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From rustic Venetian to crash-pad Manhattan, view the style and then make your purchase. Cheryl Markosky takes a stroll through Dalton House for a new buying experience

Many house-owners seem intent on transforming their homes into diminutive versions of Tate Modern or chic "boutique" hotels, with wooden floors, clean white walls and jauntily positioned art to the fore. It is interesting, therefore, to find someone doing exactly the opposite. Instead of buying a house and making it look like a public building, Sharon Lillywhite, 30, and Joe Burns, 31, from Oliver Burns, suppliers of bespoke furniture, have bought the Grade-II-listed Dalton House in St Albans and turned it into an interiors emporium.

Many house-owners seem intent on transforming their homes into diminutive versions of Tate Modern or chic "boutique" hotels, with wooden floors, clean white walls and jauntily positioned art to the fore. It is interesting, therefore, to find someone doing exactly the opposite. Instead of buying a house and making it look like a public building, Sharon Lillywhite, 30, and Joe Burns, 31, from Oliver Burns, suppliers of bespoke furniture, have bought the Grade-II-listed Dalton House in St Albans and turned it into an interiors emporium.

The couple, who first met when they were 16, have painstakingly resurrected the derelict house, which was built in 1719, and was the inspiration for Charles Dickens' Bleak House. It has taken three-and-a-half years and £2m to take the "bleak" out of the house, replacing it with an eclectic mix of contemporary and antique furniture, touchy-feely fabrics, chandeliers and a variety of flooring. The concept, based loosely on a more mainstream American idea called Rooms to Go, means you can walk into the house and see items from the Oliver Burns collection and specially chosen products from other UK designers in situ in all of the rooms. Basically, everything you see is for sale, including the loos, linen on the beds, door handles, light fittings and beauty products on dressing tables.

"The only item not for sale is Paddy, our chocolate Labrador," says Lillywhite, "but we have given his breeder's number to two people who were keen on getting a similar dog."

Burns, from a retail family and who sold his first sofa at 11, says it has taken a lot of time and hard graft to be true to the concept. "We had to source reclaimed radiators that fitted in here, for instance, but which we could offer for sale," he says. "Obviously, you can't take away the ones actually plumbed into the house, but we can provide others from the same suppliers." The locals were in an uproar when they heard the couple were buying the house. "They thought we were going to turn it into flats," explains Burns, "but now we're flavour of the month as they think we have added value to all of their houses."

Francis Dalton, a county magistrate, originally built the pretty, three-storey, Georgian pile. Burns says Dalton was a bit of an elusive fellow, but records show that he lived in London and used Dalton House, or Dalton's Folly as it was called, as his "fun house" for entertaining. It still has a jolly, light air about it.

It would be interesting to see what Dalton would make of his gentleman's country idyll today. Cutting-edge contemporary rooms - living spaces, bathrooms and kitchen - rub shoulders with the same rooms kitted out in a full-fig traditional style which he might recognise as echoing his own luxurious, privileged lifestyle. The classic drawing room has the original pitched pine floor, rich purple and red embossed Zoffany sofas and damask wallpaper to match. What is wonderful about Dalton House is that although furniture and accessories are all from leading names, prices on a lot of the stock are not eye-wateringly expensive. Pretty stripey wine-and-rust coloured MG dining chairs cost £330 each and purple drop candleholders are only £12.

"When I first spoke to high-end brand companies about selling their products before Oliver Burns existed, it was tough," admits Burns. "But once I got through to their sales directors, it was fine. Being shot down in flames right away by some simply gave me the guts to get on with it." Many clients like bespoke items made to fit their homes, and quirky one-offs like the Matzen red leather chair in the dining room. "The guy who makes these chairs has made saddles since the age of 10," says Lillywhite. "We like to keep everything inclusive and not stuffy for people. They shouldn't be frightened about touching things and going round having a good look. They should just be guests in our home."

Burns is particularly proud of the window display in the dining room - real gold sewn into the curtains and chandeliers like those hanging in the ice hotel in the latest James Bond film. "The window was falling to bits and the conservation guy had a field day telling us we had to cut a new bay window. We simply had it made in two, to join it up with the old one. He was a bit passionate - that's what we like to think anyhow." The cleverest thing about Dalton House is that you move subtly from one wall covering to another in the same hallway, from one type of flooring to the next along a corridor, without anything jarring. You get a glimpse of a variety of products, but without the accompanying hard sell. Nicely sketched mood boards in each room identify where everything comes from and what it costs.

The kitchens, designed by Joe's brother John, reflect a wide range of styles, from rustic Venetian to contemporary "crash-pad" Manhattan. "In one kitchen we have used burr oak, a wood usually found in studies," points out Burns. And the pièce de résistance has to be the black leather kitchen, about to be installed in a mountain hideaway for one client. You stumble across other goodies like the waterfall shower in an industrial-style wet-room; a VIP laundry bin - "the BMW of the bin world," says Burns - that has separate chutes for dark and light coloured laundry; and the slinky hydraulic chair. Burns discovered this hairdresser's chair, a prototype for a new range for Charles Worthington hairdressers. "They asked if I wanted the pump-up bottom taken off, but I said no, that was the best bit." Several people touring Dalton House have made offers to buy it.

Although Burns reckons it is now worth about £2m and planning permission for residential use is likely, he is not keen to sell. "It would be like chopping off my arm. Blood, sweat, tears and my soul has gone into the place. We would love to live in her though. Now that would be fun."

Oliver Burns Interiors, Dalton House, Catherine Street, St Albans (01727 814170)

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