The striking thing about Catherine Connolly, apart from the cheery welcome she offers, is her insouciant elegance. It's a combination of her superb figure, the way she wears her clothes, and her endless, shapely legs. These days, Catherine is an interior designer in London -- what you might call a remodeller of houses, often taking them from a state of serious dilapidation to a glamour that's fit for the pages of England's top interiors glossies, where they regularly feature -- but her elegance and perfect posture betray the fact that she was once a model. "I modelled with all the legends -- Suzanne, Helen, Grace O'Shaughnessy," she says, playfully referring to the fact that it wasn't today or yesterday. Indeed, it was in the late Sixties, before Helen Joyce married broadcaster Terry Wogan and before Suzanne Macdougald launched her highly respected Solomon Gallery in Dublin.
Originally from Dublin, Catherine, whose maiden name is Keelaghan, lived in Ireland until she was eight, when her father, a doctor, got a job in the north of England, and brought his family there. Catherine went to boarding school, and was due to go on to university in England after finishing at school, but there was a summer to be got through first, and she was sent to stay with her uncle in Dublin, the late, great sportsman and broadcaster, Brendan O'Reilly. "He didn't want me hanging around, so I ended up getting a job as a hotel receptionist and doing a bit of modelling," Catherine recalls with a laugh. "I worked for Miriam Woodbyrne, and when American Vogue were looking for typical Irish women for a knitting-pattern catalogue, Helen and I were the two main characters."
Sadly, the catalogue is no longer available. "I did have it," Catherine says. "A few years ago, my daughter's friend was in the States and she came across a pile of magazines, one of them with me on the cover. She brought it home for me, and it was the Vogue catalogue. One day, I got it out to show Helen and the next day the cleaner threw it out," she says, laughing. A laugh accompanies much of what Catherine has to say -- she seems to have a very jolly outlook on life.
That American Vogue shoot led to a good career in modelling, here for three years and then in London for a further seven years, where Catherine met and married the first of two husbands, both named Richard. "I married Richard the First in 1969 -- that lasted 10 years," she says. They have two daughters -- Kitty, a ceramicist and mother of three, who is married to a lieutenant colonel in the British army, and Oonagh, a graphic designer. Catherine and that first Richard, a framer, are still great friends; he did most of the framing of the pictures in the house she shares with Richard the Second, to whom she has been married for 30 years.
Their daughter, Alice, is 16 years old. "I thought I was menopausal, but I was pregnant," says Catherine. "It was the shock of my life." Of course, as Catherine is quick to add, Alice is a joy.
Her first husband was Richard Connolly and Catherine kept his name. "Richard the Second's name is Jacob, but CC is better than CJ, and anyway, I had established myself with Connolly," Catherine explains.
Her introduction to interior design came about gradually; first she trained in specialist paint techniques, then she moved on to interiors in general. In the mid-Eighties she set up on her own, and then, in 2004, she formed a partnership with fellow interior designer Naomi Broadbent. Together, as Northwick Design, they have around 20 clients on their books and about four big jobs on the go at any one time.
Many of their finished houses have featured in the prestigious English glossy House & Garden, and their work has taken them to the States and Eastern Europe as well as all over the UK and Ireland. "If clients want things sorted, nothing's too small. We've stayed friendly with nearly all our clients," she says, summing up the partnership's philosophy. She and Richard even sold their last London house to people whose country house she and Naomi had renovated. "Then they completely demolished it and we helped them do up their new house," Catherine says happily, marvelling at the synchronicity of it all.
She describes the company's style as "classic meets contemporary", and that is certainly the keynote of the gorgeous house she shares with Richard, an estate agent, and Alice. Dating from the 1820s, it is located in the leafy St John's Wood area of London, which boasts many celebrity homeowners, including Kate Moss. The couple bought the four-storey house three years ago and completely restructured it. The renovation included removing major walls and installing numerous steel joists -- for example, instead of the two former darkish interconnecting rooms on the ground floor, now there is one large light-filled living room. At garden level can be found the company's offices, a wine cellar, a dining room and a superb contemporary kitchen with an island large enough for both Catherine and Richard to cook at the same time -- "so we don't fall out while cooking", she says jokingly. "It's designed by Matthew King, a sculptor by profession, who has done quite a few of our kitchens."
The units are high-gloss lacquer and the worktops are made of a reconstituted stone Catherine raves about. "It's stain free and heat resistant," she enthuses.
Natural surfaces also feature -- the extra-wide floor boards are oak, as is the dining table, which was designed by Terence Conran. "His ex-wife, Caroline, is a great friend," Catherine notes.
The furnishings, particularly in the elegant drawing room, are a mix of soft furnishings designed by Catherine and Naomi and antiques, many of them picked up at auctions. Catherine has some really nice Irish period pieces, but English antiques, she finds, are usually in better condition. "I remember the expert Robert Kime telling me that the legs of the Irish tables are usually rotten from the damp floors," she says.
The decor is hugely enlivened by Catherine and Richard's collection of pictures, again an eclectic mix of modern and old. Catherine takes great delight in the fact that a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I hangs next to an Irish landscape. Her collection includes works by Naomi's mother, Edwina Broadbent and by Lowry -- and she has quite a lot of works by Irish artists, which she has acquired through Suzanne Macdougald, who remains a great friend.
Upstairs can be found the bedrooms and bathrooms. The guest bedrooms have no wardrobes -- "you don't want them staying too long," Catherine reasons -- while there are no glass showers in any of the fabulous new bathrooms. Instead, the bathrooms -- supplied by Catherine's cousin, Catherine Treacy of Versatile Bathrooms & Interiors in Navan -- feature walk-in showers. "I don't like cleaning glass, so walk-in showers are the solution," Catherine explains.
An interior designer after every woman's heart.
Northwick Design, 8 Belgrave Gardens, London NW8 0RB, tel: (004420) 7372-3305, or see www.northwickdesign.com