Interior styling isn’t just about creating spaces which look beautiful, they need to feel wonderful too. To mark the launch of her new book Curate, the celebrated interior stylist and writer Ali Heath shares the story of how her own home has evolved, and her fail-safe style tips for creating a home you’ll truly love. By Jessica Jonzen
THE SITTING ROOM AT ALI HEATH’S HOME IN FARNHAM, SURREY. IMAGE: ALUN CALLENDER
With all the extra time we’ve been spending in our homes over the past year, we can all agree that we’ve learned that our surroundings really do matter. It isn’t frivolous to care about what our homes look and feel like when they are so fundamental to how we feel. Many of us will have looked at our homes through new eyes and may be emerging from lockdown in need of inspiration.
With perfect timing, the stylist and writer Ali Heath has brought out her new book Curate, a project which united her with her long-time collaborators, the Australian stylist Lynda Gardener and Australian photographer Marnie Hewson, for a true lockdown passion project.
Featuring ten real homes, including Ali’s Georgian townhouse where she lives with her husband and their teenage children, Curate is a celebration of home and the joy that can be found in creating a space which inspires you and tells your story. “When I was writing it in my garden last summer, the theme I kept coming back to was that I wanted to keep it real,” says Ali. “Curate is about making people feel it’s ok to trust their own judgement, whether you live in a student flat or a large family home. It’s about creating a feeling. If you want to make a home, do it for you not because of what the magazines are telling you to do.”
Curate is a love letter to a monochrome palette, to natural materials and collections lovingly added to over the years, but the principals also apply if you are a colour lover. “It’s about surrounding yourself with the things you truly love that will last the course. It’s the antithesis of trends.” Here, Ali shares how her own home has evolved in the 20 years she has lived there, and the best styling tricks she’s learned over the years.
ALI HAS LOVINGLY COLLECTED FOR MOST OF HER LIFE. SHE REGULARLY EDITS HER DISPLAYS TO KEEP THEM LOOKING FRESH. IMAGE: ALUN CALLENDER
How has your career as a stylist impacted the way you decorate and style your home?
When we moved here I had literally just resigned from my corporate marketing career. It felt like a time of change – it was our second home together, we had no children at that stage and I felt the need to break out of corporate life and try my luck at doing my own thing. I swapped the buzz of agency life and a flash sports car, for the draw of antiques and a silver van – and I could not have been happier.
As my career as a stylist has evolved and developed, it has had a major impact as I am privileged to see and surround myself with so many gorgeous home owners, design companies, antique dealers, makers and artists. Every week I am inspired by something new that I have seen, and it always sparks ideas for new projects at home. I love finding one-off pieces and because I am always on the look-out for new people to feature, it makes it hard to resist collecting.
You write in Curate that because you see so much colour at work, a pared back monochrome palette in your own home is soothing for you. Did you decorate with more colour before you became a stylist?
When we first came here my style was definitely more traditional and the house featured lots of Mulberry, with rich velvets and heavier tapestry fabrics. With young children, lots more florals, tickings and linens crept in from the likes of Cabbages & Roses, Ian Mankin and many vintage fabrics, as well as all of the colour from their rooms and toys.
The more my work evolved and the more shoots I became involved in – I started to crave a quieter, calmer home. Gradually earthier tones replaced bolder colour and when we did some work on the house four years ago, it was an opportunity to rethink a cohesive palette. By this point, we had been in the house for nearly 16 years and it was in need of an update. Our kids are now 18 and 16, so all their childhood clutter suddenly wasn’t needed and could be stored away. Sofas and chairs were recovered in old antique linens and spaces pared back. Most things have always been here but we gave a few large pieces away to friends in order to make space for pieces that worked with the new layout.
We replaced our kitchen and bathrooms, put wooden flooring in the living spaces and painted. The Farrow & Ball Down Pipe which the hallway and landing had been painted in was replaced by All White, with Cornforth White on the woodwork. My husband always said it was like living in a submarine before!
I still have all my coloured textiles and paintings tucked away in storage – as I know one day they will resurface somewhere. Everything else has been collected over time and layered up slowly.
THE DINING ROOM AT ALI HEATH’S HOUSE, WHICH USED TO BE HER CHILDREN’S PLAYROOM. IMAGE: ALUN CALLENDER
How has your taste changed over the years?
I used to be quite a maximalist. Now I would say I am now more of a minimalist, but with maximalist display tendencies. I love visiting antique fairs, markets and dusty old dealer shops, along with slicker more sophisticated lifestyle stores and independent homeware shops. It doesn’t matter where we are in the world I cannot resist the thrill of the hunt. For me, the combination of high/low, old/new, creates a really interesting dynamic at home. Too much of any one thing leaves spaces bland – the mix adds the edge.
As I have got older it is not just about things looking beautiful, it is understanding the story and choices behind the pieces that make their way into our home. I don’t tend to follow trends – I just choose what I love and what speaks to me. The idea of a designer filling my whole home with things they have chosen, leaves me cold – for me, anything that I have at home has to be part of what makes me tick and form part of our family journey.
If people have got stuck in a bit of a rut with their home, what would be your advice for approaching changing things up using what they already have?
If you find yourself in a rut, take out all the smaller decorative accessories and furnishings from a room. Look at the core pieces of furniture left and consider changing the layout of your space – can the sofa move to a different position, would the bed work against a new wall, can you create opportunities for new displays?
Look at what you have with fresh eyes – both your rooms and furniture. If the functionality and form are good then the aesthetic can perhaps be refreshed, with a lick of paint or fresh upholstery. But be honest with yourself, too. If you are holding onto things that you are not really enjoying anymore, then sell them, give them away to friends or charity, and enjoy sourcing something you really love.
If you try to avoid convention then you can easily switch things up between rooms – occasional vintage tables, chairs and artwork can easily be moved from room to room and a refresh will massively change the visual energy.
ALI RECOMMENDS BRINGING NATURAL ELEMENTS INTO THE HOME AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE TO BRING ENERGY INTO THE SPACE. IMAGE: ALUN CALLENDER
What do you most enjoy collecting and why?
I have always collected – tiny ornaments and postcards as a child; antique fabrics since my twenties, quilts, art, china and handmade ceramics – Astier de Villatte is a favourite of mine. For me collections are the personal layers that add authenticity and soul to your home. The one-off personal finds that reflect you, your life, your story and your creative eye.
I love the idea of creating a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – but it doesn’t have to be behind closed doors – displays are curated at home on our kitchen shelves, mantelpieces, table tops, bookcases and benches. Collections can be a grouping of similar items or random objects united by palette, form, function or simply because you love them.
What do you think are the most important things to remember when it comes to decorating a home?
Consider functionality and form alongside aesthetic beauty. For a home to work the fundamentals have to be in place. In the book I talk about the eight elements that help to create a home and they really help you formulate a plan: palette, nature, textiles, lighting, old and new, storage, collections and art.
Consider your use of materials and the flow throughout the house. Consistency with a few select materials will create a seamless flow that is calming. I can’t work or relax if spaces are full of too much clutter, so displays are curated more thoughtfully now and contained within bookcases, shelves and on table-tops. To keep in control, editing is key.
ALI’S MONOCHROME PALETTE CREATES A CALM, SERENE MOOD IN HER KITCHEN. IMAGE: ALUN CALLENDER
Is there a perfect white paint?
For me, it is All White by Farrow & Ball. White and bright but with no chilly blue or yellow undertones. I have tried so many whites over the years, but this is always my go-to.
How do you make a house a home?
For me, home is a feeling not a place. It is all about a creating an environment the celebrates a sense of belonging, safety, curiosity, dreams and nostalgia. It should have an atmosphere that is a true reflection of who you are and what you love, not someone else’s vision of what good looks like. I always believe that spaces should never feel over decorated: a family need to be able to have fun, party, catch up, dream, switch off, relax and rejuvenate. If it’s a little worn around the edges, for me that is all part of the charm.
NATURAL MATERIALS ADD TEXTURE AND DEPTH TO ALI’S PARED BACK PALETTE. IMAGE: ALUN CALLENDER
Ali Heath’s Home Styling Tips
1. Be individual, curious and give yourself permission to be guided by what makes you tick.
2. Remember that making memorable spaces is not about the size of your budget. Small spaces can look just as stunning, if not better. All you need is a magpie eye and the tenacity to seek out the unique and a desire to experiment.
3. Always curate displays using odd numbers (a minimum of three) and using a mix of heights – it will stop groupings looking flat and uninspiring.
4. Lighting is a game changer. In our kitchen I have four wall lights, five different lamps, an oversized antique pendant light, downlighters and lots of candles. Lighting creates the mood, adds atmosphere, brings your spaces to life and adds a sense of comfort. Always mix sizes, lampshade styles, periods and heights.
5. In your sitting room you want someone to walk in and not know where to look first – it’s the details that elevate a space from ordinary to extraordinary: think urns, vases, ceramics, artwork, collections, books, plants, flowers, occasional pieces of furniture and textiles. It’s never just about the core sofa, chairs or coffee table.
6. Always buy the best quality you can afford: it will stand the test of time. Celebrate the beauty of imperfections: worn antiques add soul and character.
7. Use mirrors to create the illusion of space and depth in a room. Cheap glass can be made to look foxed and when framed well, will add immense character to a space.
8. Nature immediately adds life and vitality to a space. Fresh flowers, foraged branches, treasured beach finds – just look at the world around you for inspiration at home and never underestimate the power of scent – it adds another layer within your home.
9. Create art displays throughout your home: gallery walls, propped on shelves, taped to a wall. Pieces don’t need to be expensive – think tear sheets, catalogues, books and holiday finds.
10. Buy once, buy well – sustainable choices based on lifetime choices not seasonal trends.
‘Curate’ by Lynda Gardener and Ali Heath published by Mitchell Beazley, RRP £30 hardback. Photography: Marnie Hewson