Character study: second lease of life for a Victorian home
New rooms filled with old furniture take this north London terrace back to its roots
Couple moves into dilapidated Victorian terrace; couple gets the builders in. So far, so familiar. But from that point onwards, Emilie Fournet and Ben Pester did things a bit differently. Instead of the standard revamp – knock down walls, add a blocky extension on the back – they did the reverse. They reinstated some internal walls, turning what had been an open-plan space back into a traditional hallway and a separate living room. And rather than build on to the back, they removed a large chunk of an existing extension.
“The house is now much closer to its original layout,” says Emilie, “it feels much more in proportion.”
The ground floor of their three-bedroom home in Manor House, north London, had previously been converted for accessible living, with a largely single space that worked well for a wheelchair user. However, it had been empty for a long time and was in a bad state.
“It was dark and depressing and no-one wanted to buy it. Which was what made it affordable for us,” says Emilie.
Part of the problem was that the back extension butted up very close to a tall boundary wall. “This left just a skinny strip of garden and blocked out the light,” she explains. The couple have two children and moved here from a first-floor flat. “So losing some space to gain a garden made sense to us,” she says. “Likewise, having a more ‘grown-up’ room at the front, away from the kitchen-diner where family life goes on, also appealed.”
Emilie chose a dark paint shade for this reconstructed room and found a fireplace “to give it back its traditional focal point”. In contrast, the back room is lighter, brighter and awash with foliage. A String of Pearls succulent plant spills down from a pendant lamp that doubles as a planter – a prototype of the Babylon light by Ryan Taylor for Object/Interface, which Emilie bought at a reduced price at a trade show. For added Palm Springs tropicana, she reupholstered a set of vintage chairs in a lush palm-print fabric, an end of line roll that she found on Etsy for just £7 per metre. “It’s actually for outdoor furniture, which makes it very practical for life with kids,” she says.
Retro ornaments and furniture are everywhere. “I’ve always been a collector,” Emilie says. “I came to London from France as a student and soon discovered that the cheapest way to furnish my room was with second-hand furniture. It was half the price of flatpack stuff – and several of the pieces I bought back then are still going strong.” These include a 1940s cabinet, now customised with House of Hackney Palmeral wallpaper, and a G-Plan coffee table. “They were definitely made to last,” she says.
The furniture also includes hand-me-downs from Emilie’s aunt and mother in France. Emilie often visits her family in the small town near Lyon where she grew up, taking in the flea markets and keeping an eye out for old-fashioned roadside stalls. The red newspaper stand sign by the dining table was bought at a market for €1 and a tall lampshade was laid out for sale outside someone’s house. “I did a U-turn and bought it for €3,” she says. Another shade, which adds a shot of orange to the dark grey living room, came from her parents’ house. “When I was a teenager, I remember despising that shade – I thought it was incredibly ugly and uncool. But on a trip home I could see its kitsch appeal. I found myself saying: ‘Mum, you know that big orange lampshade I used to hate. Do you still have it?’”
Emilie works as an interior designer but, going against the stereotype, she eschewed acres of marble and bespoke cabinetry for a kitchen that is simple, functional and good value. “If money had been no object, I would have used encaustic tiles, but these porcelain ones still give the impact I wanted,” she says. Emilie’s father constructed a ply surround for the cooker hood, then he and Emilie laid the tiles, which were a reasonable £31.20 per square metre from Target Tiles. The worktop was another inexpensive solution: two layers of ply glued together, painted and then sealed with varnish. The units were from a trade supplier, TKC.
There are more canny buys in the bedrooms. In their daughter Cosima’s room, wall shelves were from bargain emporium Flying Tiger Copenhagen and Emilie made the curtains in an inexpensive fabric by Alexander Henry that is dotted with images of Frida Kahlo. “Much more inspiring than Disney princesses,” says Emilie.
In Emilie and Ben’s bedroom, a teal paint shade by Dulux and an array of charity shop pictures add zing, alongside a furry chair that belonged to her grandmother. “Furnishing our home with second-hand things was a necessity,” says Emilie, “but it’s also our style. A home isn’t about following the crowd. It should reflect your character and remind you of the places and people that are important to you.”
Wall story: the more ‘grown-up’ room which was created after dividing walls were reinstated on the ground floor. Photograph: Rachael Smith for the Observer
Retro ornaments and furniture are everywhere. “I’ve always been a collector,” Emilie says. “I came to London from France as a student and soon discovered that the cheapest way to furnish my room was with second-hand furniture
Emilie works as an interior designer but, going against the stereotype, she eschewed acres of marble and bespoke cabinetry for a kitchen that is simple,