Calm and Collected

The first clue that I have arrived at the right house is the gleaming paint on the front door with its incredibly highly polished brass handle and spotless front step. Dee Martyn is a stylist and interiors expert, so I am expecting to find a well-ordered house, but I have not anticipated quite how beautifully arranged it will be.

The hallway is papered with Nina Campbell charcoal-coloured gros-grain ribbon stripes. A scented candle burns on the round painted hall table and faux white gladioli make a statement in a tall glass vase. I have to look very carefully to check whether they are real flowers and Dee laughs, " I always put faux flowers in water, or in a container where the stalks can't been seen," she says. "They look so much more convincing like that." Dee is very adept at this kind of 'staging', having worked as a stylist to the advertising and publishing industries for 12 years. After driving props up to London six days a week, Dee felt she needed a change, so along with her late friend Suzy Rees, she opened Old Colonial, a renowned interiors shop in Tunbridge Wells that specialised in antique painted furniture and unusual objets trouvés. Sadly, Suzy died in 2004 and although Dee carried on for several years with the help of Sarah Taylor, "it just wasn't the same," says Dee, "and I felt it was time for another change." The shop had a loyal set of customers, so now Dee acts as a kind of personal consultant, advising clients, 'editing' their own pieces and sourcing items of furniture to complement their style. She has a great network of contacts in Britain, France and beyond and as she finds it so hard to resist beautiful things, she often ends up buying more, to then sell at selected fairs and events. "I often invite new clients here too. They can come and have a coffee and get a good idea of my style. It's a great way to build trust, as then they know that we are on the same wavelength."

Dee bustles about as we talk, anxious to make tea and coffee for David," our photographer, and Lucy, who is somewhat redundant in her role as stylist today. We are offered biscuits from a gleaming glass jar. "In Holland they always display their biscuits in these tall jars and I think they're so much nicer than a squat biscuit tin," explains Dee. It's hard to keep up with her as she darts about, making fine adjustments to things, polishing and tidying. "It's a hazard of my profession, I suppose, that I have to make sure that everything is just right before I can relax. I am quite a perfectionist," she admits. We have come outside to the brick-walled courtyard where she is busy filling a zinc laundry tub with white geraniums. Dee's home is a Victorian semi-detached house and she has made clever use of some of the rather awkward spaces that these houses can have. "This area was originally a dark narrow path to the garden, so we managed to buy a little land from the detached house next door and we built this courtyard, which is a real suntrap and a lovely spot to have breakfast." We walk along the brick path to the garden where lilacs fill the borders and a garden table with dainty French ironwork chairs sit under a large canvas umbrella. There is a tiny shed that Dee has painted 'Wheelbarrow Blue' and to which she also added a decorative scalloped pelmet. Looking back at the house, the conservatory that she designed 18 years ago is a fine complement to the property and she is fortunate that her next-door neighbours have a particularly floriferous white clematis Montana against the wall. We step into the conservatory where furniture has been painted in Farrow & Ball's 'Hardwick White'. There's a pretty mirror and a collection of candlesticks as well as more faux flowers in the form of ranunculus and tall white delphiniums in vintage florists' buckets, the latter planted with living green moss to enhance the illusion. From here we enter the most dramatic room in the house: the dining room. The walls are a deep teal blue, wallpaper from Cole & Son, and from the ceiling a spidery metal candelabra hangs. "It's a copy of an 18th century American original that I had made," explains Dee. "It's the kind of thing you see in those old clapboard houses of New England or Massachusetts and I just loved its shape and simplicity. Here the furniture is unpainted, and made from highly polished dark wood. Along one wall is a huge French serving table and Dee shows me the bread-board (so essential to any French meal) that slides out at one end. There's a large white tureen in the centre, a pair of linen-shaded lamps at either end and a collection of 18th-century etched glasses and spirit bottles. Between the hurricane lamps, there is an oil painting on the wall in the naïf style. I notice that all the paintings seem to be without frames and Dee acknowledges that she prefers their simplicity. On another wall there is a painting of oranges and white blossom that used to hang in Dee's parents' house and which her mother gave her. The window is dressed with a single piece of teal and ivory checked linen draped over a mahogany pole. The same Chelsea Textile fabric is used on the dining chairs and is one of the designs that Dee recommends to clients. Across the mantelpiece there are examples of Dee's collection of treen and a small but delightful picture of a Regency ice-skater painted on glass in a thick ebony frame. On the table there is a vintage linen cloth with a single denim blue stripe and a set of French antique bone handle knives. One corner of the room houses the rest of Dee's collection of decorative wooden objects and antique games boards. Is it difficult not to keep pieces for herself when she is buying antiques, I wonder? A rather guilty grin spreads across her face. "It's really hard sometimes, but I have to be disciplined and if I do keep something, I have to get rid of something else from the house to make space for it, otherwise I'd have to live in a warehouse!"

Back in the kitchen for a moment I stop to admire her collection of antique glass patisserie domes, porcelain blancmange moulds, dairy jugs and butter slabs – the kind that used to be found in 'provisions' shops in the days before supermarkets. Above the door there is an old servants' bell panel. "It's not original to this house, it came from my parents' home, but as it's for a four-bedroomed residence it fits quite well," she says. "We were incredibly lucky with this house actually, because we're only the second people on the deeds. When we bought it 27 years ago, the elderly lady who sold it was the daughter of the original residents who moved in when it was new. So the house needed rewiring and central heating put in and so on, but it has all the original features and has never suffered from any kind of 'makeover'. I decided not to put a fitted kitchen in here and to keep the old aperture where the range once was. I had the cupboards made by hand and kept the scullery area for this butler's sink." It's a decision that has proved to be a wise one. The kitchen has two distinct areas and with its pantry/scullery is now right up to the minute in terms of fashion.

Along the hallway, the drawing room is supremely serene. The muted greys, creams and whites combine to create an air of luxurious comfort. Pale linen sofas have soft throws and plump, checked cushions ranged across them. The typical Victorian bay windows are draped with heavy linen and French 'verres de mariage' (wedding glasses) reflect the light back into the room. Faux amaryllis in pots and jars of sugared almonds suggest a feeling of plenty. A gorgeously carved painted armoire disguises the television and DVDs behind its chicken-wire doors. On a chest of drawers there is a pretty collection of French photograph frames; each one has finely bevelled glass and a brass motif in the shape of a bow. "I think things look so much better together in groups," says Dee. "If you put similar things too far apart they lose their impact."

This signature calm and collected look continues upstairs, where the main bedroom has been painted in Farrow & Ball's 'Cream'. The iron bed has been sandblasted back to the metal and has an unusual bow end. "I bought it 30 years ago with the money from my first styling job," says Dee with a smile. "It never dates". An English linen press has been painted in 'Lime White' and a friend made the huge double wardrobe. Just to one side of the window is a silk mannequin that Dee pats like an old friend. The embroidered name has worn away but one can just see the words 'corsettier' and 'Paris' across her embonpoint. She is 'wearing' some delicate beaded necklaces that Dee also sells. A friend makes them by hand from freshwater pearls, glass beads and shells.

More shells can be found in the bathroom next door where there are glass jars of delicately formed white and pink scallops, clams and dainty starfish. The walls are a suitably oceanic blue-green and the furniture and shutters are kept to a pure white while the seagrass flooring adds texture. The roll-top bath has antique brass taps that have lost their yellowy newness and faded to a more gentle, old gold. "Actually, I'm going to change all this soon, and install a shower, as I'm planning to rent the house out at the end of July. I love it here, but I'm going to move in with my partner," says Dee. "It's time to begin a new chapter."

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming