Wednesday 22 May 2019

Going Dutch

A slow-burning romance, and life in Amsterdam, spelled love for designer Avril Murphy Allen and her husband, Enda. Dutch accents now influence their renovated Co Dublin coach house.

Avril Murphy Allen’s home is a coach house dating from the 1850s, which now has a contemporary extension designed by architect Paul Kelly, of FKL architects.
Avril Murphy Allen’s home is a coach house dating from the 1850s, which now has a contemporary extension designed by architect Paul Kelly, of FKL architects.
Avril in the kitchen with units built by Geoff Langrell, of Langrell Kitchens. A glass expanse looks out on to a stone wall
The main feature of the dining area is the disappearing corner — the glass doors fold back, making the dining area and garden almost one.
The original living room of the coach house features trompe l’oeil panels. ‘I’d love wood panelling, but the room is too small’
The clogs are a souvenir of happy times in Holland

Mary O'Sullivan

It's that time of year when, after months in a dark half-light, ignoring the gathering dust and clutter, everything changes for us.

The evenings are getting brighter and, not only do we hate the build-up of rubbish around us, we finally have the energy to do something about it. So, skips are ordered, plans are drawn up to clear cupboards and drawers, and a freshening up of the house in the form of a paint job is contemplated.


Of course, there are some people who never allow their homes to get this way. Avril Murphy Allen is one such person and, on her website, she very kindly imparts her top tips on how to avoid clutter. She also follows her own advice to the letter. In the magnificent home she shares with her husband, Enda, and their two teenagers, everything has its place, and the decor is full of clever design elements, all geared towards creating an elegant, cosy, yet streamlined, clutter-free environment.

Features include custom-built units to hide away unsightly TVs, and a splashback in her kitchen that slides back and forth, behind which all the ugly paraphernalia of cooking is stored.

Instead of the piles of bills and school reports, and takeaway menus that the rest of us drop on our hall tables, Avril has a clever collection of marked boxes for each type of document, and actually makes a design feature of them. In fairness to the rest of us amateurs, Avril is a professional at this. She starred in RTE's Desperate Houses, advising ordinary punters on how to make the most of their homes, and her business is interior design – something that she's been immersed in since childhood.

"I spent most of my life moving around the furniture in my bedroom when I was a child. I'm still doing it," Avril says with a laugh. "The kids warn Enda before he comes home, 'She's moving the furniture again.'"

After finishing school, architecture first appealed to her, but Avril was drawn more to design, so she did model-making, followed by environmental design, which gave her a grounding in all sorts of areas, including stage, exhibition-stand, furniture and interior design.

"I opted for it because I thought it and the model-making would give me more options," Avril says.

And she was right. Once Avril had finished her studies, her first jobs were in the area of exhibition design and, indeed, shop-fitting, before she found her niche in interior design. She has consistently worked in the area, both here and in Amsterdam, where she lived for two long spells.

It was Enda's work in banking which brought them to the Netherlands. As for the romance between the two of them, Avril insists that, while she is a designer, Enda was the one with the designs . . . on her. The bubbly blonde had met Enda when she was 16, at her sister Carolyn's 21st – Carolyn went on to marry Enda's brother – yet it was nearly 10 years before the penny dropped with Avril.

"We became great friends, and my boyfriends disliked him intensely, but I couldn't see why," she says. "Then I met him with a beautiful girl he was going out with. I was going out with someone, too, but I cried my eyes out. He was always saying, 'You should go out with your best friend', and I realised I had made a terrible mistake."

But, in fact, all was not lost. Enda's relationship didn't last and, shortly after, Avril split up with her boyfriend, and her sister rang Enda with the news.

"At the time of the call, he was in Amsterdam, but he flew home on the first flight," she says with satisfaction. They finally became an item, and she married him in 1992. "There are lots of brothers in Enda's family, but there were only two girls in our family and, in his wedding speech, my father had great fun with that. He said, 'I've some bad news for the Allens – I've no more daughters'," Avril recalls with a laugh.

By the time they got together, Enda was working in Amsterdam and Avril joined him there, and found work with an English female architect. Avril loved the Dutch design aesthetic, and it clearly informs her own design work.

"It's a lovely place to live," she says. "They're so design-conscious. They have a very strong sense of their own style."

After three years, they came back to Ireland, and Avril worked for Henry J Lyons Architects until Emily, now 17, was born, after which she decided to stay at home. Elliot came along two years later and the family returned to Holland, again for Enda's work.

The second time around in Holland, instead of interior design, Avril had a little business doing artists' impressions of people's homes. She still does a bit of this, as well as lecturing in design, but her main business now is working with clients on their houses.

"I'm very lucky. I work for myself, with my clients," Avril says. "Irish people often say, 'I don't know what I want', but they do, and it's very easy to get from absolutely nothing to the finished room. It's very important that it feels right. If the interior of your home doesn't feel right, you don't want to come back to it."

The interior of her own house feels very right, but Avril would be the first to admit that it has taken a lot of work.

A coach house situated in totally private grounds at the top of a hill in one of south Co Dublin's coastal villages, it dates from the 1850s, and the couple bought it in 1994.

"It belonged to a friend of my sister's. It was painted pink and the roof was falling in, and the minute I walked into the garden I fell in love," she reminisces.

During their second stint in Holland – this time for five years, from 1999 to 2004 – they rented out the coach house and, on their return, they contemplated selling it and buying a bigger house.

But Avril realised it had great potential for expansion, so she got together with an architect friend, Paul Kelly, and they designed an extension.

The original house is just one room deep. Downstairs consisted of a kitchen and living room, with three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. It was full of character and period details, which Avril and the architect decided to retain, though they changed the function of some of the rooms – the original kitchen became a living room, and they also decided to make the two-storey extension completely contemporary.

Avril came up with some ideas, while others were those of Paul Kelly, such as the window facing on to the old stone wall. "I thought it was a terrible idea, but now I love it – it adds so much light and depth to the extension," she enthuses.

Two walls of glass afford fantastic views of the garden and fold back completely, ensuring that, in good weather, the kitchen/dining room almost becomes part of the garden.

Underfloor heating means there are no ugly radiators in the extension, and all the materials, such as the terrazzo work surface, are very contemporary. Clutter would ruin the look, so there isn't any, yet it transpires that Avril never throws anything out – the current kitchen table came from Holland, and the old one is now a garden table.

So where does she store everything? "Emily was looking for dresses she'd seen me wearing in old photos. I said 'I think they're in Mom's attic', and she went up and pulled out these suitcases and there they were," Avril says.

Using someone else's storage space – would that be considered cheating?

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