Regular visitors may remember that I visited Skye McAlpine’s London flat a couple of years ago just as she put it on the market – remember those gorgeous plaster pink walls and open shelving? Last week I was thrilled to visit her again, this time in her new house that she gutted and completely redecorated with the help of the designer Ben Pentreath.
Sophie and I went over to see the house – the first time we have been together in over six months – and recorded a (socially-distanced) podcast. For those of you who don’t know Skye is a food writer, who grew up mostly in Venice. She began writing a food blog which led to two books (the second of which A Table For Friends has just come out) and a gorgeous collaboration with Anthropologie.
Her style is unashamedly vintage (including clothes) and her trick for dressing a table is simply abundance – piles of lemons, tomatoes or even red onions on pretty platters. Come on round with me.
It was such a treat. Not only to be out of the house but to be able to record in person at last. Although by the time you read this that may have been an all too brief occurrence. Anyway, back to the house. As I say, Skye found it a couple of years ago and rang her friend, the designer Ben Pentreath, to ask he might help out; if and when they secured the sale. Two weeks later she rang him again. The house was theirs, she had just discovered she was pregnant and they had six months to completely gut and renovate the building.
“It was kind of a wreck – it’s a row of Victorian houses, and in the early 90s a developer redid them all in a really bland, soulless, neutral way. It had no architectural merit which meant we could knock everything out and create a blank canvas so it was a big project,” she says placing a glass of water on the mobile island for us to reach for without getting too close.
When they took possession the kitchen was at the front (where the dining area is now) and there was a sitting room behind it. Skye and Ben removed all the walls, reinstated the cornicing and details and installed a creamy yellow kitchen at the back and a long dining table at the front.
“The table will seat 10 comfortably and I wanted flexible space. It is all about the table – it’s the most important piece of furniture in the house because it is where we live, where we eat. I often end up working, my son does his homework. It is where you linger after meals and when you have the best conversations” she said.
“I love this open plan way of living. I hate the idea when you have friends you are in the kitchen doing all the work and they are in another room having a fabulous time. The spirit of that was at the centre of the design [we were lucky to have the space to do that].”
Gone too was the signature pink from the last house. “It felt like time for a change. This yellow is the sunniest happiest colour even on really gloomy days it feels cosy and warm.”
The yellow Smeg fridge provides another splash of colour (this is only for the everyday essentials – there is a much bigger fridge in the basement) while the shelves are made from vintage potters’ shelves. The table that sits over the bins is on wheels so it can be moved around to suit and the island was upcycled from an old table that had wheels and a marble top added. It can be used to extend the seating or wheeled out into the garden for impromptu entertaining.
So with such a strong aesthetic of her own why did Skye turn to a designer? “The house was on the market for two years, but I could feel the energy and I knew it was our dream house. I had lots of ideas but what I didn’t have was the ability to turn them into what it is now. Ben took us in hand.”
Although a friend, Skye also had to know when to accept his ideas and when to push back, something that I think many people struggle with when hiring a designer. And for Skye it was Ben’s understanding that it was her family home and not another notch on his portfolio that won her over.
“He sees the value in old chest of drawers from ebay that costs £40, as much as in some custom-built fabulous design. It’s high end and low end and loving old things and not making it too precious, so that it’s practical and beautiful. He loves colour and is happy to be playful but the key thing is that he is happy for it to be your house. He is not a precious interior designer who feels like it is part of their portfolio.”
That said, there was one thing they disagreed on. Ben said, and this is going to surprise you, he felt there was no need to spend money on posh light switches. Save money and use the white plastic he counselled. Skye and her husband disagreed: “We felt we were only going to do this once and we wanted to get it right so we bought brass ones.”
Six months later she feels that white plastic might have been fine. For what it’s worth I disagree with Ben and would always say it’s worth spending a little more on the touch points. That said, if your sockets are mostly hidden then, by all means, stick to white plastic there. I have white plastic on white walls and dark metal on dark walls so that they blend in and disappear as much as possible.
Moving out of the kitchen, and you can see Skye’s abundance trick in the picture above, to the hall with its hand painted wallpaper by Alasdair Peebles. The sitting room is upstairs, which makes it more private as it’s above the busy road outside, but it’s here you start to see the red thread emerging. Downstairs the yellow window frames are clad in wide candy stripe curtains. Up here the stripe remains but it narrows.
And every room has a fabulous Murano glass chandelier – a nod to Skye’s Venetian upbringing. Except these came from Brussels, where they were, apparently much cheaper. I should also point out here that both Pearl Lowe and Laura Jackson, previous podcast guests, have sung the praises of taking a van to the antique markets of Brussels so do bear that in mind, once we are allowed to leave the house again.
In the corner of the sitting room sits this fabulous 1950s vintage Fornasetti fridge which Skye found listed in a Christie’s auction but feels it was in the wrong sale as she picked it up for the reserve price. Once fixed it’s the perfect, if noisy, place to store the Prosecco for the evening drinks.
This room links to her office – but before we leave – just note the striped fabric on the back of the chair. It’s always all in the details…
Painted in deep red (Farrow and Ball Rectory red) gloss, this book-lined corner was decorated for Skye but was taken over by her husband during lockdown. “I like to whinge about it but actually I just went back to working in bed so I’m not really going to complain about that.”
Worth noting that these shelves were already here when they moved in and are nothing special, but with a coat of fabulous paint they look great – and carpentry is expensive so that was a substantial saving. And back to the details – the curtains match the sofa in the room next door and as it’s all one open L-shape space this really connects the two spaces. I’m also a huge fan of using the same colour in different depths as a way to zone a space, but not overwhelm, when a contrasting shade might do that.
Up to the next floor – to the master suite. The bedroom walls are lined in GP+J Baker fabric with a contrasting grosgrain ribbon to finish off the edges.
And, look again at the curtain linings. A stripe so subtle that I almost missed it until I went to look out of the window.
From the bedroom you can see a small passage has been knocked through to the bathroom/dressing room. There is a shower on one side and a loo on the other and then it opens out into a lovely light space with a huge copper bath under the window and a wall of wardrobes opposite the fireplace.
Once again the features have been restored and the Ikea stool painted to match the Murano chandelier while the pink and white striped ottoman bring the red thread to its conclusion in the last room that we visited. The children are on the floor above but the baby was napping when we visited so we didn’t go up there.