Interior designer Joanne Burgess has returned this Georgian townhouse in Henley-on-Thames to its origins, yet with a bold injection of the contemporary. Rosalind Sack meets a restless creative
JOANNE’S COLOURFUL MASTER BEDROOM FEATURING VINTAGE FURNITURE AND BOLD ANTHROPOLOGIE RUGS. IMAGE: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
Joanne’s is one of those houses that make opening conversations very difficult. Trying to have a courteous chat as she leads me from the front door, through the hallway and into the lofty barn kitchen, is futile because, well, I’m not really concentrating. I’m just trying to absorb every wonderful texture, patterned surface and vintage treasure in this intriguing Georgian townhouse.
Not only is Joanne a talented interior designer, upholsterer and upcycler, she’s also my former landlady. I know, I know, lucky me. I rented a small but beautifully formed Victorian worker’s cottage from her several years ago, which was also a showcase of her artistic eye.
Here, Joanne’s sensitive reinstating of period features, paired with daring colours and bold prints, makes for another charming home that’s been restored with unique flair. The name of her interior design consultancy, The Curious House, couldn’t be more apt.
WHAT WAS ORIGINALLY PLANNED TO BE A PLAYROOM HAS BECOME AN INTIMATE, GROWN-UP SITTING ROOM. IMAGE: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
For those of you who love nothing better than pouring over before and after shots of house renovations (scroll down to view the incredible ‘before’ gallery), then strap yourselves in, because this house in Henley-on-Thames is now about as far from the twee, black-beamed homage to the 1980s that Joanne and her husband Nick bought in 2016, as is possible to be.
“It certainly wasn’t a house that you walked into and thought, ‘this is beautiful’,” laughs Joanne. “It’s Grade II listed, so we couldn’t do anything radical, but we knew that the structure of the house would lend itself to what we wanted.”
Not everyone shared Joanne’s vision. “When our nine-year-old son Archie first came to see it, he said to Nick, ‘Of all the places, why did you buy this dump?’ On another occasion in the early days, one of the builders was working upstairs and a rat jumped out of the wall. We found three rats in all and there were two squirrels living inside the house, in the roof.”
One of the builders was working upstairs and a rat jumped out of the wall. We found three rats in all and there were two squirrels living inside the house, in the roof.
Incredibly, it took just 10 months between exchanging and moving in – due, in no small part, to Joanne’s clarity and hands-on project management. “I made the builders a little moodboard to give them a vague idea of where I was going. You could tell they were thinking, ‘Riiight, that looks a bit knackered.’ But I was like, that’s the look I’m going for!”
MISMATCHED VINTAGE KITCHEN WALL UNITS SIT ABOVE JOANNE’S REPURPOSED DINING ROOM TABLE – NOW A ZINC-CLAD WORK SURFACE. IMAGE: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
The house was gutted, its ubiquitous black painted beams were sandblasted and the rotten flooring was removed. PVC window frames were replaced with timber and the shutters reinstated. Gable ends were reconstructed with aged oak and brick, while street pavers, cobbles, wooden floorboards and quarry tiles were sourced to reinstate the flooring… all reclaimed, of course. In restoring the fabric of the house with a sensitive doff of the cap to the past, Joanne has achieved that enviable task of fooling you into thinking that the bare bones always looked like this.
On the ground floor sits a comfortable living room, complete with squidgy sofas, lamps made from chunky milk churns and a wonderful high-backed wicker chair. On the opposite side of the front door is the ‘blue room’, which was initially earmarked as Archie’s playroom, but is now a cool adult hideout saturated in Farrow & Ball’s Stiffkey Blue. A beautiful cosy dining room sits behind and a clever utility room just off the kitchen showcases Joanne’s keen eye for fabrics in jazzy colours and bold prints. She has used vintage Liberty fabric from eBay alongside other offcuts under the sink unit, while a bold RE Morroccan basket takes pride of place above.
JOANNE’S LOVE OF BOLD COLOURS AND PRINTS ABOUND IN THE LIGHT-FILLED UTILITY ROOM. IMAGE: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
On the first floor, two adjoining bathrooms sporting wonderfully retro avocado suites were knocked into one to form a bedroom – now a room dedicated to Joanne’s upholstery projects. While the neighbouring master bedroom is an airy and uplifting celebration of colour, complete with yet more vintage treasures, bold fabrics and Anthropologie rugs. From here Joanne can access a roof terrace over the utility room – complete with a contemporary walk-on roof light, sleek glass balustrade and rustic composite wood decking from Millboard. The large master bathroom – previously a bedroom – is also a clever blend of modern and period, with a reclaimed basin and toilet, a deep, shiny copper bateau bath from Hurlingham Bath Company (oh, how I’d love a dip in that!) and an oversized copper showerhead with a frameless glass enclosure.
VINTAGE APOTHECARY BOTTLES LINE THE WINDOWSILLS, ALONGSIDE A SHOW-STOPPING COPPER BATH. IMAGE: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
On the second floor is Archie’s hideout, complete with his very own ensuite. His room still bears the fruit of Joanne’s stylish eye, but is a proper cluttered kid’s bedroom – no ridiculous Instagram-worthy styling here, thank goodness. A further guest bedroom is tucked away on a mezzanine floor in the adjoining 17th century barn; bedroom five, as the builders coined it. The name stuck, despite there now only being four.
The most transformational change, however, was relocating the kitchen from the front of the house to the beautiful barn at the rear – and swapping the tired, fitted units with an eclectic collection of bright, freestanding appliances and repurposed work benches. One of which is Joanne’s old oak dining room table, wrapped in zinc.
I love that this house doesn’t take itself too seriously. Look up in the kitchen and an old gramophone horn is moonlighting as a lightshade, while a quirky new knee-high window in the mezzanine bedroom is perfect for keeping a close eye on dinner.
The relaxed seating area at the far end looks out through black Crittal doors onto the leafy garden. Complete with a reclaimed coffee table from local emporium Home Barn and a red and white chef banner that once hung on the side of a delivery truck, from Lassco, it has become a favoured spot of Joanne’s and her beloved daschund Beryl.
JOANNE AND DOG BERYL’S FAVOURITE SPOT FOR A CUPPA AND A CUDDLE. IMAGE: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
Underfoot are reclaimed herringbone terracotta rooftiles from Fired Earth – a design choice that didn’t prove popular with everyone. “The tiler bought grout for them without asking,” recalls Joanne. “I told him I didn’t want grout and he said, ‘But there’s going to be huge gaps and it will be uneven,’ so I just insisted I was happy with that but he really couldn’t get his head around it. You stub your toe occasionally, but that’s life!”
This house, in a well-heeled town in the Home Counties, is a world away from where Joanne grew up in a council terrace in a pit village near Sunderland. “My dad was a miner and I lived there through the miner’s strike. When the pits closed, communities were ripped apart and it’s now such a poor area. I was so lucky because I was in the last academic year to be able to get a full grant, so I could afford to go to University.”
Later forging a career in promotions for a record company, Joanne moved to London and originally fuelled her creativity through fashion, rather than interiors. “I would go to all the end of year shows at fashion colleges and buy interesting, weird stuff. I suppose I always had a love of the unusual,” she recalls.
On the one hand, Joanne approaches the house in an intensely practical way, unrestrained by sentimentality. On the other, her impulsive purchases are purely driven by the heart.
Aside from three Russian oil paintings I bought from Liberty that I absolutely love, everything is disposable, really.
“I don’t really have anything that’s worth any money; I haven’t inherited anything or have any proper antiques,” says Joanne. “Aside from three Russian oil paintings I bought from Liberty that I absolutely love, everything is disposable, really. I sound so flippant, but there are always lovely things to buy and I could fill the house over and over again, I really could.”
So when it comes to sourcing pieces, Joanne relies on her gut instinct: “If I like something, I buy it. I never think, ‘where will it go’, or ‘will it go with anything else’; I sort that out later! I guess I must have a vague style, but it’s a real mix – and I love a bargain.”
JOANNE’S BEAUTIFUL UPHOLSTERY PROJECTS ENJOY A ROOM OF THEIR OWN. IMAGE: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
As most people who bare the scars of a renovation project can attest, you eventually hit your limit when it comes to making decisions – usually when the end of the project is on the horizon, winking alluringly at you.
Even Joanne suffered from renovator’s burnout and admits she rushed some final decisions in order to nudge the project over the finishing line. “If the budget allowed, I’d find original Crittal doors rather than new ones, I’d definitely change the colour scheme, I’d lay out the kitchen differently…” she laughs.
Those things aside, this is still a dream home though, right? Joanne shakes her head. “No, it would be more historic than this. Something with an old 17th century staircase, or an original standalone kitchen,” she muses. “My problem is that I get bored easily… and I love a project.”
IMAGES: WENDY ALDISS PHOTOGRAPHY
What a transformation. The before shots…
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