Retail is detail, or so the mantra goes. So, for visitors to Fern House, it will come as no surprise that its owner - or one of them at least - is a retail brand consultant, so carefully and beautifully is each room laid out. Not in a precious 'don't touch' or 'breakages-must-be-paid-for' kind of way. More that it's instantly clear that whoever lives here has impeccable taste and an ability to create a welcoming atmosphere without using that old trick of baking bread or putting on a pot of fresh coffee.
As soon as we arrive, we are led by the nose to a warm, aromatic scent coming from the downstairs kitchen. "Come on down," says James, though we need no encouragement. A candle on the sideboard fills the room with a herby, citrus perfume. "When we first moved in we burned sage," says James. The practice is an ancient method of cleansing a person or a space, and was employed by Native Americans and many other cultures. Whatever James and his partner David have done, it certainly seems to have worked.
"I am a big believer, with some of the brands I work with, in asking them 'How do you want your customers to feel when they come into your stores?' says James. Having worked with such names as Paul Smith, Selfridges and, more recently, Fred Perry, it's clear that James knows what he's talking about. In the case of his home, the feeling one gets when one walks into the house, is of not wanting to leave. "We have a very 'open house' policy," laughs James. "And people often just call in unannounced."
The house is an unusual semi-detached Victorian property, in the middle of Hastings Old Town and reached by a bridge-like path. "The beauty is, it's hidden. When we purchased this house, I don't think we'd actually noticed it before," says James. "Some would say it's merely a Victorian house - but there's not another one like it in the town. Plus, it has that lovely little draw-bridge moment as you walk up the path." It's certainly very peaceful.
So, what state was the house in when they bought it? "The previous owners had looked after it and it still had the period details that we love," says James. "It just needed a new lease of life, a new energy." So, the couple opened up the windows in every room, pulled up the carpets, and burned some sage: "We just let the house breathe a little bit... and let the dog roam around, sniff the property, get to know it." The dog in question is an adorable, and rather photogenic Boston Terrier called Cooper.
"Understanding the light in each room was also very important," says James. After airing the house and letting Cooper wander, the transformation began: "We had a very clear plan: we wanted the property to feel light and airy at the top and a little bit darker and moodier down below. A lot of the paint colours we chose - as well as the fabrics that David chose for the cushions, curtains and textiles - are to do with the changing landscape and natural light."
Starting our tour in the kitchen, the view from the large basement windows is of a lush, fern-filled courtyard with very little direct light. The legs and feet of passers-by occasionally catch your eye, though no-one seems to spot the kitchen-dwellers below. "We love people walking past," says James. "And looking in. We love people just standing outside and appreciating the building!" It's hard not to stop and admire a home as pretty as this one.
As we enjoy a coffee in the kitchen, it's clear that this is a popular room. It's also a room that makes you want to rest a while. James and David ripped up the original carpets, exposed the brickwork behind the kitchen area and opened up an old fireplace next to the kitchen table: "It had one of those shaker kitchens that were popular in the early 90s so we got our carpenter to put in a new kitchen..." They also painted the floorboards in Little Greene's Chocolate. Painted floorboards are a theme that's repeated in every room: "I love floorboards when they're painted but worn. There's nothing better than seeing where people walk, so I am looking forward to it wearing in a little more," says James.
A large range cooker is testament to the couple's love of cooking for friends and the bare brick wall behind is illuminated by three utilitarian lights: "We asked Ed from Dyke & Dean to come and look at our house. Then we went to his shop in Claremont and looked at all the flex colours, all the different cabling, the lamp shades, the light bulbs. So, each room has a different feel but they are all part of the same family. They give the house a bit of a marine-like feel."
Next door to the kitchen is the equally cosy living room, which looks out over a courtyard garden and, because of its elevated position, over neighbouring gardens and the tiled backs of ancient townhouses. "It's a real sun trap," says James. "Some would say we're overlooked but we don't feel that. The neighbours are wonderful. Just waking up and looking out over the rooftops is amazing..." His enthusiasm is infectious.
I sit in one of two leather chairs by the living room window. "They were found for us by a lady in St Leonards who has a shop called Sideshow Interiors. We were after two perfect chairs, but they needed to feel loved, worn, and very gentlemanly... We saw these and just fell in love with them." The large Edwardian sofa next to my seat they found in a skip in Leytonstone, East London, where they used to live.
There is no overarching theme to this room, it's just a mix of eras, styles and hand-picked objects - one or two of which are very 'of the moment'; think taxidermy, retro drinks trolleys and a touch of macrame, in the form of a bright yellow hanging basket. "We did a course last year. I think the one in the bathroom is probably stronger in terms of the look - that one's David's. I cut the ends too short on mine!" says James, modestly.
So, what's the key to this effortless, organic style? "More people are mixing period pieces and styles and creating their own look. We buy things we really love. As you walk through the house you'll see pieces from East Germany, we have Danish pieces of furniture, Victorian pieces, French painted cupboards. The eclectic mix is there but the way it's styled should feel a little bit calmer." It's not a house that feels cluttered or cramped, despite its relatively small rooms. Even the darker basement and ground floor rooms feel artfully composed and relaxing spaces to spend time in.
To appreciate the contrast in decor and natural light - as well as the view of the sea - we head up to the studio on the top floor. "This is one of our favourite rooms," says James. "We sit up here, we chat about creative stuff, look at the view and it gives you that lovely calm feeling." Next to the window is what appears to be a well-upholstered, firm sofa. It is in fact a 1950s, East German sofa bed. "In the summer we pull the window up... You can just lie here - or I'll just drift off in the afternoon. I'm an early bird, so I get up at six, go for a walk with Cooper. By about three o'clock, it's time to relax!"
Simply furnished, the other walls are taken up by a book‑case - in front of a glass-topped desk - and a plain wall with a rudimentary fireplace. "The fireplace was covered over, but we knew there was something there, so we made a hole ourselves." The space, where a fireplace should go, is stacked with logs. "We didn't want it to feel too polished. The fireplace is a work in progress... as is the whole house."
Unlike the rooms on the lower floors, James and David have used a lighter palette on this floor. The walls in the studio are painted in Farrow & Ball's Parchment, the doors in French Grey and floorboards in Pavilion. An ethereal lamp hovers behind the armchair in which James sits: "It was a gift from two of our closest friends, Andrew and Pip, who own the shop Le Chien et Moi in Nottingham. It's Danish, very early 50s, but otherwise we know very little about it."
Rather than nodding off in the calm of the top-floor studio, it's time for our tour to continue. Next door is the sparkling, 1930s-feel bathroom, with marble-effect tiling and huge old bath with wood-panelled sides painted, as are the floorboards, in the magnificent Hague Blue by Farrow & Ball. Despite the dark woodwork and clean lines, the room is made 'softer' and more personal with pretty toiletries, ceramics and lush houseplants. A comfy chair by the window means that there is space for someone to sit and chat while the other baths.
Large windows in all of the rooms help to give a sense of space - even when space is at a premium. High ceilings have a similar effect. In the main bedroom, James and David have again been bold in their choice of colours - and the effect is one of cosiness and calm. "We wanted this to feel a little bit darker than the top floor but still moody, I particularly like the colour on the ceiling. When the light comes through, it's got a lovely warm tinge to it, almost peach-like and reminiscent of how the light reacts with the tiled buildings opposite," says James.
Two 1950s lounge chairs have been placed by the window: "On a Sunday we might make coffee and come and sit up here, and just look at the view." The bed has been artfully dressed with rugs and fabrics, while the cushions are covered in a fabric which James saved from a Selfridges window display he collaborated on with Suzy Hoodless. Behind the bed are two striking Chinese paintings, whose colours complement the room: "I found those on a trip to Hong Kong about eight years ago," says James. "They are original Chinese scrolls, on parchment. We love the colours."
Love is a word that James uses a lot in reference to this house, its refurbishment and decoration. It's clear that they are smitten with the place and that they intend to stay. "Now we're in our 40s, we couldn't be happier and I think this house is testament to that. A lot of the things that are displayed around the house are from our travels, our family or from our friends." And if you feel like a change? "You find something, you love it, you move it, you make it work differently," says James. If that's not a top tip, I don't know what is...