When the garden designer Lorraine Johnson presented her husband with the list of improvements she wanted to make to their substantial mid- Victorian London house, she did not get the response she was expecting. 'Why not speak to an estate agent, just to find out what the house is worth?' he said, before asking, 'Do we really need seven bedrooms?'
Lorraine loved having room for her design studio and for her collections of porcelain, glass and textiles, but her husband was right, they did not need all that space. 'If we move,' he said, 'we’ll find you a bigger garden.' That was the clincher. Their home with its large, well-proportioned rooms, handsome cornices and tall windows, sold in a trice so, having looked at 30 smaller houses, they were beginning to feel a little bit anxious when the house they live in today came onto the market. The garden was half the size of the one they were leaving but the house was the only one they had seen that came close to what they wanted. It was time to compromise.
'The previous owners had torn down the wall between the hall and living room, and the planning officer said we had to close it up,' Lorraine recalls. 'Whereupon I burst into tears. Finally, he conceded and told us we could keep an opening the size of a pair of double doors,' she says.
There was a silver lining, however. 'I had had a massive book cull when we left the old house, but we still had several hundred books, and I suddenly realised that the walls we had to reinstate would hold lots of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.' Lining the restored part walls on the hall side with Cole & Son’s Fornasetti Ex Libris wallpaper was Lorraine’s witty finishing touch to the fortunate turn of events and the finished entrance appears generous of size, while the living room is draft-free when the front door is opened.
Generosity has been her watchword in re-configuring the spaces around the house. 'I would never design a tight, narrow path for a garden, and it’s the same in a house,' she says. The conservatory at the back of the house, by the 'brilliantly efficient' Vale Garden Houses, is a case in point. It gives a light and airy feel to the whole ground floor, and provides space for a small breakfast table too. Every spring, its low windowsills are crammed with seedlings for her garden.
In the kitchen, she fixed floating shelves high up on the kitchen walls, to house her collections of china and glass. The builders had to re-enforce the walls to support the shelves. 'I find the visual weight of kitchen wall cupboards just too heavy, and on a very tall wall like this, they would not have worked,' she says.
Upstairs, she expanded the rather mean landings, and knocked two rooms into one to create the main bedroom. 'It is a long, thin room, which is not ideal, but we both have our own bathrooms, and the guest room here doubles as my dressing room.' On the top floor, her studio and her husband’s study, where he now works from home, share space with another, larger, bathroom cum laundry room, and a small bedroom for guests. The space was organized, the stage set, for furnishings and colour.
The chunky Burnham sofa, a design classic, and an antique oak bookcase are perfectly offset by a modern oak coffee table, the glass top of which helps to keep the room feeling airy and light.
Transparent chairs bring a modern touch to the otherwise French rustic style of the dining room. Lorraine’s love of gardens and flowers is such that her dining room mantelpiece is never without fresh flowers.
Lorraine’s extensive collection of cream and black, and blue and white china is for use as well as display, she says. The contents of the floating shelves are constantly rearranged to bring different pieces and varying effects to the fore.
A trompe l’oeil wallpaper of bookshelves draws the eye on towards the elegant dining room at the far end of the hall, with its curvy wire chandelier. The paper also prepares the eye for the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of real books that line the walls of the adjacent sitting room.
Lorraine chose furniture from two different eras for the informal dining area at the conservatory end of her kitchen, explaining that the pieces 'are all rounded, so they go well together'.
Although the garden was rather smaller than Lorraine had hoped to have with her new home, she was still prepared to sacrifice a slice of it for the conservatory that spans the full width of the back of the house. It brings light and an airy feeling to the kitchen and dining room, and, with its low windowsills, it makes the perfect spot to raise seedlings too.
Lorraine chose furniture from two different eras for the informal dining space, explaining that the pieces ‘are all rounded, so they go together’.
The soft grey and creamy white palette, a classic in its own right, gives the mahogany antiques a contemporary lease of life, while brilliant blue- coloured, fresh hyacinths fill the air with their rich sweet fragrance.
Lorraine’s carefully edited collection of boxes and cases have not only provided her with essential additional storage but also another opportunity for her to show off her pin-sharp eye for using colour and pattern to make a fine display.
HOME OFFICE STUDIO
Colourful suitcase provide an eye-catching way to store the vintage dolls and accessories that Lorraine sells through Good Golly Miss Dolly. In the summer months, her plan desk is centre of operations for her garden design work.
Garden design takes up her summer months, and in winter she runs Good Golly Miss Dolly, selling vintage 20th-century dolls, with original clothes and furniture. In her studio, there are stacks of little suitcases filled with vintage dolls clothes and furniture, and more than 60 charming dolls’ room sets, in styles ranging from Art Nouveau to Mid- Century Modern. The dolls have a choice of places to live, and Lorraine and her husband, in their own elegant 21st-century home, feel they have chosen well too.
The couple bought an extra piece of land at the side of the house and made it into a shady woodland glade. The garden room is perfect for evening drinks in the summer.
Photography/ Jody Stewart