Going the extra country mile
Rural homeowners putting city dwellers to shame when it comes to bold interiors choices
There's a lot of noise in the media about urban living: small spaces, apartment interiors, and how to make the best of them interiors-wise. It's totally legit. According to a World Bank Survey conducted in 2016, an estimated 63.54pc of Irish people live in towns and cities. But what about everyone else?
The same survey reported that Ireland's rural population was 36.47pc. That's a lot of homes that don't fit the ubiquitous urban model. Country homes are organised differently from city homes, and that brings its own decorative challenges and opportunities, but rural doesn't have to mean rustic.
As it turns out, the townie cliché that rural people are more conservative is pure urban myth. In fact, it's the opposite. Or so says interior designer Collette Ward. She's based in Aughrim, Co Wicklow, and her clients are about 60pc rural and 40pc urban.
"Our rural clients are much more practical and they decorate less self-consciously than our town clients," she says. "They're also more adventurous when it comes to colour. They go for stronger prints and colours, and warm welcoming tones."
In fairness, though, if you don't enjoy colour, you wouldn't be working with Ward in the first place. Her interiors tend to be sophisticated, bold and bright, with plenty of pattern. It's a look that works well in country houses. "When you're living surrounded by beautiful green woods and hills, it's a shame not to celebrate with some lovely colour!" she adds.
So what about the usual urban assumption that country houses are more spacious. Any truth in that? "It's generally true," she says.
"Not if you live in a cottage, of course, but most of the time, people have more space, even if they don't live in a grand country house. It's something that you take for granted when you have it. You only realise how much space you have when you go to stay in a two-bedroom townhouse."
Every home is unique, but Ward does see some wider differences in the way people decorate in the country.
"Town clients are more concerned about the entrance halls and the drawing room. There is more of a focus on the visible rooms. In the country, the emphasis on family rooms is stronger."
I wonder if this because people entertain differently in the country.
"For certain," she says. "If you live in the town, you are more likely to be invited for supper. If you're rural, you're more likely to turn up and not go away. Or, if you do come for supper, you'll probably stay the night."
In townhouses, a spare bedroom is a luxury and Ward has seen many of her urban clients convert theirs into home gyms and teenage dens. But when people live beyond the range of public transport, a spare bedroom is a must.
"It's a very important room," she says. "Many people living in the country have two."
The spare bedroom isn't just for casual overnight guests. It's needed for Christmas and when family members come to stay. Since the spare bedroom is a key part of the way her country clients socialise, the way that it looks is important too.
"You can go that little bit extra with wallpaper and a beautifully dressed bed," she says. "It does make all the difference."
Draughts are always a problem, especially in older houses. "I recommend a door curtain, even if a door isn't draughty, they look rather lovely. You pull it when you're all in for the night."
Carefully made, a door curtain should look good from both sides, especially if the door has glazing, and Ward recommends wool or printed velvet.
"We've got a wonderful velvet from Lewis & Wood, printed with stags. It's a bit funky. And wools have become so vibrant in plains, or checks, or prints. They're easy to brush off and keep looking smart, and they suit Irish houses." Lewis & Wood printed velvets start at €79 per metre, and wool curtain fabrics at €70.
For the windows, Ward likes to use lovely heavy curtains, lined and interlined, in wool or velvet.
"A lot of contemporary country houses have big windows. They may not have the draught, but they still need curtains. You need that sense of softness even when there's nobody looking in but the cows." Linen curtains, layered and textured, work well in this context. "And they're a lifetime away from ghastly sheers."
One of the differences between rural and urban clients is that people living in the country are more willing to invest in comfort. "We make our own upholstered furniture - sofas, chairs and headboards. It's designed by me and made locally, and all of it is bespoke," says Ward.
With prices for an armchair starting at €850, bespoke furniture is relatively pricey, but Ward feels that it represents value over time. "It's a lifetime piece that can be handed down and would be worth getting reupholstered. A lot of the high-street brands are cheaper. They look good in the showroom, but they break down after a couple of years."
Then, there is the mud.
"The utility room is the hardest working area in any rural house. Young people don't think about it. Where are they going to put the buggy and the bicycle? And the wet boots and the wet dog? It's not just a matter of a brolly by the front door."
For people planning to renovate or build, Ward recommends a pre-planning consultation, which takes place before the sod is turned.
It's a chance for her to talk sense into people regarding the utility room. It needs to be close to the back door, ideally off the hallway. And it shouldn't be a thoroughfare.
"In the country, everyone comes in through the back door, including guests. The only time they come in the front is when they've been formally invited to dinner. So it's not ideal to open the back door and be greeted by piles of laundry and wet paws."
The brands that Ward recommends for country houses are available from her own practice (collettewardinteriors.ie), but also from other outlets and interior designers around Ireland. They include Zoffany (fabrics from €101 per metre); Colefax & Fowler (fabrics from €80 per metre); and Lewis & Wood (wallpaper from €75 per metre, rolls of wallpaper from €85 per roll, fabrics from €60 per metre). For Irish stockists, see stylelibrary.com, lewisandwood.co.uk and colefax.com.