Michelle Ogundehin, the former Elle Decoration Editor-in-chief and host of BBC Two’s Interior Design Masters, talks to Rosalind Sack about the undeniable power of a happy and healthy home, and invites us inside her uplifting East Sussex cottage
Here at The Home Page, we’ve long championed the importance of creating a home that not just looks good, but that makes you feel good. Michelle Ogundehin, the former Editor-in-chief of Elle Decoration and most recently the host of BBC Two’s Interior Design Masters, has taken this mantra one step further in her book – part practical design manual, part inspirational self-help guide – Happy Inside.
In it, she sets out a path to creating a home that forms the ultimate foundation to a happy and healthy life. And couldn’t we all do with that right now? The best news is, it’s easier than you might think. Here, she invites us inside her restorative and textural Georgian home in East Sussex, where every single item contributes to her wellbeing, and reminds us why our environment is as fundamental to our wellbeing as good food and exercise.
MICHELLE OGUNDEHIN IN HER WRITING ROOM AT HOME IN BRIGHTON. IMAGE: VICTORIA ADAMSON
What defines a well-designed home, in your view?
Very simply, it’s a home that makes you feel at ease and comfortable and able to be yourself. It’s not structural, it’s something entirely different.
How does your home make you feel?
It’s calming and restorative. It’s a very gentle and comfortable place to be, because that’s what I want and what I need from my home. It’s not flashy, or full of designer icons, or must-haves, or colours of the year; it’s just my home and I really love it. It’s important to understand that it’s easier to achieve than you might think. If the thing that makes your heart sing is purple polka dots and glitter then go for it, it’s your home. No one else has the right to judge your taste. It’s all about what makes you happy.
Has there always been a connection between your personal space and your wellbeing?
Yes, absolutely. My space affects my energy, it affects my outlook, it affects how I feel about myself. When you feel good about yourself you’re drawn to things that are restorative and good for you, so I think it’s all very tightly related. When I walk through my door I think, ‘I am home, safe, this is the place that calms me and restores me’. That is my belief and that is reinforced by the colours and textures and finishes and fittings that I use because I know that they resonate with me on a very deep level.
Your home is a reflection of you and you are a reflection of your home. You can improve one via the other.”
How difficult is it to be single-minded about what you love and not be swayed by endless picture-perfect images on social media?
It’s about self-awareness. I will cheerfully look through Instagram and see beautiful Scandinavian homes splendid in their monochrome, and I can appreciate them with their big windows overlooking snowy landscapes. But I don’t have big windows, I don’t overlook snowy mountains and I don’t want to live in a black and white home. But it is a process and the whole joy, for me, is working out what I like. And that may mean that along the way you might paint your kitchen dark and then think, ‘I don’t like this’. And that’s OK because then you paint it light and think, ‘Yes, this is much more me’. Just as we evolve and improve and self-grow, so our homes should and must around us. Because they are one and the same thing; your home is a reflection of you and you are a reflection of your home. You can improve one via the other.
So what’s next in the evolution of your home?
I’ve just had a delivery of two tins of paint in the most perfect lemon yellow colour, called Floral Street by Mylands. I’m a bit obsessed with this colour at the moment and I’m so excited to put it into my home. Mr Happy yellow is my favourite colour, always has been. It’s sun, brightness, optimism, I love it. I’ll wear it, I have yellow flowers in the garden, yet I do not use it in my home and I was suddenly intrigued by this. I used it in my son’s room when I painted his nursery, then maybe two or three years ago I very gently introduced mustard but it is a really dirty yellow and not necessarily in a good way. So why don’t I use this colour that brings me such joy?
(LEFT) MICHELLE’S BEAUTIFUL BASSET HOUNDS RELAXING AT HOME ON THE ECORA HERRINGBONE PARQUET FLOOR; (RIGHT) MICHELLE’S DINING ROOM WITH ERCOL WOODEN CHAIRS STAINED TO MATCH THE FLOORING AND A ‘TULIP’ TABLE BY EERO SAARINEN FOR KNOLL. IMAGES: MARIANNA WAHLSTEN
Where are you going to use it?
I have nice deep, pretty windows so I’m going to paint it on the inside, not on the frame itself but on the depth. I don’t know what you call that bit of wood. I think it will feel like summer sun coming through. I would also love to paint my entire bedroom ceiling in it, but it’s quite a high ceiling and it’s huge and I just can’t face it. I think when you introduce a new colour, you should do it quite slowly, so I will start with the frames and go from there, otherwise it might all be a bit too much.
Have you made mistakes along the way with your home?
I believe so profoundly that we don’t make mistakes, we gain experience; whether that’s in life or in homes. I remember once house-sitting for a friend whose entire studio apartment was turquoise. It was just brilliant, so I went home determined to put turquoise into my house. I went through about 10 different tester pots until I thought, it just doesn’t work here, the light’s not right. I don’t necessarily consider that a mistake; I tried but just had to admit defeat. In an old apartment I once put the bath with the outlet facing outwards and I always thought afterwards I should have put it inwards so you couldn’t see it, but that’s not a big deal. Then there is the weathering of time – like the fact I have a scratch on the floor in my study because I dragged my desk across it and I should have picked it up. But that’s just life!
Life is already hard, it’s complicated and it’s difficult, but it can be a lot easier if you have your home on side to support you. Your environment is as fundamental to your wellbeing as good food and exercise, and we need to view it in the same way.”
When are you at your happiest in your home?
Always. Otherwise what’s the point? It’s the point of the book and my philosophy, which is why I get the heebie-jeebies when I hear people saying, ‘The bathroom, with a lock on the door, is the only place where I can find any peace’. You really shouldn’t have to seek escape in your own home. If there’s any part of your home where you don’t feel good, then you have to change it. Life is already hard, it’s complicated and it’s difficult, but it can be a lot easier if you have your home on side to support you. Your environment is as fundamental to your wellbeing as good food and exercise, and we need to view it in the same way.
But it’s not all about buying more and spending money is it?
No, the sooner you get on board with this journey then the sooner you stop wasting money on stuff that isn’t right and doesn’t support you. I have things in my home that I have had for years and years because I bought the one that was right for me at the time. When I couldn’t afford a Saarinen marble top table, I didn’t waste my money buying a kind of second best. I used an old 1950s thing from the flea market for years until I could afford what I really wanted. Also, when you know your palette, you don’t succumb to buying that turquoise throw in the sale when you really wanted a pale pink one. We all need to learn to just wait and get the best that you can afford. I wanted pale pink bed sheets for ages and couldn’t find what I wanted and when I did they were so expensive. So, instead, I dyed them using a box of dye that cost about £4; it was the easiest thing in the world.
MICHELLE’S PASSION FOR TEXTURE AND DEPTH IS EVIDENT IN THE ABUNDANCE OF CUSHIONS AND HER USE OF ANAGLYPTA AND FOXED MIRROR WALLPAPER. IMAGES: EMMA HARRIS
What might people be surprised by in your home?
I think because I’m so passionate about clutter-clearing, there are probably more things in my home than people would imagine. I’m talking about the talismans of my life; things like pictures, small objet, gifts that I love. Every single one has a story. I have a series of display shelves and they are all contained in and on those, so there’s a rhythm and a flow to everything so it doesn’t ever feel cluttered. But it is full; there’s lego, there’s all my son’s stuff, there’s whatever I’m working on at that moment. It’s also very textural, which is my other big obsession, and my love of cushions is well-known. My home can literally give me a hug.
Has your relationship with your home changed over the past year through the pandemic?
Not my relationship with it because, in my opinion, the role of the home has not changed – it’s always been there to provide us with shelter from the storms of life. The only thing I had to change was that I reinstated the door to my study. I previously didn’t have a door on there because I was working from home anyway and when I was home alone I didn’t need it and I didn’t want to feel penned in. But one minute after the schools closed, I realised I couldn’t concentrate because of the noise. I have to work in silence; no radio, no TV, no Nintendo, nothing. I also recently extended my garden, which was fun and very timely. It’s taken six years of negotiation to acquire a piece of land just behind my house, then all the groundworks and planting was done in two weeks. I haven’t a clue about planting, I just knew I wanted it to be bird, bee and butterfly friendly and I wanted a sliver birch tree, a fig tree and some lemon trees. So I sat down with this wonderful woman from The Plant Company and told her the colours and textures I like (in the same way that would with a home) and then she filled in the names of the plants, which was brilliant.
When did the Happy Inside philosophy first take root?
It’s always been there and it’s been growing for years. When I was editing Elle Decoration I was looking at thousands of homes and deciding which ones really made you think, this is something wonderful. In the end it wasn’t anything to do with a subjective sense of what it looked like, it was about how it felt. Yet no one was talking about home in that way. I was looking at all these statistics of our escalating global rates of chronic diseases like cancer, depression, mental health disorders, obesity, diabetes and thinking, what are we doing that’s so wrong? Life is moving so fast for so many people which simply isn’t healthy or sustainable. And we’re all missing a huge trick; we’re forgetting how powerful our home is. You don’t need loads of money, it doesn’t matter if your home is rented or owned, large or small, creating a home that truly makes you happy truly makes a difference. It’s not fickle stuff, it’s fundamental. And anyone can create their own home because you know you better than anyone else, and it should be an exploration and celebration of you in your all your glorious imperfection.
Happy Inside: How to Harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness by Michelle Ogundehin, is out now (Ebury Books, £18.99).
Discover more inspiring stories of beautiful and uplifting homes on The Home Page here.