Conversation pieces


A collection of quirky finds and objets trouvés transforms this classic Victorian villa into a funky pad with industrial glamour

These days it seems you can hardly open a newspaper without reading about the exciting regeneration of St Leonards, the seaside town which was until relatively recently the sad neighbour of Eastbourne and Brighton.

It's always credited to the influx of creative 'DFL's, or Down From London (and increasingly, 'OFB' s, Over From Brighton…), but this urban reflowering is really the result of that energy combined with the town's own raffish charm and rich stock of property.

Sarah and Stuart Taylor are a classic example of the former - attracted by the latter. For many years, Sarah worked in the capital, between travelling around the world on fashion shoots and the filming of music videos for MTV, while Stuart built up an impressive list of international clients for his interior architecture business, 44th Hill.

Initially it was the lure of the countryside which drew them away from the Big Smoke.

"When we first left London, we moved from Victoria Park in Hackney to a country house near Rye," says Stuart. "It was the full London to country bit, with big grounds and sheep in the fields… but though it was beautiful, it was just too quiet for us. Sarah had salons in Rye and St Leonards, so we just decided to consolidate everything here."

Taking on successive renovation projects of both domestic and business premises wasn't daunting for Stuart, who had been in the interior architecture business for 22 years.

"I trained first at Stourbridge College and then Nottingham University and when I graduated, moved to London, because that's where everything was happening. I had a big office there with lots of staff, but I came to realise that postcodes don't matter any more.

"Technology means that you can work almost anywhere these days and lots of my jobs are based abroad anyway, so I can design from here, working from a studio in our garden. I employ freelance visualisers, designers and project managers and I've built up a team that I can trust, so why would I need an office in London when I can be by the sea?"

While it looks like a classic late Victorian home from the outside, once through the front door, the feel is rather different

Their house, a classic redbrick late Victorian villa with decorative plasterwork, is an excellent example of the kind of properties which attract couples with young families to decamp to the seaside town. But while it looks like a classic late 19th century home from the outside, once through the front door, the feel is rather different.

The main reception room runs from the front bay window to the rear bi-folding doors and is an eclectic mix of objets trouvés. In the part that is used as a sitting room, a large cow skin rug covers the centre of the bare floorboards and there is a velvet sofa and a vintage leather chesterfield and armchairs. A stuffed stag's head oversees everything from its mount on the wall and more Victorian taxidermy is displayed in glass cases.

The original arched marble fireplace has a traditional gilt mirror above it, but to the side of it is a painting of Mickey Mouse in US army fatigues with a bandaged ear.

"That's a copy of an old picture that apparently appeared in Vogue," says Stuart, "and was reworked in the 1960s with different buttons and epaulettes to get around the copyright laws. I just liked the way it subverts the usual image of him."

In the dining room, a larger-than-life-size statue of an Italian traffic policeman holding out an ice cream stands guard over the diners. "He used to be in my local pub, the St Leonards," says Stuart casually, as if every pub has an Italian policeman on duty. "I just had to have him, so when they changed him for a snowman I asked to buy him and the landlord agreed. He came originally from lighting designer Philip Oakley's studio."

A long scrubbed pine table is surrounded by assorted wooden chairs with sheepskin coverings and a stuffed buffalo's head seems to emerge from the wall as if he has just smelled something good to eat and wishes to join in.

In the corner of the room, where the doors fold back to give access to the garden stands a 1950s cocktail bar, shaped like a giant drum, complete with regimental braiding. Above it, an old milk churn has been turned into a light with a red light bulb which protrudes from it rather like a Dalek's plunger.

With so many conversation pieces, there seems little possibility that guests here would be stuck for something to discuss

On the opposite side of the room a 1960s rattan swing chair suspended from a stand adds to the vintage feel. With so many conversation pieces, there seems little possibility that guests here would be stuck for something to discuss.

The walls of the generously proportioned kitchen are painted gunmetal grey and at the far end is a fireplace of enormous proportions - presumably it once accommodated a range that would have served such a big house, but now hosts a woodburning stove.

A freestanding set of hotel catering shelves accommodate dishes and plates and again, was sourced from Sunbury Antiques Market. Off-white painted wooden cupboards form a long row along one wall and the counter top above them is exceptionally deep, giving the impression of being a very practical workspace, but Stuart is not satisfied.

"It doesn't really work as we want it to, so we're thinking of extending the kitchen out into the outdoor space at the end of the dining room. We could knock down the wall in between and have folding doors all the way across, so that we could completely open the house out to the garden."

We go out to the studio in the garden, where the walls are painted in what I now recognize as Stuart's signature dark colours - and in his own working environment he's gone for the darkest shade of charcoal that is really almost black.

Blueprints and technical drawings in smart wooden frames are perfectly set off by the ink-coloured walls behind. The immediate impression is of a serious, yet personal space. A giant chrome arc lamp stands in one corner and in front of the window, Stuart has placed a vintage wooden desk and chair, with a 1940s style telephone and desk lamp that calls to mind a scene from a Raymond Chandler novel.

There are old cabinets and plan chests - and interestingly, no computer. I expected to see a giant monitor, but Stuart prefers to work on his laptop.

"Ideally, I like designs to be properly thought out and drawn," he says, "that's why I love those old plans that I've framed. Someone took real care and attention over them. Computers are useful, but they should be used as a tool, they're not an end in themselves."

On one surface is a set of wooden numbers and letters spelling out 44th Hill, the intriguing name for his company. "There are 43 named hills in San Francisco," says Stuart, "we just fancied being the 44th.

"I love working here, being able to look up and see the sea, and I often think it's strange to think that designs that are destined for London, Ibiza or even further away, originate here, in this wooden studio in our garden.

"I specialise in commercial projects - and I think all my clients have actually become my friends - because houses are just too personal."

The family study has the same kind of industrial glamour, with a metal desk that looks as if it once did service in a factory

Back in the main house we pause in the family study. Again, it has a kind of industrial glamour, with another arc lamp and a black upright piano. There is a metal desk that looks as if it once did service in a factory or workshop, and a collection of 1940s bevelled mirrors on the wall. Above the desk, an illuminated sign spells out WOLF.

Up the stairs and on the half-landing a large photograph in a battered gilt frame has been propped up to meet the visitor as they ascend. It's a late Victorian studio portrait of a young child in a dark velvet dress and lace collar and is a particularly arresting image because of the girl's very direct stare and the strong impression it gives that whoever she was, (she's no relation) she was extraordinarily self-possessed.

At the top of the stairs is a painted wooden sign saying 'Lucky' and I'm beginning to wonder whether all the words that can be found throughout the house are significant. We turn into the first guest room, and find many more, (some unprintable) because the lids of old wooden school desks complete with all that childish and adolescent graffiti have been used as art and mounted on the wall.

In the main bedroom, the scheme is pared back, with wooden boards on the floor and a kilim rug at the foot of the bed. A chest made from card index drawers found in a shop in Hastings Old Town stands next to the bed, and on the wall opposite is the word Bang! - a limited edition print of a renowned black, white and red artwork by pop-artist, William Blanchard.

The second guest room has a handsome iron bedstead, but it is also used as a dressing room, and has a pair of vintage walnut wardrobes and an Art Deco dressing table with a strong Japanese influence. Its huge curved triptych mirror seems shaped like the sort of clouds you see in some Japanese paintings.

On the landing on the top floor of the house stands a vintage metal 'firefighter' pedal car in pillar-box red. Here the couple's children can enjoy a whole storey to themselves, with a smart bathroom and two very individualistic bedrooms.

In their daughter's room, Stuart has just finished putting together a new bed, while his daughter coated an alcove wall in blackboard paint, so she can use it for doodling and as an aide-memoire for schoolwork and events to remember.

There is a desk at the other end of the room, and above it a group of cranberry glass vases have been turned upside down and used as light shades, suspended with varying lengths of gold braided cable - not often found in the UK now, but sourced by Stuart when he designed a scheme for the launch of the Esentai Mall in Kazakhstan.

The design used hundreds of dimmable filament light bulbs suspended above the catwalk for a fashion show, so they looked like glowing jewels, but here, the ruby glass looks more like a bunch of overhanging red berries.

Stuart and Sarah's son's room has an elevated bed, built by a Chichester-based friend, Tony Davey, who Stuart has worked with on several projects, and has a feel of the wild frontier.There is an old Afrikaans map on the wall, a vintage trunk and a brightly painted Penalty Shootout sign from a fairground.

Having examined the house from bottom to top, we set off for Sarah's hair and beauty salon Truffle, situated right on St Leonards seafront, just along from the very traditional Royal Victoria Hotel.

Just as their house looked from the outside as though a conservative Victorian family could still live there, the exterior of Truffle looks conventional enough, with its broad Regency shop front overlooking the promenade and beach beyond - but stepping through the door, the space has been transformed into something that combines both a nod to an elegant past and a flair for industrial and reclaimed chic.

"This was an old boat repair shop," explains Stuart, as we sit on an ochre-coloured vintage sofa and chair, while Sarah tends to clients. "So it had the space we wanted, and in fact there's a basement too, which was originally the ground floor of the building, but at some point the seafront road was raised, and so this first storey became the new ground level. We haven't developed it yet, but we plan to use the basement for a yoga studio and possibly a juice bar, so that the place becomes more of a lifestyle destination."

The nautical origins of the building have been preserved in the scrubbed and stained wooden floor and the long wall of tongue and groove timbers that stretches behind the counter. On the panelling above our heads as we sit and chat is an old reverse glass painted pub sign saying 'ORDERS TAKEN HERE' in verdigris green and gold.

"I bought that at Sunbury Antiques Market at Kempton Park," says Stuart, "along with the reclaimed enamel lights. Kempton's a favourite hunting ground of mine. I find loads of things that I use for the bars and restaurant interiors that I design for clients.

"We also used reclaimed timbers and an old haberdashers' set of drawers for the counter. The window set into the wall is just a decorative feature. I used to have an office in Norman Road just round the corner from here and couldn't believe it when I found that old window abandoned on the pavement one day. I mounted it on the wall here and surrounded it with those tiles which are similar to some tiles I used for the redesign of the Old Customs House restaurant in Hastings. They serve things like Guinness and oysters there, so the black and white theme seemed to work well."

Clients at Truffle sit in original barbers' chairs, all sourced and bought on eBay. Brushes and combs are stored in wooden wine crates and towels in reclaimed pharmacists' drawers. The ceiling and panelled shutters around one window are painted in dark greeny/charcoal grey. "That paint's nothing fancy," says Stuart. "It's the Valspar range from B&Q. The colours are really good and the coverage is dense. I use it a lot in all kinds of projects."

As we leave, I spot an old Hastings and St Leonards tourism poster from 1970s. How is Hastings and St Leonards changing do you think? I ask Stuart.

"Well obviously, there's been lots of regeneration," he says, "but there's a real pride in the area. I worked on the design of the Jerwood café when the Gallery was being built and I did it pretty much for free. There was a sense that we could really change things in the town.

"In St Leonards there are loads of new businesses, shops and cafés - not least the amazing little crepe stall that is parked on the seafront opposite Truffle. When I redesigned the interior of the Old Customs House restaurant, we used timbers salvaged from Hastings pier to clad the whole ceiling, so it feels as if we're working with the history of the place, but there's a real buzz about it too."

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