Interiors: Pennine ways

Design writer Lesley Jackson explains why she brought Fifties- style `Contemporary' chic to a 17th-century stone house in Yorkshire. Photographs by Roger Scruton
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Indy Lifestyle Online
We first viewed this house in a blizzard. Even then I knew it was the one. My partner took some convincing, though, and just about everyone else thought I was mad.

Perched on top of the Pennines, the house was built to take advantage of the spectacular view - but it also bears the brunt of the relentless south-westerlies. The fields drop away at the front into a steep wooded valley, and beyond this the interleaving hills roll away into the mist and the distance. We get more than our share of weather - sun, wind, rain, fog, frost and snow - but perhaps the health-conscious Le Corbusier would have approved: because the house is south-facing, the sunshine quotient is high and we certainly get plenty of fresh air. Bracing, as they say in Skegness.

It's not a modern house: I would have liked one, but they are rare in this part of the world. Happily, though, it offers many of the advantages of what was known in the 1950s as the Contemporary style: perhaps we are pioneering a unique brand of rural modernism. Like many American post-war developments, the house has an L-shaped plan, which means that different activities can be zoned. While I'm tapping away at the computer in one wing, my partner can be listening to music in the other.

Stone-built, half the property dates back to the early 1700s. But the house was remodelled and extended in the mid-19th century and has the generous proportions and large sash windows of that later era. The walls are 2ft thick, with deep window ledges ideal for displaying our burgeoning collection of modern glass. All the rooms are spacious, even the first floor landing, which has windows at either end like an updated version of a long gallery. When children come and stay, we send them up there to play bagatelle. The large living room with its handsome bay window, complete with built-in window seat, is ideal for entertaining. Handy when you have as many near relations as I do.

Although many people search for period features, one of the reasons this house seemed so attractive was its plainness. The well-lit, well-proportioned rooms hold far more appeal than their picture rails and Victorian tiled fireplaces. Being an aficionado of post-war design, I was determined to make the house look modern: no William Morris touches, thank you, nor the country style of the 1980s.

In fact, our new home seemed to promise the ideal setting for the lengths of 1950s and '60s printed textiles languishing in the cupboards of the cramped terraced house I was moving from.

The hunch proved correct. All we had to do on moving in was to paint the walls in sympathetic colours (mellow yellows, a deep brownish-red and a cool stone green from the range of National Trust paints by Farrow and Ball), then suspend my fabrics from lengths of dowel. With the minimum of effort and fuss, the house took on a contemporary feel. Simulating a full-scale 1950s interior didn't appeal: far more desirable was to give the house a generically modern appearance by co-opting the bold furnishings and accessories of the post-war period.

The kitchen was huge, but there were surprisingly few cupboards: we desperately needed extra units so we could unpack our pots and pans. In our previous house we transformed a damp cellar into a dream kitchen, furnished with chic but cheap birch-veneered cabinets from Ikea, with stylishly arched "motorway bridge" handles. This was the part of our old home I had been most sorry to leave: I decided to recreate a version of it in the new house.

The kitchen is the only room that retains the narrow vertical slit windows and exposed stone mullions of the original 18th-century farmhouse. It might sound a recipe for disaster to combine such imposing historic features with the latest in Swedish design, but the flush cupboards have a simplicity and fitness for purpose that complements the unpretentious down-to-earth quality of the room.

The centrepiece is a Formica-topped table with two Ercol chairs on tapering legs, kindly donated by my parents who had bought them during the early 1960s when they were setting up home. (I am a fully paid-up member of Auwfull: the Attractive Un-Wanted Furnishings Liberation League.) When I have some money I'd like to lay lino tiles on the kitchen floor, or better still, commission my artist sister to design a customised inlaid lino pattern.

Having moved from a much smaller house, we felt like we were rattling around for the first few months, but as we'd invested pretty well every penny in the house itself, there was very little left over for furniture. The only pieces we had brought were a 1930s dining room and bedroom suite inherited from my Gran, and a few miscellaneous accessories from Sofa Workshop, Habitat and Ikea.

Sadly we couldn't afford to furnish the house with cutting-edge contemporary furniture, and certainly not with the works of leading designers such as Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison and Matthew Hilton. But fortunately the spirit of Arne Jacobsen was watching over us, and just at the right moment we came across a cache of stylish Danish and Swedish post-war furniture which proved the answer to all our dreams.

In mint condition, beautifully crafted, and largely made from solid wood, it cost a fraction of the price of either new or antique furniture. For the cost of three items from Habitat, we furnished the house from top to bottom. As well as two sexy blond oak sideboards, our haul included a long low three-seater settee with attractive striped woollen upholstery (favoured sleeping place of Stripey Arnold, our co-ordinated Contemporary cat), a streamlined teak desk for my new office, an enormous aerodynamic bed with projecting cantilevered bedside tables, and a vast array of much- needed cupboards, wardrobes and bookcases. We even got a large pink and maroon Danish rug for our expansive bedroom. The pattern resembles a colour field painting by Rothko - or so I like to think.

The living room also has a plain wooden floor, which suits the cool Scandinavian Modern aesthetic of the furniture. A couple of rugs were all that was needed to complete this interior. Because the furniture is light-coloured, it complements the woodwork which had been stripped and waxed by the previous owners. This is the most overtly modern room in the house. I have tried to respect its purity, waging a constant crusade against clutter. (There speaks the intolerant Modernist in me.)

All the accessories in this room have been carefully vetted. They include several paintings by my sister; two textural abstract expressionist fabrics from the late 1950s, and a selection of choice pieces of coloured glass by Whitefriars, Mdina, Isle of Wight and others. I'm currently writing a book on 20th century glass, and it's a great help to have these pieces around me.

The tripartite orange curtains in the bay window, manufactured by the Danish importer Danasco during the early 1960s, were found in a charity shop in Derby - another stroke of good fortune. They were tailor-made for this window and required no alterations. Post-war textiles enliven almost every wall and window in the house. In the hall, for example, there is a trio of mustard and green fabrics by Tibor and Heal's and along the landing are five variants of an Op Art design by Barbara Brown called Frequency, each in a different colourway. It's a treat to see the expression on people's faces as they ascend the stairs to be confronted by these incredible patterns. Having just completed a book on 1960s design, though, I find them perfectly natural.

The fabrics in the bedroom are more subdued, as befits a sleeping zone. The colour scheme is black and red, and the patterns include Herb Antony - Lucienne Day's Miro-esque design for Heal's.

Even our small front garden, redesigned by my sister last year, has a Contemporary feel. The lawns take the shape of a snail and an egg - suitably Brancusi-esque organic forms - while for the planting Sue has chosen the appropriately named whipcord hebe and a selection of textural grasses which swirl in the wind. The garden, although unusual, blends in with the landscape, just as the fabrics, although modern, complement the character of the old house.

Lesley Jackson is the author of `The New Look - Design in the Fifties' (Thames and Hudson, 1991) and `Contemporary Architecture and Interiors of the 1950s' (Phaidon, 1994). Her latest book, `The Sixties - Decade of Design Revolution', is published by Phaidon, pounds 39.95.

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