My favourite room: Perchance to dream
With a little imagination, you can do anything, says the adventurous Steve Lyness. The developer's home has stars on the bedroom ceiling and, says Mary O'Sullivan, even a carp pond on the roof and a crow's nest in the living room. Photography by Tony Gavin
'For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream." So said Vincent van Gogh, who painted the iconic Starry Night and inadvertently gave rise to a million strangled versions of Vincent by Don McLean. The sight of the stars must make businessman Steve Lyness dream too -- the ceiling of his stylish bedroom is a veritable constellation. And dream he certainly does, coming up with fascinating ideas for his home, which is so special that it was recently chosen to feature on BBC's entertaining House Of The Year. How many houses have their own crow's nest? Forget about a roof garden -- what about a roof pond full of koi carp? A dining table made with industrial pipes? Steve's has them all, and much, much more.
However, Steve's take on the stars is closer to that of US President Theodore Roosevelt who said, "Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground." It's a maxim which sums up the reserved Lurgan man, a fortysomething who combines creativity with a sound business sense.
One arm of his work life is an agrichemicals company -- along with his business partner, Steve sells pesticides to local farmers -- while he allows his imagination to run riot in the other arm of his business, which is a company involving property development, and in the creation of his home.
Neither of his businesses seemed to be in his stars when he was growing up as the second eldest of four brothers.
"There was a factory in Lurgan and my father was a tufter there, so he was, making bedspreads, candlewick bedspreads. Of course, it's not there any more," Steve reminisces, adding: "I was always quite creative, and handy with my hands. As a child, I was always making things with wood. I used to make garden sheds and sell them. And aviaries, I sold them, too."
The hobby led to joinery and Steve served his time before heading, at 21, to England to work as a joiner. Steve being Steve, he also quickly saw an opening for something else.
"It was the mid-Eighties and I saw an opportunity for a labour agency, for joiners, fitters and electricians. I brought guys over from here to England and put them into jobs."
It worked for two years until the late Eighties when interest rates became really high, building slumped and he felt it was time to leave. The canny Steve had also bought a house in England during his time there and, when he sold it after the two years, he got double the original price, giving him sizeable capital to get involved in business back home.
He bought into the pest-control business -- he thought it would be a good business opening, and so it has proved to be. "It's working well for me," he says with his typical reserve. And he developed property.
In the intervening years he has done some new builds but he has mainly concentrated on refurbs, and both types of building have taught him a lot about compromise, useful lessons when it came to building his own home, which he built from scratch.
When he bought the site in Scarva, Co Down, it came with full planning permission for a neo-Georgian style house. The site itself had huge appeal -- it's deep in the country with rolling landscape and wonderful views from all sides, yet it's also convenient -- only an hour from Dublin and half an hour from Belfast.
The problem was Steve really wanted to create an ultra-modern home. The solution was to build the exterior according to the plans but do the exact opposite to what was expected inside.
"I amended all the drawings inside, so I did," Steve explains in his soft Northern tones. "I pushed it as far as I could outside, but I remodelled it inside and made it totally open plan.
"I increased the ceiling heights. They had three small reception rooms and a kitchen. I just have a kitchen and an open-plan living room."
This -- as can be seen from the photographs -- is something of an understatement. Take the kitchen. To list its layout and furnishings -- the lacquered units, the granite worktops, the crema marfil flooring, does it little justice. It's the design that makes it special -- and this is all Steve.
"One thing I've really learned through working on different properties is how it's all about light. As you go along you learn you can tweak things. I try each time to make more of the light. I use more and more glass and I always want something nice to look out at," he notes, pointing out the view and how he has installed glass doors leading to the deck from the kitchen, plus six windows on the three outside walls.
Add to that the lighting, all imported from Italy, and the result is a great space, which Steve says he designed with entertaining in mind.
"I entertain quite a bit and I visualised the friends around the island as I cooked," he explains, adding that he's quite an adventurous cook. "If I eat something in a restaurant, I'm quite good at recreating it." And he's addicted to his induction hob on the island which cooks everything so rapidly.
The table in the kitchen is unique. Designed and made by Steve, the top is Zodiaq, which is a quartz compound.
"It's the same weight as granite, but it comes in a range of shades," Steve explains, adding that he chose aubergine. A lot of thought went into its shape, too. "I didn't want rectangular, the oval flows better than round would and everyone has more of a view of the outdoors."
And if conversation over a dinner party ever stalls, the base, made of a cluster of industrial pipes, is a talking point. Another talking point is the way the open-plan living room is laid out -- a vast space, its centrepiece is the grand piano, and scattered here and there are double-ended chaises longues, which are made of cream leather and black ponyskin.
A desire to create a space for entertaining was again uppermost in Steve's mind -- people can crowd around the piano for a sing-song, alternatively the floor can be cleared for dancing and the house is, of course, equipped with a superb Bose sound system.
Even the lighting can be tweaked to suit all types of atmospheres. "I think the wrong lighting can kill it all. The walls are all soft white, colour is added to the mix through the lighting here. I can use the filters to change the colour to, say, red," Steve explains.
While it is a huge space, there are cosy corners where people can huddle and chat. And three sets of glass doors fold back to allow access to the deck and the hot tub. Steve has planted trees to camouflage the doors when looking in from the outside. There are two staircases off the room, one of them a spiral steel-and-glass staircase, leads to the gym. Above the spiral stairs is the so-called crow's nest -- it is in fact a pole which carries the roof. There was a visible seam which perturbed Steve. "Other people couldn't see it but I could, so I made the crow's nest with lighting." Continuing the seafaring theme, he had the glass treads made in the shape of the propeller of a boat.
"If you have a wee bit of imagination you can put a lot together, so you can," he notes. The more prominent staircase, leading to the bedrooms and two of the three bathrooms, is also made of glass and steel and is a feature in itself, but hogging the limelight instead is the wall of framed show posters featuring dozens of shows including Chicago, The Goodbye Girl, Stones in His Pockets, West Side Story, Les Mis -- the list is practically endless. He loves to travel and always susses out the shows playing the place he happens to be in, whether it's New York, Sydney, Florida or Moscow.
"I go to the theatre quite a bit," he says. "I love musicals, ballet, opera and rather than putting the programmes and brochures in a drawer I find the scene that was most memorable to me in the performance and frame that." The framed brochures and posters add a lot of colour to the living space, which is largely black and white. Steve chose to add a variety of colours to the upper rooms -- the gym has red, yellow and green beanbags while his own bedroom has a lime-coloured Le Corbusier lounger. Coloured cushions on the bed add interest, too, though the bed is interesting in itself. It's large and low and round.
"I'd seen something similar in a brochure but it was eight and a half grand. So I made it myself," Steve explains. Made of leather, it comes in three pieces. "I made it in the same fabric and with the same headboard, and it cost me £1,800," he notes with an air of pride, which he is clearly entitled to feel.
While some of Steve's ideas come from research, his extensive travels also inform his aesthetic and this is reflected in many of his choices, including those he made when it came to the three bathrooms. There's an en suite in his own room as well as the gloriously indulgent bath in his bedroom, positioned to enjoy the views as he soaks. There's also a bathroom shared by the other two bedrooms, known as a Jack and Jill, and a state-of-the-art bathroom on the ground floor complete with steam room and waterfall shower.
Every little thing is carefully tended to, and Steve himself did it all.
Yet he insists he never found it stressful, never does. "I recently built a bungalow for my parents in their side garden. From start to finish it took six months. It's not stressful. I get a buzz off it all. When you get a vision in your head like this and it pulls together, that's a buzz," he says.
Of course, the thing for people like Steve is, once one thing is completed, another buzz has to be found.
"I've bought a Seventies-style bungalow, a split-level house," he says. "I'll open it up on four levels." He is clearly excited about moving on. "The last time I did up a house and sold it, the buyer bought everything including the bed linen, the piano, the works," he marvels, though already dreaming of how he'll achieve the different levels and how it will look.
As the poet said, dreams are like stars, you may never touch them, but if you follow them they will lead you to your destiny.
Steve's house can be viewed on www.propertypal.com
Sunday Indo Life Magazine