Me And My Home: Designs on the Med

Mary Wilson meets a furniture maker whose house was inspired by trips to France and Italy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Lewis started his kitchen and furniture firm more than 30 years ago. There are now 10 John Lewis of Hungerford showrooms around the UK

John Lewis started his kitchen and furniture firm more than 30 years ago. There are now 10 John Lewis of Hungerford showrooms around the UK

After training in agriculture, I eventually ended up working for the Ministry of Agriculture as an advisor, first in Dorset and then in Wales. I was brought up in south London, left school at 16 and had always wanted to be a farmer, but I had also been passionate about woodwork, which I got into at about five years old.

I was doing woodwork for money at the age of 12, making flush doors for all the doorways in our house, then for a friend's house. It was hard work for a 12-year-old, but I did it. I also re-fitted my mother's kitchen. So when I was made redundant because the Ministry's free service was being closed down, I first thought about starting up my own advisory service.

At that time, I made a six-foot-long refectory table in about 30 hours. It was a great success and everyone wanted one, so on one evening in May 1971, I decided to start a furniture business.

I am passionate about three things in my life - my family, my house and my business. As my factory had been in Wantage since 1976, when I was looking for the house I still live in, I gave myself a 60-mile radius to search in, which is a huge area. I had been searching for my dream house for two years, when I came across a rather dilapidated but converted coach house in north Hampshire.

Looking at the details in an estate agent's office in Andover, I thought "this looks nice, but there must be something wrong because it's too cheap". When I went down to see the house, I instantly fell in love with it. It was in a poor state of repairs and probably could have been marketed better, so when I bought it in January 1980, I reckoned I had a bargain.

I loved it because of its peaceful parkland setting and its potential to be turned into a property with a Mediterranean feel, which was what I wanted to do, having been inspired through holidays to France and Italy. It was largely a single-storey property, set around a courtyard and I realised that if I built another wall with an archway I could make it totally enclosed.

So now it is very private and secluded. It doesn't have long views, which I don't like. I feel more secure when I can see the parameters. I was also pleased that it was in a bad state of repairs because I wanted to do it up myself. I love creating ambiences and feelings in spaces, which is what I do in our showrooms, where you are transported to another world. I believe in touching all the five senses in all the things that I do.

All the walls and ceilings of the house, which has five bedrooms, are slightly rough plastered. I am the doyen of rough plastering and I used to do it myself, although now I prefer to show people how to do it. As long as it is done sufficiently subtly, it looks wonderful.

I also like to have the windows and door-reveals soft-edged. So much character can be drawn from the surfaces of the walls and the reveals of the doors. Most of the floors in the house are tiled - either with clay or stone and there is marble in the two bathrooms.

The walls are painted in a sort of pale cream and most of the colours of the furniture are fairly washed out, thus giving a feeling of peace and harmony. Lighting is also important. We have no ceiling lights, just side lights and lamps on tables. Most of the furniture has been designed by me, some a long time ago - it's likely they were prototypes or pieces made specially.

We have three big open fires, including one in the guest bedroom, which our friends love. There is nothing like going to sleep with the fire crackling.

My study is very different. This has a colonial feel, which I was inspired to create because my favourite place to go on holiday is to Naples, Florida. I also take a great interest in Ernest Hemingway and have read lots of books about him and his life.

Outside the study is a little courtyard, which is planted with bamboos and leafy plants. The courtyard in the front has a lot of red geraniums which give it the Mediterranean colours. The walls are painted in a vibrant pinky colour with a green gate. Two walls of the study are covered right up to the ceiling in pictures, there is a large ceiling fan and a bamboo ladder up to a little mezzanine area. Then there's a big cupboard in burgundy, an antique desk with a globe on a stand and an old leather chair.

Before the new shop opened, the house was absolutely full of bits and pieces that were going into the showroom. Every horizontal surface was covered with something. We have a massive kitchen table which was covered with papers and practically all the stock and props were in the house, too. It was a wonderful relief when the showroom opened.

John Lewis of Hungerford's new store is at 156-158 Wandsworth Bridge Road, London SW6 (0700 278 4726)