Peek inside interior designer Sarah Lafferty's beautifully restored cottage after fire damage
Interior designer Sarah Lafferty was unusual in that she succeeded in getting a gem of a house at a great price during the boom. Then, two years later, disaster struck.
A wise old Greek philosopher named Epictetus once said: "Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants." And while it's not the kind of thing someone who has just lost all his or her possessions wants, or, indeed, needs, to hear at that time, they may well eventually agree with those words.
Interior designer Sarah Lafferty did lose virtually everything she owned, and while it was a terrible blow at the time, it resulted in her rethinking her whole way of life. Since the apparent disaster - a fire at her Dundrum home - Sarah has discovered teaching, travel and yoga, and a whole new outlook on life. "It took the actual experience to realise that I'm not that stuff," she recalls.
Interior design remains a huge passion, but then the elegant blonde has been steeped in it all her life; her dad is an architect and her mother an architectural technician. "I was looking at house plans before I was able to read," she says. "I learned through osmosis."
However, after finishing her schooling, she opted not to study architecture itself. "Through talking to Dad, I realised most architects end up spending time with quantity surveyors, working within planning restrictions; it can get very corporate. To me, the creative side is very important. I love colour and texture," Sarah says. At the time - the early 1990s - interior design wasn't a widely available discipline, so Sarah did textile design in the National College of Art and Design. She worked for a while as a textile designer before doing a diploma in interior architecture, and from then on practised as an interior designer. She got work on the development of Dundrum Town Centre, and that led to the purchase of her home in the area.
"I bought the house in 2003. It was the peak of the boom. There was a 'get a house, pay anything' atmosphere. I had notions of buying a little bijou place in Ranelagh, but every time I went near one, it went up by 50 grand within a day or two," she says.
So she turned her attention to Dundrum itself. "The centre was a big building site; traffic was a huge issue, and there was no Luas, and no one wanted to live here, but because I was working on the development, I knew the shopping centre was really going to change the landscape," the gorgeous blonde explains.
Quite soon she found the perfect little house - a red-brick, double-fronted cottage dating from the 1870s. "It was an absolute mess - no one had lived there for a year. There was a smell, and a bees' nest in the living room, full of dead bees.
"It was like a horror film," Sarah recalls. "I'm an interior designer, so the more a house puts other people off, the better. When everyone was paying over the odds, I got my house for 10 grand less than the asking price."
Sarah quickly put her own stamp on the house and turned it into a shabby-chic little gem. Then, two years after moving in, the fire happened, caused by an electrical fault. It was the Halloween bank holiday - Sarah had gone to cheer on a friend in the Dublin Marathon, and was on her way to brunch when she saw a fire brigade and actually thought, "Please don't let it be my house".
It was, and while it destroyed everything in the living room, what few realise about a fire is the extensive damage that smoke causes.
"I lost 90pc of my possessions," Sarah says. "I suppose I was a bit of a material girl, very attached to my things, so I had a lot of everything. As part of the insurance claim, you have to itemise everything and you realise, 'Oh my God, I had seven milk jugs'.
"I had way too many towels, way too many clothes," Sarah says, adding, "I think the most interesting thing is, 80pc of stuff I never gave a thought to again. The 20pc of stuff I did think about, I had, let's say five seconds of silent grief, and then I began getting on with life, realising I'm still here."
Sarah felt lighter and free, and began to see the fact that the house was a virtual shell as an opportunity to redesign it. The builder had to take all the plasterwork down and new problems - rotten wood, mould and suchlike kept being discovered. "It got to the stage where the house was like one of those old-Hollywood film sets. One day I opened the front door, and inside was muck beneath my feet and the sky above my head. It was literally this front facade, and I could put anything I wanted behind it," says Sarah.
She spent hours working out the best option, and ultimately decided to put a mezzanine level in. She also decided to make the partition walls thinner than they were. The footprint of the house is the same, but she has doubled the space.
"My thing was to make it bright. Our tough, dark winters have a real physiological effect on us. The Scandanavians have always designed around the fact that they have such dark winters. In Ireland, our approach has been, 'We'll light a big fire and cosy in'."
Adopting the Scandanavian approach, Sarah painted everything white, the floor are pale colours, and she put windows in everywhere. The result is a divine, light-filled sanctuary.
The new build took two years and, by the end of it, the recession had kicked in, interiors work dried up and Sarah had time on her hands. She loved yoga and decided to get a teaching qualification as a back-up. One of the best places to do so was Bali, but money was the issue, until she realised she had a great asset. "Someone mentioned to me about Airbnb, and renting my house. I put my house on the website, and, within hours, I had people wanting to rent it," she says.
Three weeks later she was in Bali, studying yoga.
In recent times, work at home has picked up enormously and so, while she's now back spending prolonged periods here, doing both interior design and yoga classes, she still lets the house through Airbnb, and moves back in with her parents when necessary.
Since doing that yoga course in Bali, Sarah has spent a lot of time there with friends she's made, and always lets her house while abroad. "Airbnb has meant freedom, it's been life-changing. I just bring the laptop; it's so easy to be a digital nomad," she notes.
It was while in Bali that she came up with the idea of giving a 10-week, very practical interior design course, aimed at homeowners who want to rethink their homes, but haven't a clue how.
"You know the kind of thing. People paint a room a certain colour, and then find it's darker than they thought. You see people in Ikea - at the beginning full of hope, then at the checkout they're slightly broken people. I want to equip people with all the tips and tricks I can. The course is about creating spaces that work on a functional level and make your heart sing," she says. "It's not about house-proud, it's about house-comfortable."
If the course attendees end up with homes which are even a fraction as nice as Sarah's, they'll be doing well. Absorbing some of her philosophy won't be any harm, either.
See sarahlafferty.com See airbnb.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin