Interiors: Water colours
A restored mill in Co Carlow tells the story of two creative minds working together to balance character and contemporary living
There is a romance attached to old buildings, but their undeniable charm and beauty do not always mean that they are suited to modern lifestyles.
Georgian townhouses enjoy perfect proportions and are famous for their light, but the configuration of rooms doesn't always work with contemporary family life.
Meanwhile, with the exception of Ireland's Great Houses, country homes from the past were built for warmth and shelter, which in turn led to dark rooms and low ceilings.
Updating old houses is a challenging balancing act to preserve the atmosphere of the building and maintain the sense of history but also give it a renewed future. When artist Mark O'Neill bought his 18th-century thatched home, a former mill house with water mill intact on the banks of the River Slaney, it was technically ready to move into.
However, it is his collaboration with interior designer Maria Fenlon that has turned this charming but dark house into a stunning place of light and water that opens itself up to the landscape, providing a peaceful retreat.
When two creative talents work together there can be clashes. Each has their own strong aesthetic sense, and both artists and interior designers are hyper-sensitive to the influence of colour and light. Fenlon had described the collaboration as a process.
"People have this idea that interior designers will come in all Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and paint the walls pink and purple. But, in reality, it's completely different. It's talking, listening, looking at the things people have, what they're wearing. I try to pick up on a style they like and develop that. Although, of course, I direct them a bit."
It was the image of a bathroom with clean modern lines, which also opened to the outside, that proved to be a starting point for this renovation project. Seeing Mark's immediate positive reaction made Maria realise that, despite his choice of an old and rustic building, and his style of painting, which is famous for country scenes, the artist has a strongly contemporary streak.
"I don't have a signature style," Maria explains. "I try to find the client's preferred style. When we first visited the property it was all dark and turning in on itself, so that, together with the image I showed Mark, proved the beginning."
Opening a large window from the kitchen to the water, glassing in another section with French doors to the terrace and restoring a balcony to an upper room, Maria's structural alterations immediately added the energies of the river and landscape to the feel of the house. Further interventions -- such as white-painted ceilings, mirrors and reflective surfaces -- have had such a profound effect that they feel almost structural. These alterations are balanced with the preservation of raw stone walls, deep window recesses and wooden beams.
Downstairs the tones are neutral, with natural materials such as silks, silk velvet and linen predominating, while in the dramatic upstairs room that gives on to the balcony, more funky touches creep in with an electric blue chair and a lime-green rug.
The walls display Mark's art collection, though none of the artist's own work -- this was a deliberate choice. "Of an evening when I'm sitting down, I really don't want to be looking at my own work and thinking, 'That dog's tail is crooked'."
The house has been inspirational for Mark. The openness of the design and its relationship to its surroundings have opened up his work. "I'm making bigger-scale paintings, and I want them to look like paintings, so I'm using bigger brushes.
"It's living here -- it's about nature, being gutsy and bold; everything that nature is."
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