Renovating a townhouse in Dublin 4 is a famously risky business, not least because all your closest friends will pile in with critical nostrils the instant you declare the job done. To help their cause, the doctor and eye surgeon couple living in this three-storey Leeson Street abode recruited the interiors expertise of Harriet's House. The golden touch of HH Designs is evident throughout trademark touches - stunning lamps, polka-dotted glass cabinets, voluptuous curtains, gilded mirrors, sprawling Cleopatra sofas and top of the range bathrooms by Starck and Kos, beautifully decorated in hand-printed Floribunda Rose wallpapers.
The effect is perhaps best summed up by the new "underground" living room, fruitfully created by simply sinking the ground a few feet in a space to the rear of the kitchen. The room provides a stunning example of how 21st century avant garde designs and well-honed traditional concepts can go together like butter and spuds. A Constantine Ottoman in smooth fur sits square to a large Egerton corner sofa. Against the wall, an antique Victorian sewing table is surmounted by a duo-vase full of Cymbidium orchids. A scroll arm sofa clad in Tudor studded Georgian velvet (sky grey) is bookended by eglomise nesting tables. On the table tops stand lamps from Julian Chichester, capped by delightful 20 inch knife-pleated silk shades. Beautifully lit by a floral crystal chandelier overhead, the matching bookcases combine traditional French and modern Dublin carpentry. The French style is again employed for the antique panelling on the fireplace, echoed by the ingenious de Bois panel veneer wallpaper that rolls along the walls. A pair of Edwardian antique S-bracket arm wall lamps hang above the sofa, further illuminating the room through contemporary rectangular silk shades lined with ivory taffeta.
The spacious kitchen itself is a modern double-pitched roof extension. However, it successfully convinces that it is of far greater vintage by dint of such touches as the Acanthus leaf sconces above the Aga, a limestone tiled floor and deliberately distressed pock-marked kitchen cupboards. Around the kitchen table, eight chairs, each one a unique shape and size, offer a curious melee of sitting options. A standard spindle lamps stands sentry behind. Fully retractable glazed doors lead out to the garden are partly concealed by sheet curtains lined with a striped sheen tapestry on the inside to absorb light and an embroidered Sprig style fabric on the outside. Overlooked by a haze of purple heather to the rear, Raglan Road style column trellising and a sandstone terrace are speeding the gardens gradual maturity while leaden pots of hydrangeas and restored Edwardian eagle lanterns lend useful antiquity.
Bronagh and Cormac Rowell, the mother and son designer duo behind HH Designs, have also lately been showing their mettle with a Victorian townhouse on Sandymount Strand.
The Strand lies just south of Dublin City, a reclaimed strip of coastal marshland once dominated by a herring fishery. In 1731, the discovery of a type of clay suitable for brick making here prompted the development of what became known as "Brickfield Town". Many of these bricks were used to construct the early Georgian developments of Dublin. In 1791, Lord Fitzwilliam built a sea wall from Merrion to Brickfield and so Strand Road was born. Among the numerous marine villas subsequently erected along the two mile strip was this splendid Victorian house, now home to investment property consultant Lorraine Sweeny and her husband, Ray Scully, Managing Director of Crystal Holidays.
"We're still over the moon that we are living here!", says Lorraine, looking out her bedroom window as the choppy waves of the Irish Sea crash and retreat less than a hundred feet away. In the foreground, a sculpture of the Mexican Wave, presented to the Irish nation by the Mexican government, stands in front of the barbershop poles of Poolbeg. But for the most part the view is that great, infinite expanse of blue upon which Phoenician merchant ships and Viking longboats lolled in millennia past.
Lorraine had previously lived in a smaller townhouse where everything was cream. "Everybody was assuming this house was going to be cream too so I was determined to do something different! I read through a lot of books, and I said "I like this, I like that, I like this" and I got the styles. I always liked the Harriet's House shop because it's like an Aladdin's Cave of lovely things". And lo, at the close of 2005, Lorraine recruited Harriet's House.
"I wanted something traditional with a contemporary twist. Bronagh discussed my ideas with me and asked lots of questions about our lifestyle and aspirations. She came back with colour boards and said 'Is this what you're talking about?' I was thrilled as it was exactly as we had discussed ".
The voice of the sea speaks to the soul and, in this case, the same voice dictates the parameters of design. The principal living area consists of a sea-facing living room, which backs into an elegant dining room. The living room is a masterful combination of old world touches, Regency tables and plush French curtains, yet simultaneously exudes a sudden, sometimes surprising, sense of modernity. Harriet's House excel at fabrics and the curtain arrangements in both rooms are memorable. Oyster-hued curtains, made of luxurious triple-pleated silk, are gathered beneath the lower hem, creating the sort of pooled look that would have Marie Antoinette biting her toothbrush in two with envy. Chalice finials, disc hallbacks and chunky thick curtain poles are a careful pewter colour that works well with the Farrow & Ball "String" walls. A long Hanover-style sofa of canvas mole-suede with pewter studs and pewter tapestry cushions occupies the bulk of one wall. The sofa is book-ended by bevelled mirrored side-tables supporting nickel and mock-rock photo-frames and antique vertebrae silver lamps with taffeta silk shades. An Italianate "filigree" chandelier with mushroom pleated honey-gold clip-on shades is suspended overhead. A gorgeous ottoman of Georgia velvet occupies the centre of the room while a pair of French-style Andrew Martin plum velvet armchairs face out to sea. The original marble mantelpiece is bracketed by black Chinois drawers, each one capped with a silver mirror, an imperial Spanish lamp and a dragonfly vase blooming with spider orchids. Above the fireplace, busts of Apollo and Venus face off beneath a contemporary Villeneuve.
A velvet Monte Carlo carpet by Skelton Flooring Ltd runs through to the dining room where a beautiful flamed mahogany Regency table stands beneath an intriguing antique brass pulley lamp. Six "keyhole" dining chairs in alternating colours - three top sham, three plum silk - circum-navigate the table. "It's a fusion of many different looks - antique, contemporary, classical Roman and oriental", says Cormac. Hydrangeas lend freshness while a brass telescope given to Lorraine stares intently at a china cupboard in the opposite corner. Vielleneuve fruit prints are reflected in a silver mirror; scattered Chinese calligraphy etched into the background of these pomegranate and cherry prints subtly echoes the Chinois effect from next door.
Moving into the deliberately moody black hallway, the original Victorian cornicing, vertebrae lamps and a Nobless (???) check chair provide light relief. Roman architectural prints are reflected in a distressed timber-frame mirror, beckoning one towards the kitchen area where much of the impromptu entertaining is done. " We try and create a warm open home ", explains Lorraine. "We love to have friends and children call at any time. . Our home is to be lived in. We now prefer our nights in with friends than going out. To us it's about a warm home shared with close friends and family". To the rear of the kitchen, an outdoor garden leads down to the makings of a splendid mews. A staircase leads down to the basement where Lorraine's office doubles as a more relaxed sitting room with a third bedroom next door. This area is scheduled for a face lift in the autumn.
The two principal bedrooms are on the top floor, warm, cosy rooms, accessed by a slim balustraded stairwell. The fact the house faces east onto a horizon of sea and sky means there is always plenty of daylight. Even so, the addition of mirrors throughout the house greatly enhances the sense of spatial freedom. The maritime influence is particularly notable in the master bedroom, a large, bright, friendly room of delicious double-pleated powder blue curtains and bracing white walls. Sometimes Ray and Lorraine gaze out the window from the blue velvet French armchairs, coffee mugs steaming on the square eglomise table.
The bedroom has a wonderfully laidback ambience, emphasised in the rustic tones of the curtain poles, scalloped bedhead and bedside tables. A crystal chandelier with convex silk shades presides overhead while coolie side-lamps provide nocturnal illumination. The bed is covered in a delightful ecru-blue (check) throw and French tapestry cushions. Prints from Honour Johnson's botanical collection discreetly adorn a wall painted with Farrow & Ball Lightstone. The frost-paned wardrobes were hand made and fitted by Philip and Paul Malone of Custom Tone to a design they worked on with Lorraine.
From a structural point of view, this modest coastal home is extremely neat and manageable. Lorraine sought a style that would enhance the historical essence of the building while emphasising the 21st century essence of her life. With the assistance of the Harriet's House team, she has been victorious in her quest.
This article appeared in The White Book in Spring 2006.