Sebastien's 16,100 parquet tiles.

Go back out to the front lobby and up the stairs and you come to a half-vaulted passageway where the whole wall is given to favourite paintings, prints and photographs. Standing surreal sentinel outside the couple's spectacular walk-through wardrobe is a black headless mannequin in high black boots and a top hat.

As a basis for designing the closet suite, which is divided into his and her areas, Sebastien went up into the loft where all their clothes were on temporary rails and measured the length of them all. "That gave me the yardage of the spaces I needed," he says, before quickly pointing out that his own needs took up less than a quarter of this now lovely colourful space. With the eye on the day the couple may sell the property, he also wired and plumbed this generous area to function as an additional bedroom and bathroom should the next owners not have quite so many frocks.

With an eye on the day the couple may sell the property, Sebastien also wired and plumbed this generous area to function as an additional bedroom and bathroom should the next owners not have quite so many frocks

The couple's vaulted bedroom is all about the view with a floor-to-ceiling sliding window now taking up most of one wall opposite the bed. In a corner by a glass door that will ultimately lead out to a roof terrace is an old red leather armchair cleverly complemented by a contemporary cushion.

The couple's elegant bathroom is also designed to share the view with a large window next to the bath and portholes at either end. Beside the bath are two 1930s cinema seats and where their numbers once were, are now brass inscriptions of the vows inscribed on the inside of their wedding rings. There are two further bedrooms sharing a smart Jack and Jill bathroom. "Two bathrooms for the price of one," observes Sebastien. The beautiful old French bed in the first came from Sebastien's mother's house in Normandy and on the wall are some beautiful line nudes by local artist Thalia Murray.

Above the pink velvet bed in the second bedroom is a print of a building in Acton. "I saw the picture and realized that at one time I passed that building every day," he says.

Above the pink velvet bed is a print of a building in Acton. "I saw the picture and realised that at one time I passed that building every day," says Sebastien

But it has not only been inside that the couple have met challenges with creative solutions. When they bought the house, the garden was a two-and-a-half acre chunk of steep, densely wooded and overgrown hillside. Out of this they have crafted three lovely levels; one to the up side of the house, where Alexa has her detached office, and two down from the decking, forming the foreground of their terrific view.

One of the reasons the garden has become quite so attractive is that Sebastien now has access to a wonderful source of raw material - his own nursery. His background as an interior designer is clear from his work inside Chaletfornia, but now he and horticulturist Tony Howard have teamed up to launch a new venture, Harborough Nurseries in Guestling Thorn.

Covering over three acres, on a farm of 360 acres, the nursery offers a wide range of plants, plus two separate shops selling vintage furniture and furnishings for home and garden. With a full garden design and planting service available, Sebastien and Tony bring the same imagination and creativity to their customer's projects that he and Alexa have brought to their own home and garden.

The couple bought Chaletfornia purely for its breathtaking location and they've ensured that location and its outrageous view are now very much an integral part their home. But close the curtains and that home is still a triumph in its own right and one of which they should be exceptionally proud.

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