A period drama
Ger and Mike Smyth found their dream property, a red-brick listed house, but as Mary O'Sullivan discovered, it was to be a long and exciting journey. Photography by Tony Gavin
As any observer can see from her glamorous home, Ger Smyth is into houses, and, given that she is an interior designer, that's hardly surprising. However, with Ger, it goes somewhat deeper than that. She did, after all, buy her first house at the age of 19 -- although that may have had more to do with buying some private time with Mike, who, at that time, was her boyfriend, than any desire to express her creativity. "Mike and I met at 17, we bought our first house at 19, and did it up as best we could. It was a little house in Palmerstown. In those days we weren't allowed to live together, so we used to go and have meals there -- it was role play as a couple. Then we'd lock up and go home," she recalls with a laugh.
Ger and Mike went on to marry when they were 22. Over the years they moved several times, and Ger's interest in houses developed to such an extent that she went into interior design full-time, although the career path of this impeccably groomed professsional took a roundabout route. "After school I did the typical thing and became a legal secretary, but I was always creative," she says. "Mike was a copywriter, and then became creative director of Des O'Meara & Partners. After a few years we opened our own production company, making TV programmes and doing ads. He was the producer-director, I did set design and prop buying." At the same time Ger taught arts-and-crafts in schools to underprivileged children as part of a Department of Education initiative. She even made her own playdough, which she sold to art and hobby shops. "I had such a burst of creativity, I think it was something to do with the way my artistic side was repressed at school. There was flair in the family -- my mother did upholstery and my father, Jacob Roche, had his own company manufacturing furniture, which he sold to Brown Thomas in the Fifties," she reminisces.
The set design led to interior design, and Ger started doing up houses while still attached to the production company. But she says it was a 45-minute slot on Gerry Ryan's radio show, during which Ger talked about interiors, that launched her and convinced her to set up her own company. Commissions she received included private houses, offices and the redecoration of the Radisson St Helen's Hotel. "That was fun. They wanted it done without disrupting business. So we used to go in at 6am, take out one sofa at a time, bring that back and take another," she recalls.
Ger relishes working on private-house projects. "I love taking a project from the building stage -- watching a house evolve. And, of course, I understand the trauma people go through," she notes, referring to the fact she completely renovated her present home.
She and Mike left behind that first house in Palmerstown after two years of marriage, moving to the Southside, and buying, in turn, three different houses in the area. "We had a five-year plan everywhere we went. Mike is into interiors too, but somehow we always bought houses that didn't need work: it was frustrating. We always wanted a period house like this, but it took us 20 years. This one was just what we wanted," Ger explains. "We had seen so many that had been spoilt -- with all the original features gone. This house was black from mould, but it was the genuine article. It was lovely, but dilapidated."
It was worth the wait, but as with all good house-related stories, there was drama involved in the purchase. The auction was on a Wednesday; Mike and Ger didn't spot the house until the previous Sunday, and didn't get to see it until the Monday evening. There was no time for Mike's architect brother John, who had been helping them with their search, to survey it. Yet Mike and John headed off to the auction, ostensibly to see what kind of price it would fetch.
"I said there was no point in me going, I had written it off. I wasn't aware that Mike had taken the cheque book with him," Ger says. What she didn't realise was that the brothers had agreed that John would go in to the auction room and bid to a certain limit, while Mike stayed outside. Everything went according to plan until John reached the limit and another bidder went one better. Mike heard the extra bid, popped into the room, shouted a higher figure -- and got the house.
Ger recalls: "Later in the day, I looked at my phone and saw 'Mike', 'Mike', 'Mike' -- endless missed calls. When I finally got him, he said: 'I've bought the house.' Of course, then we had to face the survey, but it was fine; the roof was good, there was no dry rot."
However, that didn't mean they could move in immediately. On the contrary, it took nearly a year, massive building work and major redecoration to turn it into the home that Ger and Mike wanted for themselves and their family: Simone, 23, a graphic designer with Dublin's 98, and Jordi, 9. Fortunately they had sold their previous house before the auction and were living in a comfortable apartment from where they were able to plan the renovation. "Five nights a week, Mike and I would go for one drink, we'd take our notebooks and do sketches," says Ger.
As the house was a listed building -- the red-brick, three-storey terraced house in Dublin 6 dates from 1880 -- the couple consulted a conservation architect who convinced the planning department that they had the passion to restore the house sympathetically. The Smyths left the front of the house and all its period details intact, but made dramatic changes to the back. "The conservation architect had done a study of the road. Apparently these houses were the townhouses of wealthy country people -- they used the front, while the servants used the back; that's why it was all poky and dark at the back."
Not any more. The couple, with the help of their architect Katherine Kelliher of Kelliher Miller Architects were able to remove the dreary rooms at the back of the house and add a two-storey extension. And what an extension! Not only do they have a huge, light-filled kitchen, dining and living area to the back of the house, but also extras including an office or fourth bedroom, a utility room, and a wetroom instead of the poky little rooms. Thanks to the careful design there is no loss of natural light to the back areas upstairs which face the extension. These areas include Simone's bedroom, which now has double doors opening on to a balcony overlooking the living area, as well as a landing which is lined with glass, affording interesting views from above into the extension. Jordi's bedroom is off this landing. "When he goes to bed we can sit down here and keep an eye on him," says Ger. The back garden can also be seen from the landing. The garden is accessed from the extension through enormous glass doors, which fold fully back. There are clever, though subtle, elements in the design -- small things that make a big difference, such as the cantilevered window in the office, which adds space and light without encroaching into the garden. With its wall bed, the office doubles as a spare bedroom.
In keeping with the design of the extension, the look is very modern and everything is black, silver or charcoal against a background of white-grey walls. Lighting is also key, and it is used extensively, even under the treads in the stairs to the extension and certain units in the kitchen. "Mike loves to cook, so he had a big role in the design of the kitchen," Ger says. There's plenty of cooking equipment, including a full range and a Neff oven. One of the most dramatic features in the kitchen is the enormous granite island which houses two sinks, the dishwasher and several units, while leaving plenty of space for a breakfast bar.
The units were designed by Ger, who had them made up by her cabinetmaker. She also designed most of the wardrobes and shelving around the house. Storage can be a weak point in period houses, but Ger shows a real flair for fitting in cabinets in such a way -- either by her design or her deft use of paintwork -- that they are completely unobtrusive.
Another dramatic feature of the extension is the vertical series of nine mirrors by Fine Design, which marks a division between the kitchen and the dining area. Ger uses mirrors extensively in the rest of the house, including in the hall, the sitting rooms and the bedrooms.
Certain features had to be renewed -- Ger had to replace most of the mantlepieces, and she put in new walnut floors everywhere, except in the hall, where porcelain tiles, smaller than those used in the extension, are continued. Everything else, however, was maintained-- including the sash windows, the mouldings and cornices.
"The real problem is marrying old and new. There has to be a relationship between the rooms. If you have a purple chair in one room, you should be able to use it elsewhere -- it's a real skill getting the flow right," says Ger, who opted for a similar colour palette of black, charcoal and silver throughout. She has created a period glamour with extensive use of luxurious silk-taffeta fabrics and silver touches.
In the master bedroom at the top of the house -- which has its own dressing room and bathroom -- cream and gold dominate. Some of the furnishings were bought in the town of St Remy in Provence, and some in a local interiors shop. There is one bookcase which stands out, maybe because it's not quite as expensive-looking as the rest of the furnishings "That dates from that first house, I couldn't throw it out -- happy memories," laughs Ger.
And it looks as if this house will provide plenty more of the same.
Ger Smyth, tel: (087) 256-1141, or see www.gersmythinteriors.com,
or email email@example.com