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Rural bliss in N16

Media couple Rob and Clare Steiner have swapped their achingly chic white apartment on the urban front line for the lived-in look, complete with labrador, in that famous oasis of bucolic peace, Stoke Newington. James Sherwood reports. Photographs by Mykel Nicolaou
LONDON'S loft-dwelling militant tendency would rather shred their Carhartt jeans than contemplate the country life. People generally come to, not from, London. It is inexplicable to them why anyone would yearn for country living in London.

Take two teenage sweethearts born and bred in Hampstead. Rob Steiner is an ad director for BBH in Soho and his wife Clare is a freelance fashion and interiors PR. You would imagine a couple of media darlings would live in an achingly chic apartment somewhere on the Caledonian Road. They did until a year ago when Clare Steiner viewed a three-storey Stoke Newington house colonised by a white Rastafarian and his "family" of lodgers. Formerly an in-house fashion PR, she wanted out. The house is her declaration of independence.

"I've always had an instinctive feeling Rob and I will eventually live in the country," says Clare Steiner. "In fact, I had a dream about the kind of house I wanted in London before I found Stoke Newington. We had been living in a white-walled, one-room apartment when I went to view this house. I knew immediately it was right. The walls were painted in warm colours; there were children running up and down the stairs. The house was a bit messy and worn in and I kind of like that. One of the neighbours told me Finley Quaye lived here."

How a white Rastafarian's vision of interiors appealed to a woman wanting country style in town is surprisingly simple. The existing wall colour changed Steiner's eye. "Rob wanted white walls again. I wanted colour. He said no and went to work. I just did it." The wall colours in the house are not obvious. If they were hot primaries, the house would lose the quirky, country style. Instead she chose Paint Magic jade, saffron, cool yellow and peppermint.

Stoke Newington is a grab bag of artisans, students and families fleeing price hikes in central London. The Steiners' house was already fitted in every room with rough-hewn wooden units, shelves and mantelpieces made by local company Distressed Designs. Curiously, there were no interior doors so the Steiners had simple wooden doors fitted. The faded wall colours and distressed wood fixtures suggest a nicely dilapidated family house in the country. If it were human, this house would be an attractive older woman who has resisted the temptation to be nipped and tucked.

"The bathroom is my favourite," says Steiner. The freestanding bath and sink unit are pure Merchant Ivory, offset by four symmetrical glass brick "windows" and Prada Boutique peppermint walls. "The bathroom is so important to me," she says. "It is spacious, tranquil and serene... especially if I have a glass of wine in the bath. My black Labrador, Bodie, likes to eat the bubbles and then collapse on the bathroom rug."

A real country interior is like a comfortable pair of slippers: well- worn and welcoming. Instead of show-off pieces, their house is littered with comfort-comes-first furnishing. "We've always had this dream of lounging on two squashy sofas watching videos," says Steiner, "but, even though we have two sofas, we always end up on the same one." The sofas in their sitting room enclose a corner around the real fireplace and invite you to curl up with Bodie.

Bodie and Lettuce the cat are immortalised in a cartoon family portrait of the Steiners in the sitting room. "I'd seen these cartoons by an artist called Dennis and commissioned him to do a family cartoon as a surprise for Rob," says Steiner. It is touches like this that personalise an interior. "This isn't anybody else's idea of home," she says. "It is ours."

The sitting room interior tells their story. A floor-to-ceiling alcove is crammed with sculptures and masks collected on their travels. In a parallel alcove is a wall of travel guides, which they buy before each trip. Rob's "toys", his lava lamps and strobe light, are remarkably unobtrusive in the sitting room even though the Steiners are building a third-floor den to house Rob's vinyl collection. Already in place is a vintage poster for The Ladykillers which, Steiner says, is the keynote for the decoration of the room. Also on the top floor is her office, from which she does freelance PR for the Jermyn Street shirtmakers TM Lewin.

The interior quietly says family, comfort and calm. "I think, when we have children, we will eventually move to the country," says Steiner. "But we do have the best of country life with Clissold Park around the corner and neighbours like Sue." Nobody in London even acknowledges their neighbours, let alone pop round for a coffee or dog-sit like Clare and Sue. Before you think, "God, how suburban," bear in mind that the Steiners lived next door to DJs in Caledonian Road. It sounds great until you've had to live through Decksanddrumsandrockandroll at 5am every day.

The Steiners' own brand of urban country living is meant for boozy Sunday lunches with a crowd of friends, for mixing a pitcher of Martini and playing Seventies vinyl in the den, or for a private viewing of The Ladykillers languishing on a sofa by the open fire. And, if it's good enough for Finley Quaye...