05 August 2011
25 Pale and Interesting: a review, of sorts
Unlike us, with our four children and our six dogs, my sister and her fella’ have no kids and no canines. Instead they have The Retreat, a 1930s artisan built timber chalet that stands in the middle of its very own wild-wood in the middle of nowhere. The Retreat had stood empty for half a lifetime before they took it on and was close to falling down. It eats more of their time and their money than our many children and dogs have ever consumed of ours. But it is their baby and they are lovingly, if ever so slowly, restoring it. And, with minimal help from professional builders and plenty of input from local craftspeople, they're doing most of the work themselves.
Rat-a-tat on The Retreat's front door with the custom-made-by-a-local-blacksmith acorn-and-oak-leaf door knocker, and you will be admitted to the perennial building site within. A dust sheeted, tool scattered, electrical wire festooned space which may surprise you if you arrive after dark, but not if you have come in daylight and observed the perennial building site without, strewn with piles of reclaimed oak cladding and assorted architectural detritus. “It will be lovely when it’s finished”, we all say, and I’m sure it will be. But, for now, they live for what they dream The Retreat can become while, quite literally, camping inside the charming if chilly shed that it currently is.
Every weekday morning they set off bright and early in their shiny company cars, my sister and her man, to tackle the long commute to their respective offices in a distant city. And every weekday evening, after the long drive home again, they tend to mundane chores and their vegetable garden. But come the weekend they swop their corporate wheels for a Land Rover that has seen better days, and their tailored suits for paint spattered coveralls, and then they happily hang out in architectural salvage yards, and home improvement stores, and up ladders, and under floors. They plan to make most of their own furniture when the work on the house is finally done. “It will be lovely”, they say. I wouldn’t have the patience!
I suspect that my sister and I are from different planets. Show me a book with the word ‘Interiors’ on the cover and I shy away. She, on the other hand, is in heaven. So Atlanta Bartlett and Dave Coote’s Pale & Interestingseemed a suitable choice for her birthday present. But, before handing over this alien object, I sneaked a peek inside ...
If you ask me – I know you didn’t, but I’m just going to pretend that you did - Pale and Interesting peddles a stunningly styled and sumptuously photographed ... lie. And I'd say it's quite probable that Bartlett and Coote really are from a different, and far distant, planet. I must hope it’s the same one my sister hails from!
“Take inspiration from humble things”, the authors say, “make the most of what you’ve got”. Which is all well and good but I can only assume that their dictionary gives a somewhat different definition of humble to mine. And that they have more money and more space to 'make the most of ' than I can likely ever hope for. They seem to suppose that we all live in 'period' homes with ancient beams just waiting to be exposed, kitchens big enough to accommodate an 'island', and plenty of room for a replica shepherd’s hut at the bottom of the garden. And if Bartlett and Coote have really raised kids and wrangled dogs in similarly pale and interesting interiors then I’d hazard a guess that they've also had staff. Where are the marks left by the grubby little hands of children just in from playing out? Where are the paw prints? Where is the muddle of toys and school books and wellington boots that I associate with family life? Jeez, if I accessorised our home by throwing “a richly embellished sari over [one of the] beaten up leather armchairs” a whippet would probably eat it! And I can just imagine the outcry if I'd banned Ribena and Coca Cola, as Bartlett and Coote must surely have done.
It’s not all bad. I’m with them on the “keep it simple” and “celebrate the imperfect” approach, although chez knitsofacto the latter generally equates to making a virtue of a necessity rather than spending a fortune on "eclectic antiques". And "shades of pale" we can most definitely do, as long as they're not too pale and and we keep a wet cloth to hand at all times.
I should maybe make it clear here that although Knitso Towers is in the country it is most definitely not a country cottage with rambling roses at the door. Ours really is a humble abode; the middle house in a modern row of three three-storey homes that were built, at the planner’s insistence, to match the similarly tall and terraced Victorian and Edwardian farm worker’s houses that are a feature of this village. We have a tiny courtyard garden, just as they do, and I am forever grateful that those same county planners forbore from insisting on matching brick privies as well. Inside is 'interestingly' proportioned and poorly arranged. Some of the upstairs rooms are built into the eaves. We’re all sloping ceilings and uselessly small alcove cupboards. We don’t have a separate dining room, or an en suite bathroom just for grownups. But, back when the kids were littlies and I was a stay-at-home Mum, it was the best we could afford in a place that one pays a premium for the privilege of living in. All six of us fitted inside, just, along with the children’s budgies, goldfish and guinea pigs, and the dogs we had then. We thought we’d soon move on. We didn’t. From our bedroom windows we can see for miles across the lush meadows where the whippets love to run, all the way to the hills and the mountains beyond. At the end of the lane the River Dee rolls lazily by in summer, and rushes through in the wetter months, hurrying then to get to the not-so-very-far-away sea. The hedgerows hereabouts are all frothy white blossom in spring, and purple with a wild harvest of sloes, damsons, elderberries and blackberries come the autumn. The children are growing up and moving on now, but we’ll probably stay. We like it here.
Do I like Bartlett and Coote’s book? No, not really. Agreed, the colour palette is totally me. And ditto the abundance of flower filled jugs and jam jars, and all that lovely, lovely linen, and the painted pebble-grey wood panelling. But, although admittedly a very pretty book, it is also a profoundly annoying one. Faced with statements like “this opulent yet low-key dwelling” I’m too busy complaining about the oxymoron – surely nothing can be both ostentatious and restrained - to appreciate the authors' passion for “chalky pastels” and “distressed patinas”. The important question, though, is ‘Will my sister like this book’? And yes, I think she will, because after careful consideration I’ve concluded that, unlike me, she probably is from planet Bartlett and Coote. Happy Birthday Sis!
All photographs in this post are of Atlanta Bartlett and Dave Coote’s Pale and Interesting: decorating with whites, pastels and neutrals for a warm and welcoming home, 2011, published by Ryland Peters and Small, ISBN 978-1-84975-112-4